Theatre Preview: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Collaboration Between Denison University and Short North Stage
One of the best things about the year-long August Wilson Festival has been watching overlap and collaboration between different companies and artists in the service of one of the greatest American playwrights. That adds a student dimension this week with the collaboration between Short North Stage and Denison University on a production of one of Wilson’s most beloved works, 1990’s Pulitzer-winning The Piano Lesson. This production opens tonight, Thursday, October 13, in a production directed by Denison faculty Cheryl McFarren and Stafford Berry, Jr.
The Piano Lesson is set as Pittsburgh starts to come out of the Depression in the late ’30s. Berniece Charles (Vanessa Gibson) lives with her uncle Doaker (De’Von Fulton) when her brother Boy Willie (Lester Harris) arrives from Mississippi with his friend Lymon (Vaval Victor) intent on selling their family piano. Their great-grandfather carved the family history into the piano after his wife and son were sold to buy it, and Berneice and Willie’s father was killed for stealing it. Willie sees selling the piano as his one chance to buy the land where his father sharecropped and Berniece sees the piano as the one tangible link they have to those who have gone before. It’s a powerful meditation on the ways we create and try to maintain self-worth with Wilson’s inimitable dialogue and characters and his remarkable sense of place and time.
Co-director McFarren’s history with the Short North Stage started with her acting in Charles Busch’s The Divine Sister in 2014. That production created a dialogue between McFarren and Short North Stage’s Peter Yockel and Rick Gore. She talked about The Piano Lesson being her first choice when they were asked to partner with the festival because of the “surprising number of lighter moments and the age of the characters.” She also jokingly expressed concern for the young actors, “When we started to work, I was surprised at the number of speeches,” juggling going to class as well.
Her fellow director, Stafford Berry, the Associate Artistic Director of the African American Dance Ensemble, acted in a production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in college. When he and McFarren worked together on Djanet Sears’s The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God in 2013, “In over 80 seasons of theatre at Denison, there hadn’t been a single play for a predominantly black cast directed by full-time faculty.” She pointed out the demographic at the university changing radically in the last 15 years, moving from “A very white campus to 28-29 percent students of color.” Coinciding with this production and the festival, McFarren is teaching a seminar on the entire Pittsburgh cycle, looking at the work in context.
McFarren was excited to use this collaboration to bring in some guest actors working with her students. Maretha, Berneice’s daughter, is played by Pickerington resident Devyn Brown, who “Went to the same Jr High School the student playing Berneice went to.” She has been particularly excited for her students to work with local actor Ron Jenkins (who’s wowed audiences in Ma Rainey and an earlier season’s Passing Strange) playing Wining Boy. “You just see the infusion that energizes everybody. I think [the cast] will remember this for a long, long time.” The piano itself for this production is, as she said, “Something special.” The piano comes on loan from the United Church of Granville, with its history of support for progressive causes, including being the first church in the area to march in the Columbus Pride Parade and going back to being a stop on the Underground Railroad. The same ghosts in the play resonate through the piano itself.
Director McFarren closed our conversation with, “Even though these plays are set in times not our own, they have such pertinence to current events and how we, as a society, listen to the multifaceted African American community. August Wilson is a teacher.”
The Piano Lesson plays at Denison University’s Ace Morgan Theatre (211 W College St., Granville, OH) through October 16 with shows at 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. It moves to the Short North Stage for 8 p.m. shows October 21 and 22 and 3 p.m. October 23. For more info on the Denison run visit denison.edu. For ticketing and more info on the Short North Stage performances, visit shortnorthstage.org.