Danville’s Village Theatre to present “Piano Lesson”
By Lou Fancher
At their best, playwrights, theater directors and people who write about them have a common goal: transparency.
In 1990, Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright August Wilson wrote “The Piano Lesson,” the fourth installment in his 10-play “Century Cycle” that chronicles each decade of the black experience throughout the 20th century. Like the other plays in the cycle, the synopsis in this production — a clash between brother and sister over a family heirloom piano — is merely the vehicle for Wilson’s translucent storytelling. Black history, language, culture, traditions, pain, exploitation, grace, nobility and a host of realities that are as contemporary today as they were in 1936, the year in which the play is set, reveal timeless truths.
Danville’s Role Players Ensemble will present “The Piano Lesson” from Feb 3-19 at the Village Theatre. Directed by Eric Fraisher-Hayes, Role Players’ artistic director, Wilson’s play provides the community theater group an opportunity to spread its wings and showcase some of the Bay Area’s fine actors of color.
“Honestly? We’ve fortunately been able to enlarge the circle of talent that comes to do our plays,” says Fraisher-Hayes, in reference to selecting actors for the all-black cast. “I precast three roles and had a foundation for the others because we’ve grown a diverse population of actors. Not seeing casting as artificially race-dependent is one reason this has happened. For example, from last year, who says an Irish detective can’t be an African-American actor?”
“Colorblind” casting is controversial in the industry, with proponents saying it broadens the cultural palette and breaks stereotypes and critics claiming that it distorts theater history and might even negate or slow down the development of more works written about and directed by people of color. While achieving diversity is desirable, monopolizing a culture or practicing a modern-day form of colonialism are traps theater directors strive to avoid.
Recognizing the validity of all aspects of the argument, Fraisher-Hayes, who is white, says he focuses his energy on the quality of the acting and invites the cast to speak up if they believe he’s going “off-course.” He compares it to a layer cake: “There are things in their life experience that aren’t in mine. I grew up here, and it’s very white. There were only a handful of African Americans in my high school. So I opened the dialogue, but they’re still looking for me to manage and integrate their performances.”
The at-times awkward but essential interplay as lines of authority between director and actors are crossed or blurred is integral to reaching a place of truth. Even if an actor chooses not to speak about a play’s social, race or class component, Fraisher-Hayes says he’s aware that actors are thinking about it — largely because he’s thinking about it too.
Meanwhile, he marvels at Wilson’s chorus-like script, which he says is intricate and includes rhetorical repetitions that have different shadings and are “a train, driving toward something.” Fraisher-Hayes is finding profound realities woven into what are structured as rudimentary conversations. One scene, in which a character tells an everyday story about a tree located on land owned by white people and a black man who has been forbidden to pick its fruit, establishes the futility of black people using legal means to fix problems. The black man buys the land, but although he now owns the land and tree, without law enforcement on his side, he has no legal way to stop the white man from returning to pick the tree bare.
Discovering the most honest presentation of a play requires investigation and research into the work’s historical, literary and social context. For that reason, theater directors often engage a dramaturge, who works as a literary editor, consulting and advising on matters of authenticity. Which brings this column full circle: In the name of full transparency, I have the honor of writing about and consulting as dramaturge for Role Players’ production of “The Piano Lesson.”
As to the director’s take on authenticity, Fraisher-Hayes says, “We focus on what’s on the page, but I see parallels all the time. Every male character in ‘Piano Lesson’ has done prison time for a variety of things, some of those things not even crimes. I’m struck by the idea that prison is a reality for a community. It’s a part of these characters in 1936, and it touches a lot of black lives today. There’s no escaping it. The day-to-day things are resonant because they seem so current.”
Of course, Wilson’s deeply humanistic plays make universal applications and matters of relatability easier. Fraisher-Hayes says he was first drawn to “Piano Lesson” by the idea of a family struggling with the purpose and ownership of a piano that is carved with family figures and tells a story of slavery, escape, freedom, recapture and more.
“My father inherited things from 1930s Japan that have special status in our family,” he says. “They’re a legacy. We don’t fight over them, but who is the guardian of it all?”