Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Piano Lesson(s) from August Wilson

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson had its Kansas City premiere at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre Thursday night. It’s been a long time coming. This play takes you to the living room and kitchen of Uncle Doaker’s house in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. Doaker’s niece, Berniece and her 11 year old daughter Maretha live there too.

Berniece’s brother, Boy Wille and his friend Lymon arrive from Mississipi with a truckload of watermelons and a few dreams. Lymon dreams of a new life in the North, a new start in the big steel city. Boy Willie dreams of getting enough money to buy the land his ancestors farmed for the Sutter family; land where his ancestors lived and worked as slaves.

Avery dreams of having a big successful church in the neighborhood and wooing Berniece. Berniece’s Uncle Wining Boy drifts into town from Kansas City. He’s a gambler, a rambler, who plays a mean piano. Upstairs in Doaker’s house resides the ghost of a recently deceased big guy, a member of the Sutters who recently fell down his well. Or maybe he was pushed.

And in the parlor sits this beautifully carved piano, with faces from long ago, the faces of family members carved by Berniece’s grandfather, Boy Charles.

There’s an abundance of family stories that unfold; stories from the past and yet the story that comes from this Pittsburgh house, from these characters, weaves an incredible deeply textured tapestry that connects the past, present and hollers clearly into this future we call the present tense of our lives.

Dreams, schemes, memories, regrets all mix while young Maretha looks on and listens intently. You can sit and drink this in with Maretha, too.

Crossroads artist and photographer Elaine Ismert and I attended the final rehearsal last Wednesday evening. Like a jaguar, Elaine prowled round the set and shot these pictures for you while I sat and soaked in the performances, listened to the stories, heard the piano tunes, connected with the Parchman Farm work songs, thought about my own family stories, and remembered those students hooking into this play a few years ago. I had a hard time keeping still as the energetic passionate players moved, laughed, sang, danced, cried and fought in the house.

What sounded like hesitant line-delivery, what looked like stage hiccups (like a rug that bunched up threatening to trip the players) looked and sounded real to me. What looks like an epic soliloquy on the page, a story told by Doaker, or a lament from Wining Boy, a defense delivered by Boy Willie of Berniece’s dead husband Crawley’s death one night on a firewood collection expedition, all sounded to authentic to me, felt chillingly believable.

In this day and age of PowerPoint, email, and short-attention-span informational connectedness, we often lose our patience with long speeches, with those aching to share a memory, to get it out of their head and onto the page or into the air. We want crisp clear well-crafted small plates of bit-sized food for thought. You may not feel like you have time for this.

Theatre definitely tests one’s patience but good theatre has a way of transporting you as well. These MET players, this crew of artists whisked me away pretty quickly. When the final scene ended and lights extinguished I was lost in a swirl of I don’t know what, but I was feeling a ton of feelings for these people I just met.

After the rehearsal, Elaine and I had to scoot quickly. She had to awaken early Friday morning for work and I had an early meeting. On the car ride back to the Crossroads, we were pretty quiet as our minds turned and bumped.

We’ve both had some time to soak this in. Elaine’s selected the shots from her few hundred shutter clicks and I’ve written a few impressions here and even shared a note with the cast. Theatre sticks on me that way. After seeing a play, there’s this ooze of feelings that walks with me over the days after I experience it. It’s sometimes hard to shake it off, but I try to patient with myself. A great deal of the ooze is the inspiration that comes from seeing so many artists in one room, on the stage, backstage, in the back of the theatre, in the lobby who make this imaginary world come to life in such a real and approachable way.

I can’t wait to go back to Pittsburgh, I mean the MET, towards the end of this twelve performance run and see these artists again when they’re performing this play with complete abandon, when they’ve forgotten their lines and made them their own, when all the blocking becomes no blocking at all and merely life, when the iced tea tastes like strong whisky and they don’t worry about tripping over the rug.

Photography by Elaine Ismert...

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