The take-home message of the Ethnic Performers Guild production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is “be careful what space you wish for.”
The limits of the Davenport College Theater, a cube-like space in the basement of the college, stifles much of the show’s potential. The multi-talented cast of the Ethnic Performers Guild is often forced to interact awkwardly with the walls, corners, and exposed pipes of the space, calling attention to them and effectively accentuating the theater’s limitations. For instance, the set, designed as the living room of a house, calls for a front door to be placed far downstage left. Actors entering through the front door must rap on the stage left wall of the house while standing in the hallway that leads to the restrooms. This has a jarring effect, as it breaks the proverbial fourth wall that usually separates the audience from the stage.
A similar effect is achieved through the strange juxtaposition of the use of some physical props and others that were pantomimed. While there is a cabinet for a teakettle, cups and whiskey, there is no piece of furniture where the oven should be, and the bread supposedly cooked on this oven is pantomimed. It is clear, however that the director, Jonathan Pitts-Wiley ’08, took these limitations into account while blocking the show, keeping most of the action around the small family table. By making the set seem more spacious, Pitts-Wiley does an admirable job making the difficult performance space seem as homey as possible.
The claustrophobic space, however, does have its perks. It’s brand new, has ample seating, a backstage area, a lighting grid, and is on campus, a significant advantage considering the recent spatial diaspora of Sudler shows (for more information on “being kicked off campus to a sketchy performance space,” see “Stupid Kids”).
The cast as a whole, though hampered by the box-in-the-basement, is impressive in its professionalism. The dress rehearsal of any show is usually fraught with disaster and desperate appeals to the director for help. In this case, however, the dress rehearsal, was surprisingly seamless.
The cast of “The Piano Lesson,” while they each could be taught a thing or two about creating a dramatic arc, put this show in the narrow category of “respectable Sudler.” Especially notable were Tochi J. Onyebuchi ’09 as Doaker and Terrell Donnell Sledge ’08 (listed in the program, a la Madonna, with only one name — Donnell) as Boy Willie. These two actors, along with Berneice, played by Nafkote Tamirat ’08, prove excellent scene partners. The three clash over the fate of the family piano, originally traded in exchange for two of the family’s ancestors by their former white slave owner. Boy Willie, Berneice’s brother, wants to sell it, while Berneice would rather kill him than see the piano leave the house. Doaker serves as a mediator between the two, ultimately a coward consistently referring to Berneice’s opinion. Quave Smith ’08 provides the show’s comic relief as the stereotypical ramblin’ gamblin’ man, a character representative of the struggle Southern African-Americans in the 1930s faced trying to integrate themselves into Northern culture.
If only to serve as a lesson to theater majors about the limitations of space and how to creatively utilize what you’ve got, the respectable “The Piano Lesson” is worth seeing.