As I was sitting at Carnegie Mellon University watching the drama department's staging of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, it occurred to me that this was the first local college production of a play by a man who is arguably the most famous theater artist ever to come out of Pittsburgh. If I'm wrong, I'm sure the phone calls will come trickling in. But to the best of my 20-year recollection, no local college (meaning a company with an all-student cast) has done a Wilson play.
Additionally, I just read a piece in The New York Times about the sudden explosion of "non-traditional cast" versions of modern theater classics playing on Broadway: Come Back Little Sheba, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and The Country Girl, each featuring black actors in white roles. One reason, the article points out, is that because of the growth of the late Wilson's popularity, the number of African-American actors being trained and groomed has blossomed, and these artists need and want to work.
Interestingly enough, it was Wilson himself who, in 1996, famously condemned in the strongest possible terms exactly this practice of "color-blind" casting. His point, of course, was not to limit actors but, instead, to force artistic directors to open up to new impulses and new playwrights.
And to think it took only until 2008 for Wilson's message to make it back home to a local campus.
Fortunately, it's landed on quite solid ground at CMU. Elizabeth Van Dyke directs this tale of a family ripped apart by the long shadow of slavery, and does an expert job keeping the focus squarely on Wilson's two strongest points: character and dialogue. This production is all about fascinating stories told by wonderfully "human" people -- thanks to the rock solid-work of actors Larry Powell, Jon Michael Reese, Kyle Beltran, Amanda Payton, Michaela Watkins, Tyree Robinson and Mathanee Treco.
To be completely honest, sometimes Van Dyke's blocking can be almost aggressively static … but then sometimes Wilson's dramaturgy can be every bit as static as well. (By the end of the second act, you are praying that everybody would just shut the hell up! and get on with it.) But that's just before Wilson, Van Dyke and this company do, finally, move in for the theatrical kill, and the results couldn't be more moving.
In a city where the amount of theater provided by area colleges is disproportionately high, I'd say that this production is way past due.
The Piano Lesson continues through Sat., March 1. Philip Chosky Theater, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland. 412-268-2407.
- Harmony in hard times: from left, Bjorn Ahlstedt, Aaron Jefferson Tindall, Sean Papinchak and Zachary Anderson in Pitt Rep's The American Clock. Photo courtesy of Stephen Grebinski.