In honor of Black History Month, Center Stage Theatre of Biloxi will present August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," the next two weekends.
The play, set in 1930s Pittsburgh, tells the story of family members who are bickering over what to do with a valuable handcrafted piano that has been passed down through the family since they were slaves.
"The piano has such significance to this family, but Boy Willie wants to take this piano and buy the land that is owned by the former slave owners," said Rick Amos, who plays Boy Willie, the ambitious farmer determined to take advantage of the business proposition. "There is such an ambitious streak within him, because he sees this as an opportunity to avenge his ancestors and to actually own the land where they were enslaved. He's trying to get his sister to see this."
But Bernice, Boy Willie's sister, is having none of that.
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"There's no decision to be made on Berniece's part; this piano stays at home," said Amelia Cooper, who plays Berniece. "This is our family history, and you don't sell off our family history."
"The Piano Lesson" demonstrates how August Wilson used conflicts and family matters to reflect on black America's deep-seated values of both forging a positive legacy for future generations and recording the critical achievements of the past.
"It establishes values; we get sentimental values mixed with practicality," said Theron Evans, who plays Doaker, uncle to Boy Willie and Berniece.
The remainder of the cast is Kendall Arnold as Avery, Alexander Brown as Lymon, Tabari Daniels as Wining Boy, Sahara Cooper as Maretha and Jacalyn Wetzel as Grace.
August Wilson (1945-2005) won numerous literary awards for his work, including two Pulitzer Prizes and one Tony Award. He penned "The Pittsburgh Cycle," which is a series of 10 plays that depict the inner depths of black life. The series is set mostly in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, through 10 decades.
Broadway and national productions of Wilson's plays have attracted acclaimed actors such as Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, James Earl Jones, Charles S. Dutton and Cicely Tyson.
"August Wilson has a very raw and original way of portraying clack families," Cooper said. "He presents a lot of complex issues in a way that makes it easy for everyone to understand and relate to. A lot of issues, even though this is set back in the '30s, are still relevant today. It might not be a piano, but it might be Mama's house."
Amos, touching on his character, said Wilson helps the audience grasp the full dynamics of a black man struggling for respect in the early 20th century.
"Wilson encourages the black male to go beyond what is expected and to determine what place he's supposed to be in our society," Amos said. "Boy Willie really feels in his mind that he is equal to that white man."
Center Stage produced another Wilson play, "Fences," two years ago with positive response, said Center Stage Artistic Director Chuck White, who directs "The Piano Lesson."
"After the success of 'Fences,' we felt it makes sense to do another August Wilson play and I felt I had the strong actors to cast it with," White said. "August Wilson has a real wonderful ear for dialogue and personal situations. I came to appreciate that more after directing some of his other plays. He finds a way of presenting a slice of black life that nobody has seen before."
Center Stage has also arranged for the wood carvings that decorate the piano, which are used in national productions, to be sent down from the August Wilson Center for African American Culture in Pittsburgh for use in Biloxi.
The paintings of Barbara Harris also will be on exhibit at Center Stage during the production. Harris, a Tupelo native, is a former president of the Pass Christian Art Association and a retired Biloxi Public Schools teacher.
CenterStage Theatre, now in its 39th season, is at 2670 Rue Palafox, Biloxi.
Tickets are $18 for adults and $15 for seniors, students and other special groups. For more information, call 388-6258.