Piano Lesson" sings
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"A breakthrough for Calvin" is what Professor Debra Freeberg is calling the February production of "The Piano Lesson."
"This is really a landmark thing that happened," she said. "This is the first play with an all African-American cast that was part of the regular season playbills. And it's probably about time."
Freeberg reveled in the chance to finally produce a play by August Wilson, one of America's most prominent black playwrights and a long-time favorite of Freeberg's. The Pulitzer-prize-winning "The Piano Lesson" is the 1930s installment of a cycle of ten plays in which Wilson depicts the black experience in each decade of the twentieth century.
"It illustrates the choices that African-Americans have been forced to make," said Freeberg. "Do I cut myself off from the past for a future? It's about a person finding out who they really are and what it takes to be a whole person."
In the play Wilson poignantly and powerfully illustrates the conflict between a brother and sister who fight over a symbol of their family's past. Do they keep an ornately carved upright piano, engraved with the story of their family from slavery to freedom, or do they sell it to purchase land upon which their family once was slaves?
"It's brilliantly structured," said Freeberg. "In most plays the tension is between a protagonist and an antagonist, but in this play two noble goals are opposed against each other...it's incredibly profound."
Everyone involved in the production took Freeberg's Interim course on theater, which she co-taught with Harvey Johnson, professor of theater and speech at Geneva College in Pennsylvania.
"Harvey is an African-American with a lot of experience in theater as well as an incredible mission of the integration of faith into a discipline. He also is a great actor and played one of the two older male roles," said Freeberg. The other was played by Michael Travis, [former director of multicultural student development at Calvin].
Johnson brought a unique expertise to the production as well: he grew up in the "Hill" district, the same once-prosperous African-American Pittsburgh neighborhood where Wilson grew up, and in which all of Wilson's plays are set. Johnson's local insight was a great asset for the classroom aspect of the course, which concentrated on the history of Pittsburgh and the "Hill" as well as more general topics like African-American theatre and the African-American migration. Johnson worked with the actors on dialect and helped to keep the production authentic.
In many ways this play represents the culmination of a long push for more awareness of African-Americans and African-American culture on Calvin's campus. Shearer and Freeberg both credit Travis with paving the way to make a production like "The Piano Lesson" possible.
Travis felt that the Calvin community needed more exposure to black culture and history, and he believed theater was the perfect medium for "forcing Calvin outside its comfort zone and making people think."
Under the auspices of Calvin's multicultural student development office, Travis and a multicultural drama troupe composed mostly of Calvin students presented two plays in 1999: "The Colored Museum," an award-winning compilation of vignettes highlighting different aspects of the African-American experience, and "Fires in the Mirror," which traces race-related riots that took place in Brooklyn's Crown Heights neighborhood in 1991.
For Calvin senior Damon Shearer, who played the role of the brother, the fact that "The Piano Lesson" was produced by CTC (Calvin's mainline theatre company)and not the multicultural student development officeshows that Calvin is truly catching on to the ideals Travis promoted. It also meant greater publicity and a wider audience for the production.
"I've been talking to Dr. Freeberg since my freshman year about doing an African-American play," said Shearer. "It's something I've dreamt about being in since I was a very small child."
"The reason why this is important to me," said Calvin senior Jena Cooksey, who played the lead female role, "is because it was an opportunity for me to do something that is exclusively made for me. I am an African-American woman and I played an African-American woman. That is something I can be comfortable with. In fact, I have the advantage because as a person of color, I am the person who needed to play this role."
Cooksey sees real connections between herself and her character. "I identify with her symbolic issues of keeping family together," she said, "and the whole idea of destroying things that have kept her family oppressed. That is something I can really relate to, and that doesn't always happen in a role."
Shearer concurred. "Boy Willie" reminds him of people he grew up around, and the story of a family from down south moving up north reflects Shearer's own family history. "The way [Boy Willie] speaks is a lot more along the lines of how my family speaks at home," Shearer said.
The play, which was performed Jan. 31-Feb.2 and Feb. 7-9, had a strong message for all audiences, said Freeberg.
"It dealt with issues that are exclusive to African-Americans, but it can speak to the whole human experience," she said. "The message is about the incredible need for God in the midst of incredible brokenness. It's about the search for self and identity and the dignity of a human being."
The prospect of directing such a distinctly African-American play was "daunting, humbling and thrilling at the same time," said Freeberg. "As a white woman, I was on a road to explore this with the cast. I learned from them all Interim."
Shearer, who has spent several years as the only African-American member of CTC, was excited about the different make-up of "The Piano Lesson." He especially took joy in working alongside Cooksey, with whom he's been friends since their first day at Calvin. "It was really great to sit in a room and do a project with African-Americans here at Calvin...to give a message and make a statement together," he said.