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Nashville On Stage: The Piano Lesson

by Bill Dorian

Circle Players presents August Wilson classic

Rashad Rayford and Tamiko Robinson star in The Piano Lesson—presented by Circle Players and playing at Lipscomb University’s Shamblin Theatre.

Circle Players continues with August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson through Sun., Jan. 27, in Lipscomb’s Shamblin Theatre. An African American family’s piano, in slave days, was once traded for the family’s patriarch. Now it is haunted by the ghosts of the past. The Piano Lesson is about a family learning to embrace change while still accepting and acknowledging their shared legacy.

The Piano Lesson, set in 1936, is a theatrical masterpiece of poetic power with important lessons about family heritage and social/racial change during the economic and cultural upheaval of the Great Depression in a way that still resonates today. The play follows the lives of the Charles family as they fight over their family piano.

His great-granddaughter, Berniece, insists on keeping the piano as a piece of art, a reminder of the family’s past and a testament of survival. Her brother, Boy Willie, a sharecropper, wants to sell the piano to buy the land (Sutter’s land) that his ancestors had toiled on as slaves. Boy Willie sees the piano as a way to better the Charles family’s lives. Berniece, however, remains emphatic about keeping it. Their bickering stirs up the ghost of a former slave owner.

The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ about African American life in the 20th century. It premiered in 1987 and opened on Broadway in 1990, winning numerous awards in addition to the Pulitzer.

A Romare Bearden painting entitled ‘The Piano Lesson’ inspired Wilson to write a play featuring a strong female character to confront African American history, paralleling Troy in the playwright’s earlier Fences. However, on finishing his play, Wilson found the ending to stray from the empowered female character as well as from the question regarding self-worth. The Piano Lesson finally asks: “What do you do with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use?”

It has been described by critics as a play that “…seems to sing even as it’s talking…” and is “…filled with magnificent confrontations.”

Circle’s production is directed by J.P. Schuffman and includes a cast of experienced local actors, including: Tamiko Robinson as Berniece; Rashad Rayford as Boy Willie; Adarian Lherisson as Lyman; Joel Diggs as Doaker; Shawn Whitsell as Avery; Elliott Robinson as Wining Boy; Fiona as Grace; and Jordyn Tucker as Maretha.

“The play itself is about what we do with our heritage,” said Schuffman. “Do we keep it? What do we do with what our forefathers have given us? It seems very simple, but the depth and complexity behind the characters is what makes [the play] so great.”

The Jan. 20 performance featured a ‘talk-back’ after the production. Performers and Lipscomb University adjunct English professor Greg Carpenter, Ph.D., discussed the play’s literary and cultural significance.

Show times are 7:30 pm, Friday, Jan. 25 and Saturday, Jan. 26; with matinees at 3 pm on Saturday, January 26 and Sunday, January 27.

Tickets are $18 for adults, $15 for students and seniors ages 60 and up. Tickets can be purchased online at www.circleplayers.net. Group discounts for 10 or more in any category are available by e-mailing boxoffice@circleplayers.net or calling (615) 332-7529. Individual tickets will also be on sale at the box office at Shamblin Theatre one hour before each performance.

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