Black Rep's 'Piano Lesson' is a school reunion
Jan 10, 2013 (St. Louis Post-Dispatch - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
"The Piano Lesson," which opens the 2013 season at the Black Rep, continues the troupe's second tour through August Wilson's towering Pittsburgh Cycle, 10 plays that explore the African-American experience through the course of the 20th century.
But it's also a kind of school reunion.
Every single member of the "Piano Lesson" cast is an alumnus of one or more of the Black Rep's theatrical training and educational programs, explains producing director Ron Himes. He founded the troupe 36 years ago.
The leading roles, a sister and brother who have different ideas about what to do with their family's heirloom musical instrument, are played by Sharisa Whatley and Ron Conner. They both got their start as professional acting interns with the company. Whatley starred in the Black Rep productions of "Sarafina!" and "Romeo and Juliet." Conner, who has appeared in many Black Rep shows, played an edgy young musician in last season's production of another Pittsburgh Cycle drama, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom."
In 1992, the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Piano Lesson" was the first play that the Black Rep staged at the Grandel Theatre, which has remained its home ever since. At that time, Himes played the patriarch Doaker Charles and an acting intern named Robert Mitchell was the assistant stage manager.
Mitchell -- now veteran of countless St. Louis productions, as a performer or director -- plays Doaker this time. That probably makes him the show's "senior class" representative. The youngest actor, 12-year-old Carli Officer, went through the troupe's summer theater workshop for kids. Candice Jeanine, Chauncy Thomas, Ethan Jones and Robert Davis -- all alumni of Black Rep internships or programs -- round out the cast.
It's no coincidence. For season 36, Himes and "Piano Lesson" director Lorna Littleway deliberately put together a cast that would highlight the Black Rep's educational and professional programs, which date back to the early 1980s.
Besides the programs for children and high school students, which are run by Black Rep artistic associate (and longtime leading lady) Linda Kennedy, internships are available for young adults who hope to pursue theatrical careers in performance, in technical theater and design, or in administration. Interns are typically hired for an academic year, usually soon after college.
Some years as few as three aspiring theater professionals are chosen for internships; in one bumper year, Himes recalled, there were 12 of them. To qualify, candidates must submit an application (on the Black Rep website) and have an interview; performers must also audition.
And no, they don't have to be black. But they do have to realize that professional work is different from what they are probably used to.
"These kids have their degrees and their resumes," Himes said. "And lots of them did great work in college. Maybe they played leads there.
"But you aren't going to be a 22-year-old Troy Maxton (the middle-age man at the center of another Pittsburgh Cycle play, "Fences") at the Black Rep or at any professional theater."
On the other hand, you might get lots of good experience in the troupe's touring company, which performs for young audiences, or in the ensemble of a mainstage musical.
Today, Himes says, there are so many alumni of these various programs that he can find performers and artists of all ages, many of whom have gone on to make careers in the performing arts.
"The last time I went to Atlanta to see one of (writer) Pearl Cleage's plays, one of our former interns was in the cast," Himes says. "I run into them constantly -- a name in a program, a familiar face on a TV show.
"Many of those alumni are coming of age now -- and there is work for them. August Wilson gave us characters from little kids to 285-year-old Aunt Ester (in the Cycle's "Gem of the Ocean"). So I have been looking for a reunion production, a way to bring some of them back."
Himes hopes that "The Piano Lesson" won't be the last reunion.
"I want to find a play to bring back the kids with me and Linda Kennedy onstage, too," he says. "That's my goal now."
What "The Piano Lesson" -- When Friday-Feb. 2 -- Where Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square -- How much $20-$47; $10 for student rush -- More info 314-534-3810; theblackrep.org
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