PROVOKES THE POWER OF LEGACY, the Ensemble theatre proudly presents “ e Piano Lesson,” as the third production of its 47th Season, “Legacy Alive: Honoring the Past, Inspiring the Future.” “ e Piano Lesson,” winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, is the fourth play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle/ Century Cycle. Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, “ e Piano Lesson” is centered on a 137-year-old heirloom, a piano, with carvings that incarnate the Charles family’s ancestral lineage and spirit. Celebrity artist Jason Dirden, known for ‘Greenleaf and ‘American Soul,’ returns home to Houston and the Ensemble theatre as Boy Willie Charles. Along with Dirden, the stellar cast includes Lakeisha Randle (Berniece Charles), Alex Morris (Doaker Charles), Kendrick “Kay B” Brown (Lymon), Timothy Eric (Wining Boy Charles), Curtis Von (Avery), Kendall Goode (Maretha Charles) and Krystal Uchem (Grace). I recently sat down with the “Charles” men to discuss “ e Piano Lesson,” legacy and August Wilson’s impact on theatre. (Interview edited for length and clarity.) “ e Piano Lesson” embodies themes like family/ legacy/historical relevancy.
How does your character respond to the overarching question, “What do you do with legacy?” ALEX: I think Doaker is the historian. He is now the real patriarch of the family. Everybody ends up at Doaker’s place because he’s the one who has always maintained a sense of consistency. He also is protective of his family … that father figure, that rock, which is an important theme in all of Wilson’s plays. JASON: In terms of legacy and what to do with it, I think Boy Willie’s mindset is that if it’s not propelling us forward then what good is it doing? If we aren’t using it to build and to move forward as a family and to grow and to lift ourselves out of the bottom of life, then what are we doing? Would Boy Willie feel the same way about legacy today? JASON: Absolutely. Boy Willie would be: “Let’s go buy up some shopping centers, this is held over here to grow our wealth and to continue to raise ourselves socially and economically as a family, as a people.”
ALEX: When I moved to L.A., the first thing I did when I made money was buy property. During those times when we weren’t making money, the property sustained us. Boy Willie understood that concept. And it was that sense of freedom that Doaker clearly understood as well. TIM: I think Wining Boy learned a little too late about the legacy of family, particularly marriage. He was married to Cleotha. At one time, they had a beautiful marriage. It had its problems, but they loved each other even though they split up. After she passes, he realizes that she was the most important thing in his life that was beautiful. For Wining Boy, the legacy of family and marriage is the most significant thing. You love and treat good women right. That is the legacy. What is your favorite August Wilson play? (Alex has appeared in all 10 of the Century Cycle plays, while Jason and Timothy have done seven.) ALEX: It’s Fences, by far. Troy was a lot like my father. TIM: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is probably up there and edges out the rest of them.
JASON: Every (Wilson) play has so much depth. They are stories about your own life. So whatever play I’m working on at the moment is my favorite. What is your most favorite thing about acting?
TIM: August painted such beautifully rich black men — varied in occupation, age, politics … they’re husbands, fathers, jokesters, musicians. they love; they hate; they’re vengeful; they’re hopeful. As actors, we get to teach about the complexities of black manhood. We show these sides and facets of black men in an intimate way, in a powerful way, through the vehicle of theatre. We don’t produce plays, we produce people.
JASON: In a good, honest play, there will always be a character that will prompt an audience member to say, “ That’s exactly what I’m feeling and what I’m going through.” it has saved a lot of lives — the power of storytelling and the power of honesty and truth. at privilege, that responsibility as an actor to be a representation of an audience member is really fulfilling to the soul. It’s something that you can’t put in your bank account.
ALEX: I love every bit of it. I love the fact that we tell stories. I love coming to work every day. I’m not a doctor, I won’t cure diseases or anything like that, but I do have the responsibility of easing people’s pain in some kind of way. And that’s a privilege. I get to live that kind of life. How blessed am I to get to do that! Name one lesson learned when it comes to your character?
ALEX: Doaker learns that family is the most important seed that you can plant.
TIM: Wining Boy reconciles that we got to be really honest, look life square in the face and get on with it.
JASON: I don’t know if Boy Willie learned anything new, but there was definitely confirmation of the way he tries to live. there’s a lot that we can control, but there is so much more that we cannot. If we lean on the greater power that we know exists, though we cannot see, touch or hear it, we’ll be far more successful than trying to ght the ghosts ourselves. Award-winning Artistic Director Eileen J. Morris is the director of “ e Piano Lesson.” She holds the distinction of being the only woman in the world to direct nine of the 10 August Wilson Century Cycle plays. In 2018, e Ensemble theatre received the August Wilson American Century Cycle Award for producing all 10 plays. “ e Piano Lesson” runs through February 25, 2024, at the Ensemble theater, 3535 Main Street. For tickets, call 713-520-0055 or visit Ensemblehouston.com.
Photos by Eisani Apedemak-Saba/ Courtesy of the Ensemble theatre