August Wilson wrote pungent, meandering dialogue that is sometimes likened to jazz improvisation. So it's no surprise that Tanesha Gary and Bryant Bentley came up with a musical term when asked what it takes to perform Wilson's plays.
"In one word, wouldn't you say rhythm?" Gray said to Bentley one afternoon last week when they were interviewed after a rehearsal of The Piano Lesson, the Wilson play in which both are appearing at American Stage.
"That's what I was thinking, that it's rhythm," Bentley replied. "We call him the black Shakespeare, and he has a certain rhythm in his pieces. If the rhythm is off, it'll drag the play or mess up the moments. There's so much cadence to August's writing that you really have to stay on top of it."
Gary and Bentley are immersed in Wilson's language these days as Berniece and Boy Willie, brother and sister at odds over a piano that is a family treasure. Their director is Mark Clayton Southers, who added his thoughts on the key to being a good Wilsonian actor.
"That rhythm you're talking about comes when you're prepared," he said. "The big thing to me is listening — listening to your fellow actors and knowing the story. That's where you get that musicality in August's work. I think listening is the key."
Southers speaks with rare authority on Wilson. He is artistic director of the theater program at the August Wilson Center for African-American Culture in Pittsburgh, and he knew the playwright, who died in 2005. He has returned for his second Wilson play at American Stage, having directed Ma Rainey's Black Bottom in 2011, a happy experience that included the wedding ceremony of him and his wife, Neicy Readie, on the theater's stage, followed by a reception in the lobby, during the run. Both the wedding, which Southers scripted like a play, and his Wilson production got good reviews.
The Piano Lesson is the sixth play that American Stage has produced in the playwright's epic 10-play Century Cycle that chronicles each decade of the black experience in the 20th century. Set in 1936 in Pittsburgh's Hill District, where all but one of the plays in the cycle take place, it won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
The play opens with the rambunctious arrival at 5 o'clock in the morning of Boy Willie, who has driven from Mississippi with a truck full of watermelons to sell. He wakes up his uncle Doaker, a railroad cook, and Berniece, Boy Willie's older sister. She has been living for three years, since the death of her husband, in Doaker's house with her 11-year-old daughter.
In the parlor of the house is an old piano, carved with figures representing the family's African-American ancestors, and it soon becomes the center of a battle between brother and sister. To Berniece, it is a precious family legacy. To Boy Willie, fresh off a sentence at the Parchman prison farm, the piano is simply an asset that he can sell to advance his lot in life by buying farmland in Mississippi.
"The piano is a heirloom that has the images of your family on it. Who would want to sell that?" Southers said. "But from Boy Willie's point of view, having some land is something that's major. He's a different person when he becomes an owner instead of a sharecropper. He becomes a different person. Boy Willie is willing to give up the piano to get something important to him. Whereas Berniece is the opposite."
It's a fascinating debate with validity on both sides. "Boy Willie and Berniece have different values," said Bentley, who is appearing in his third Wilson play. "I don't think either one of us is wrong. It's up to the audience to figure it out."
Gary, who was in the Broadway production of the musical Caroline, or Change, is appearing in her first Wilson play. "In one sense, Boy Willie wants to move past history," she said. "Berniece is not ready to move on. To her, the ancestors carved on the piano are watching us even now."
A production of The Piano Lesson that has been playing two months at the Signature Theater off Broadway got rave reviews (it closes on Sunday). Southers had a chance to go and see it but chose not to.
"I didn't want to see it because I heard it was so great," he said. "I want to be artistically free in my thinking. I try to use the energy that is made up from this cast, this crew, the environment, the colors that are in the set, the warmness and the coolness of it. I try to use that energy to make decisions about where this piece is going to go. I don't come in with any preconceived notions."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.