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Center Stage

Dynamic August Wilson play collaboration anchors February offerings


Cast of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” Top: Daron Richardson. Second row, left to right: Clifton Antione, Larryah Travis, Colo Chanel. Third row: Ryan Collier, Tiffany Johnson, Aaron Smith. Reclining front: Emmett Saah Phillips Jr.
Photo by Brent Isenberger Photography

When two Iowa theatrical leaders join forces, it holds great promise as a “must-see” experience. Pyramid Theatre Company and the Des Moines Community Playhouse unite to present Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” This also marks the Des Moines return of Pyramid’s founding dynamo, Ken-Matt Martin, where he and the other founders in 2014 forged a theatre company whose work and mission has flourished to be recognized on the national scene.

“The Piano Lesson” is part of Wilson’s celebrated “The Pittsburgh Cycle” (or “The Century Cycle”), which presents a decade-to-decade portrayal of African-American community experiences and heritage in the 20th century. Pyramid previously produced Wilson’s other Pulitzer Prize winner, “Fences,” as their inaugural production. As reviewed by The Culture Buzz, that debut was hailed: “The richness of this performing arts experience comes from the masterful blending of all elements — directing, cast and design. These key elements combine for an immensely satisfying show steeped with exceptional production values.” Pyramid Theatre Company continues to build from that memorable beginning.


The August Wilson legacy

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During a Dec. 11, 2020, interview on CBS News with Academy Award-winner Denzel Washington about his film adaptation of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” fellow guests Academy Award-winner Viola Davis and artist Constanza Romero (Wilson’s widow) shared insights into Wilson’s works. These works dive into the African-American experience, as well as examinations of the human condition, with other themes ranging from systemic and historical exploitation of African Americans, race relations, identity, migration and racial discrimination.

Wilson’s writings “capture our humor, our vulnerabilities, our tragedies, our trauma. And he humanizes us. And he allows us to talk,” commented Davis, who stars as Ma Rainey. “He could get the essence of human emotion in a sentence or two.”

Romero described her husband as “Power. Courage. Magnificence.”


Director and Pyramid co-founder Ken-Matt Martin on “The Piano Lesson” and Wilson

“I see a lot of different plays. When Chekhov was writing his plays, he wasn’t thinking about a little Black boy from Little Rock, Arkansas. Same with Shakespeare. They were writing to be truthful to who they were and to their circumstances. When I, as that little Black boy from Little Rock, Arkansas, see these plays that are truthful and specific, it moves me, and I can see the parallels between my family and that family. 

“It was important to (Wilson) to capture the spirit and poetic nature and language of Black people with hyper-specificity…that attention to detail, to storytelling and the way language is used to tell these stories within Black communities and within Black culture…is what makes it accessible to others.

“I don’t think August Wilson was writing his plays for people who aren’t Black. He was writing his plays for us, and what’s so beautiful about that is that it allows anyone who engages with this work to feel like they’re seeing something that is so specific and authentic — he was writing it to be truthful to who we are.

“All of us know what it’s like to navigate family, legacy and familial issues that relate to love and everything else. The reason it (‘The Piano Lesson’ and Wilson’s works) jumps off the page and does so well is because it is so specific.

“The reason (Wilson’s) work has resonated, whether viewed by white, blue, Black, brown people, is because he was being specific about who he was writing for.

“I think it’s healthy to acknowledge that not everything is written with other people in mind and that’s absolutely what makes it a true cultural exchange. You are seeing something so far removed from yourself that it forces you to have to work a little bit to think ‘Wow, how is that feeling so similar?’ That is the reaction that gets to the empathy.”

Pyramid, through the dedication to their mission and through the vibrant energy and talent of “The Piano Lesson” cast, gives audiences the very real and visceral experience that August Wilson intended. The 1930s drama unfolds when the struggle between a brother and sister about the fate of their family’s heirloom piano becomes the flashpoint of conflict. Pyramid’s collective theatrical acumen presented in the elegant confines of the John Viars Theater at the Des Moines Community Playhouse will deliver an unforgettable immersion.


“Carnage” happening at Tallgrass

Another notable regional offering is Tallgrass Theatre Company’s “God of Carnage,” the eighth annual Sarah Frank and Jack Balcombe Dream Project. Anchored by a quartet of veteran, talented performers, the theater will pulse with the electric drama of this masterful script. ♦

John Busbee is a creative project developer, critic, playwright, author, producer and media professional. He has produced his weekly show, The Culture Buzz, on KFMG since 2007.

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