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Playhouse Merced presents August Wilson’s ‘Piano Lesson’

A piano takes center stage in a family’s history in Playhouse Merced’s production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson,” which opens Friday.

“It’s an important story for us to tell because this is the first time in over a decade that we are producing a medium-sized, all African American cast,” director Robert Hypes said.

“It gives us the opportunity to tell a story that we have never told, through the eyes and words of one of America’s greatest playwrights, August Wilson,” he said.

“I think it’s incredibly important to recognize the diverse cultures of Merced and even the country, allowing all audiences to engage, converse and enjoy something that maybe they have limited access to or didn’t even know about,” Hypes said.

Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, “The Piano Lesson” is told through both dialogue and music, and explores family dynamics and whether to honor the past or move forward with the future. The centerpiece, an upright piano etched with wooden carvings, represents their entire family history.

It’s the story that propelled Hypes to enter theater. “It was the first professional show I saw while I was in college,” Hypes said.

“I remember sitting in my seat and just being amazed and transfixed the entire duration of the show. It was after that moment that I decided to pursue theater, and that has been my career ever since.”

G.B. Blackmon III plays the character of Boy Willie, a man struggling with his sister over the fate of the piano that carries so much of their family history.

For Boy Willie, it represents something to be sold to buy back the land his family worked so hard to cultivate and maintain for generations.

For his sister, Berniece, it represents a living memory of what her family sacrificed and endured through the years. The confrontation between brother and sister escalates until the family, and perhaps the piano, will be torn apart.

“I feel this is an important story to tell because it’s a beautiful story that deserves to be told,” Blackmon said. “I wanted to be a part of this show because I’ve never been a part of an all-black cast before and jumped at the opportunity to do so.

“We have all come together to put this show up and became a family. I’m glad that I have the opportunity to be a part of this fantastic show,” Blackmon said.

“The Piano Lesson” also stars Michelle W. Allison, Elena Carter, Jeshamon Volkerts, Sean-Pierre Fox-Wilson, Larmont Williams, Anthony White and Jordyn D. Allison.

The story is part of Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle,” a series of 10 plays, each dealing with a different decade of the 20th century.

“They are known for how accurately they depict African American life in those decades,” Hypes said.

“I love the musicality of the show. Though the show is considered a non-musical, it has several powerful songs. In addition, August Wilson writes so realistically, but his writing feels very lyrical and musical to me,” he said.

“The entire show is powerful, funny, and I think something everyone in Merced should come out to see.”