'The Piano Lesson,' August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize play, celebrates decade of Pyramid Theater
Ten years ago, the Pyramid Theatre Co. was little more than a hope held by a handful of Des Moines-area theater artists.
In the time since, those artists have created a theater dedicated to staging local performances of the work of Black playwrights and now have more than a dozen productions to the company's name.
“When we first did ‘Fences,’ it started with a big public reading back when the Des Moines Social Club was still in existence," said Ken-Matt Martin, the director of "The Piano Lesson" and one of the co-founders of Pyramid Theatre. "That’s kind of what kick-started all of this movement toward more and more Black theater in Des Moines about a decade ago, to see the fruition of what we thought was impossible.”
Several cast members from the 2014 production of "Fences" are on stage for "The Piano Lesson," including fellow Pyramid Theatre founding member Aaron Smith, who previously played Troy Maxson and takes the role of Wining Boy here, and Tiffany Johnson, who previously played Rose Maxson in "Fences" and now performs as Berniece in "The Piano Lesson."
The story of "The Piano Lesson" follows a household in 1936 Pittsburgh with a piano that's been with the family for more than a century and is adorned with carvings recalling the family's African roots. This local adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play is scheduled to run with 13 shows from Feb. 3-19 at the Des Moines Playhouse, 831 42nd St.
“The play’s about two siblings in a squabble over whether to sell this piano — so for anyone who’s had a sibling of any sort… at some point, you’ve had a fight with that sibling, right?” Martin explained.
Boy Willie, played by Emmett Saah Philips Jr., wants to sell the ornately carved family piano to be able to purchase land while his sister, Berniece, wants to keep it in the family. In the midst of this conflict, the family is also contending with a spirit terrorizing their home.
“One of the things that’s always kind of annoyed me when I’ve seen this play produced is people tend to shy away from the ghostly element of it," Martin said. "I've really kind of dug deep into scary films, not because I'm trying to make our production overly scary, it's still completely PG-13 to be clear... (but) because to get the scare, to get the emotional moment, you also have to have the laughter and the levity is key. So it's actually very funny."
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This production comes hot on the heels of a revival that closed on Broadway this past weekend.
The upcoming staging is the latest collaboration between Pyramid Theatre and the Des Moines Playhouse — which previously partnered on "Buffalo Women" last year and was given special recognition at the Cloris Awards ceremony.
"The Piano Lesson" is the fourth chronological play in what is known as August Wilson's Century Cycle, which also includes "Fences" and "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom." The plays stand on their own and generally follow unrelated sets of characters in each decade of the 20th century.
This local production also introduces to the stage in her first performance, Larryah Travis as Maretha, Berniece's daughter in the show. As happenstance would have it, Travis is being introduced to this play as a performer at the same age Martin was introduced to the show as an audience member.
“She’s the exact same age I was when I saw this play in Little Rock, Arkansas, which is the reason that I’m in this business," Martin said. "(Seeing 'The Piano Lesson') is literally the reason that I am in the industry. It’s the first thing I ever saw, on a school field trip when I was in middle school.”
After helping get Pyramid Theatre on its feet, Martin went off in 2018 to get his masters degree in fine arts in directing from Brown University. In 2021 he became the first Black artistic director at Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago before being terminated from that position by the board last year, subsequently causing the resignation of the theater's entire cohort of resident artists in support of Martin, as Playbill reported.
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He's got more projects after this, mere days after "The Piano Lesson" wraps he's going to Baltimore Center Stage for a production of "Tiny Beautiful Things." Down the line Martin has projects coming up at the Apollo and in D.C. that he's looking forward to. Yet, Des Moines is a place he always hopes to come back to as time goes on.
“This is home. It’s a second home for me," Martin said. "A lot of my formative years were spent here since I went to undergrad (at Drake University). It is my first, and best, artistic home that I’ve had so I will continue to come back to Des Moines… I will always come back here and do this work...”
Tickets, ranging from $29 to $43, and more information about this local production of "The Piano Lesson" can be found at dmplayhouse.com.
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 319-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.
This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: 'The Piano Lesson' marks 10 years since the inception the Pyramid Theater