NACOGDOCHES, Texas – Almost 20 years ago, Cleo House Jr., director of the Stephen F. Austin State University School of Theatre and Dance, performed the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson.” Wilson, a prolific and skillful playwright who would win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama for his writing, attended one of the performances and autographed House’s script.
House proposed “The Piano Lesson” for this year’s Mainstage Series because he wanted “something special” for the School of Theatre and Dance’s Centennial Season celebrating SFA’s 100 years. He hoped it would be the first Mainstage performance in the all-new Flex Theatre in the newly renovated and expanded Griffith Fine Arts Building, and the theatre season planning committee chose it.
The Pulitzer-winning “The Piano Lesson” is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays, where each story takes place in a different decade exploring the vastness of the African-American experience over the last 100 years. All but one of the plays were set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In “The Piano Lesson,” a battle is brewing in the Charles household. At the center is the family’s prized heirloom piano as a symbol of how family dynamics can reach into the souls of the present, revealing startling truths about how we perceive our past and who gets to define our legacy.
When House played the role of Boy Willie in the early 2000s, it was one of his first professional gigs while living on the East Coast. He was a new junior faculty member at Penn State Berks in Reading, Pennsylvania, and he was happy to book the job. He likened playing Boy Willie to being as intense as taking on the role of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
“The opportunity to play him was special,” House said. “When I learned that Mr. Wilson was going to attend one of our productions, I was frightened. With a role like Boy Willie, an actor is already innately filled with self-doubt. It is a nightly test of skill, talent and endurance playing this role. So my inner saboteur kicked into overdrive when I found out he would be in the audience.
“I don’t recall much about the performance, except that he was seated on the third row, dead center, and the lights from the stage illuminated his face and those around him,” House recalled. “I could hear every breath I took. It was a battle to stay out of my head and live in the moment. I’d like to think I did OK that night.”
After the show, there was a meet-and-greet with Wilson, and House almost didn’t go.
“I didn’t want to put him in the position of having to say I did a good job when maybe he didn’t think so,” House said. “But I went, and my memory of him was that he was incredibly gracious. He was kind and complimentary. I sheepishly asked him to sign my script, and he agreed. He wrote, ‘To Cleo – Thank you for the great job you did as Boy Willie. The struggle continues.’ I still have that script to this day.”
SFA’s presentation of “The Piano Lesson” features Houston sophomore Erik Colbert Jr. as Boy Willie. Colbert describes his character as having “a lively and great personality, and he loves to joke around with his friends and family.”
“But he also has a quick temper and can be very stubborn and hardheaded at times,” Colbert said. “Throughout all this, he is very goal-oriented and will stop at nothing to try to reach his goals. I want to portray Boy Willie as more thoughtful and caring rather than selfish, because his methods of ‘selling’ the piano may seem selfish, but deep down, he’s really doing it for his family.”
House said that auditions for “The Piano Lesson” during the first week of the fall semester brought forth some really talented student actors.
“But I didn’t see Boy Willie until Erik’s audition,” he said. “He just delivered what was needed, and we were lucky, because he was the last actor in. He’s young, talented and smart. He is rising to the challenge of this role, and I constantly look forward to seeing what he brings to rehearsal.”
Colbert said “The Piano Lesson” is teaching him about the importance of “knowing your history as a part of who you are.”
“I feel this play will bring up conversation between family and friends,” Colbert said. “I was not familiar with August Wilson before this play. I look forward to reading more plays by him.
“I'm hoping the audience will question more where they came from, and that they will want to learn more about their culture and their own history,” Colbert continued. “In this day and age, a lot of people don't really know much about their past, and I'm hoping that this will shed light on why it's important to learn about it.”
House commends the rest of the cast, from Houston freshman Ashland Anderson, who is playing Grace, to Waxahachie senior Kiya Green as Berniece. House said the audience will see “some stellar performances” from the other cast members in the show as well, including Arlington freshman Joshua Jameson, Houston sophomore Xavier Sanchez, Killeen freshman Olivia Wintz, Dallas junior CJ Tate and Gary junior Grant Calloway, who are all “creating special moments that audiences can’t help but be entertained by,” House said.
House hopes that the students who are acting and working on the production realize that they are now “a part of the August Wilson legacy.”
“I hope our students realize the richness and diversity of the black experience in America,” House said. “I hope they come to realize that the struggle for equality and justice has been here long before them, and that they are a product of the success of that fight, but it is up to them to determine how they will create a legacy as humans and as artists for the future.
“I hope that through August Wilson’s work, our students realize that greatness can be for everyone, not just a chosen few.”
“The Piano Lesson” will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, Sept. 28 through 30, and at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 30 and Oct. 1, in the Flex Theatre. General ticket prices are: adult, $15; senior (62+), $10; youth (high school and younger), $8; SFA faculty/staff, $8; non-SFA student, $8; and SFA student, $5. For ticketing information or to purchase tickets, call the Fine Arts Box Office at (936) 468-6407 or (888) 240-ARTS, or visit sfasu.edu/boxoffice. For information about the play, call (936) 468-4003 or visit sfasu.edu/theatre-dance.