Courtesy of University Theatre
University theater explores African-American culture
The department of theater arts is celebrating Black History Month with a production of the haunting drama “The Piano Lesson.”
Boy Willie (played by freshman theater major Edward Anderson) wants to sell the piano in order to purchase land, but his sister Bernice (played by fourth-year theater major Bryttani McGhee) refuses to part with it and thinks it should stay in the family and be passed down to the next generation.
What makes the piano so significant is it has intricate carvings detailing the family’s rise from slavery. It’s also believed to be haunted by a dramatic past.
Director Thomas-Whit Ellis chose to work on this play because of his intrigue with the Pulitzer Prize Award winning author August Wilson and her complex characters. He said the family drama in the play is the most engaging and powerful kind to work with.
“At the end of the day, hopefully people will realize that if they can’t work out problems with family, they will have issues working out problems with other human beings.” Ellis said.
Steven Littles, a second-year transfer theater major, who plays Lymon, Boy Willie’s best friend, said the play addresses the value of heritage and culture through the character Boy Willie who is willing to give up the family piano for something as trivial as land.
Littles said the theme is not just limited to black culture, though.
“It relates to everyone’s culture,” Littles said. “Fresno is very diverse, and there are so many different cultures and heritages. Everyone can relate. Everyone has issues in their family and I hope that comes across in the play.”
Professional actor brings sparkle to the stage, program
Ellis said he wanted to make Fresno State’s rendition of the award-winning play extra-special, by bringing in professional actor Tucker Smallwood to play Doaker, Bernice and Boy Willie’s uncle.
Ellis said that many of the UC schools work with professional actors in their plays on a regular basis and he wants his students and students at other state universities to have that experience as well.
“It’s a good snapshot of working in the real world for these student actors,” Ellis said. “It’s like having med students work with real doctors; you can’t match that.”
Smallwood, who became an actor after serving as a military advisor in Vietnam, moved to New York to study with acting coaches Sanford Meisner and Stella Adler. After completing six productions with Joseph Papp and performing in productions like “The Last Minstrel Show” with Della Reese and Gregory Hines, he moved to Los Angeles to continue his acting career.
Smallwood was also one of the first Americans to ever perform on stage in Romania, in “Don’t Blame The Bedouins.”
Smallwood’s resume doesn’t just limit him to the stage. His body of work also includes T.V. appearances and commercials for both T.V. and radio. Most recently he played God in “The Sarah Silverman Program.”
Smallwood said that his choice to be involved with the Fresno State production was simply because it was an August Wilson play and an opportunity to share his experiences with young actors.
“It allowed me the chance to use my skills in country blues,” Smallwood said. “As well as the opportunity to share with students some of what I’ve learned after 37 years as a working actor.”
Littles said that he has thoroughly enjoyed working with Smallwood and wants to gain all the knowledge he can from the professional actor.
“Its been pretty awesome working with Tucker,” Littles said. “It’s always great to have an opportunity to work with a professional actor. I hope this creates more opportunities for Fresno State to get more guest artists.”
The Piano Lesson
The production begins Feb. 27 and runs through March 7. Tickets for “The Piano Lesson” are available at the Box Office located near the north entrance of the Speech Arts building, Monday-Friday from noon to 5 p.m.
â€¢ Fresno State student tickets are $10 (ID required). FSU faculty and staff, alumni association member, senior (60 and above) and non FSU student tickets are $15 and general admission is $17.