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Spiritual Vibes Inspire Cast For 'Piano Lesson' At Hartford Stage

Do you believe in ghosts?

Hartford Stage does. The theater is conjuring up "The Piano Lesson," one of the most haunted, and haunting, of the 10 dramas in August Wilson's legendary 10-play "Century Cycle." The production, directed by Jade King Carroll, runs Oct. 13 to Nov. 13.

According to Christina Acosta Robinson, who plays Berniece in the show, "Jade has directed this really realistically. Because ghosts are real."

To make sure the spiritual vibes are secure, the production is resurrecting the original piano used in 1987 world premiere of "The Piano Lesson" at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

"Talk about magical," the actress marvels. "It's the main character in the play."

The piano in "The Piano Lesson" is an elaborately carved family heirloom, one that documents an important heritage. It's also a piano, and gets played with gusto during the play. "Everyone's playing in this show," Acosta Robinson says. "Everyone's playing for real."

Besides the onstage ivory-tickling, the show has an original musical score by Baikida Carroll.

The piano is the flashpoint for an argument between estranged siblings: Should it be kept as a monument to the family's endurance, or sold so that it can bring them security?

Acosta Robinson says that, as Berniece, "I'm fighting to keep my family together. I"m trying to have joy in my life, but I'm a broken person." She changes perspective and explains: "Berniece has lost her father, mother and husband. She's lost so much, but I don't play the depression. I'm fighting against that. I think she thinks she's getting her life together. Then Boy Willie comes."

Roscoe Orman plays Doaker Charles, who's older than his squabbling niece Berniece and nephew Boy Willie. Doaker is caught in the middle, Orman says, of "this intense confrontation between family members. They conflict with each other on so many levels. Yet that want the same thing. The piano is their legacy. They're both protecting it in different ways."

"Doaker can see all sides of the argument," Orman says. "He understands where Boy Willie is coming from. But he's closer to Berniece." Besides Christina Acosta Robinson and Roscoe Orman, the cast includes Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie, Galen Ryan Kane as his pal Lymon, Daniel Morgan Shelley as the preacher Avery Brown, Cleavant Derricks (who originated the role of James "Thunder" Early in the musical "Dreamgirls") as the down-on-his-luck musician Wining Boy, Tocarra Cash as Grace (the object of both Boy Willie's and Lymon's affections) and Elise Taylor (understudied by Tyra Harris) as Berniece's young daughter Maretha.

The first public performance of "The Piano Lesson" was as a reading at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford in 1987. Yale Rep staged the world premiere of the play later that year as a co-production with Boston's Huntington Theatre Company. The play moved to Broadway, where it ran from April 1990 to January 1991. "The Piano Lesson" won Wilson the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. He'd won the same award three years earlier for "Fences."

Speaking intensely about his "Piano Lesson" character, Roscoe Orman doesn't sound much like Gordon, the character he played for 42 seasons on "Sesame Street." He sounds more like James Earl Jones, whom he impersonates to basso-profundo perfection when describing how he first came to be in an August Wilson play. "I had gone to see 'Fences' when it opened. I was a huge fan of James Earl's work. When I was talking to him afterwards, he said…" — and Orman's already low voice drops an octave — "If you ever have an opportunity to do a play by August Wilson, do it."

"Within three months," Orman says, he was in the cast of "Fences" himself, playing the role of Gabriel for the last six months of the play's Broadway run.

Orman later played the main role of Troy in "Fences," at the Madison Repertory Theatre in Wisconsin in 2005. He's done "Jitney" (the 1970s installment of Wilson's "Cycle") in Baltimore, and also took part in a public reading of that play that was recorded and broadcast on National Public Radio. Doing "The Piano Lesson" wasn't something he expected. "I never thought of myself in this play or this role." He recalls his "good buddy Carl Gordon" (who died in 2010) playing the role on Broadway. It was director Carroll who called to invite Orman to be Doaker at Hartford Stage.

The Children's Television Workshop, producers of "Sesame Street," didn't ask Orman and two other longtime cast members back when the show was recently retooled. ("Sesame Street" now airs new episodes on HBO before moving them months later to PBS.) Orman doesn't care to discuss that recent development, but calls the experience overall "a dream situation" — in part because the relatively short shooting schedule for "Sesame Street" gave him opportunities to do live theater. Orman's TV career was hardly restricted to "Sesame Street." He's been seen in "The Wire," "Alpha House" and "The Night Of."

Now he's happy to be back in the world of August Wilson. Orman notes that while "Fences" takes place largely outdoors, "with a visual sense of the neighborhood, this play doesn't have an exterior setting. This is a different kind of experience. It could be happening anywhere."

Acosta Robinson adds that "in August Wilson's plays, characters take advantage of a safe space to express themselves." She goes on, as Orman nods in agreement: "This house is a place where they are not going to be punished by expressing their feelings."

"August Wilson," Orman says, "readily identified his plays as part of a tradition, to speak to the African-American spirit, to that will to survive. His characters face impossible hardships and find beauty, family, warmth. That's what the blues did. August took that as inspiration."

"THE PIANO LESSON" by August Wilson, directed by Jade King Carroll, is performed Oct. 13 through Nov. 13 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday at 8 p.m., Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. There are added 2 p.m. Saturday performances on Oct. 22, Nov. 5 and 12, and added 7:30 p.m. Sunday performances Oct. 16 and 30. There are no Tuesday performances on Nov. 25 or Oct. 8. Tickets are $25-$90. 860-527-5151, hartfordstage.org.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the composer of the show's music. 

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