[Sidebar] February 1 - 8, 2001
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Life Lessons

Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe helms Trinity's Piano Lesson

by Johnette Rodriguez

[] When August Wilson set out to place a drama representing African-American life in each decade of the 20th century, the 1930s setting was bound to drastically contrast with the typical white experience of the time. As Edris Cooper-Anifowoshe, the director of Trinity Rep's production of The Piano Lesson points out, blacks had been coping with Depression hardships since emancipation.

The play earned Wilson his second Pulitzer, in 1990 -- the first was for Fences, three years before. Instead of an economic crisis, the 1936 Pittsburgh household of Doaker Charles (Ricardo Pitts-Wiley) is hurled into a personal and cultural identity crisis. The piano of the title was originally owned by the slaveholders that sold off his grandmother and father, who was nine. The mourning grandfather, a skilled carpenter on the plantation, poured out his grief in intricate totems and bas-reliefs on its panels and legs, recording the intricate history of the family. Doaker's big brother eventually stole the piano, and was killed for the act, and from then on it was a family heirloom. In the present time, Berniece Charles (Rose Weaver) treasures the piano for all the blood it represents. However, her brother Boy Willie (Keskehmu) sees it as a means to improve his life. He has a chance to buy the land he share-crops, the very land his great-grandparents were enslaved on, if can convince Berniece to sell the valuable piano. The conflict becomes one of the past and heritage versus the future and betterment.

Cooper-Anifowoshe's work as a director was on brisk-paced display here two years ago in the world premiere of Robert Alexander's A Preface to the Alien Garden. She has an MFA in directing from the University of Iowa, and is the artistic director of the Black Artists Contemporary Cultural Exchange in San Francisco, which focuses on new plays by black playwrights. Cooper-Anifowoshe started her theatrical career with the Carpetbag Theatre Company and then toured with the San Francisco Mime Troupe from 1986-91. She retains an actor's reluctance to reveal her age, not wanting to risk losing roles, describing herself simply as being "a child of the '70s."

The excerpts below are from an interview Cooper-Anifowoshe' gave after a recent rehearsal of The Piano Lesson.

Q: I wanted to ask you what being an actor lets you bring to directing.
A: One of the things that I really know it brings is a compassion for what they go through . . . So when the actor is having a difficult moment and it's frustrating everyone in the room, you know to be quiet. I know when not to say anything. I know when to let them scream: "Goddammit, I need my line!" And I don't let that energy affect me, because I've been there and I know exactly what that feels like and I know what they need.

Q: Speaking of needing work as an actor, do you disagree with Wilson's observation that color-blind casting is "an aberrant idea"?
A: I think he's absolutely right. I'll tell you about color-blind casting: could you see a white family doing Piano Lesson?

Q: Well, that's another question, that it's different in reverse because of the social dynamics.
A: Right. So this is what it is: color-blind casting really means that you pretend that I'm not black. There's no way that's happening. There's no way I'm going to step out on that stage and pretend I'm not a black person.

Q: How do you feel about this play compared to Wilson's others?
A: It's different for me in the Wilson canon. It crafts culture in a much more poetic and ethereal way than, say, Ma Rainey or Two Trains. There's specialness, a sort of delicate handling of difficult situations. Like, Ma Rainey doesn't handle her racism delicately at all; it doesn't handle the times delicately at all. She comes and she demands her Coke. She says, "This is how I want white folks to treat me." This play, though it is about slavery it doesn't show slavery in a horrific way. It treats a subject that could be very depressing and very horrific and places it inside this beautiful, poetic, crafted tale that doesn't even mention slavery by name; it doesn't take you there.

Q: But it does take you there. You have the horrendous situation of a mother and her child being wrested away from the husband and sold off.
A: Yes, but it's mentioned once and it's mention inside this beautiful story of what this piano means to the family. You know, you don't have to play the horror. Sometimes the tendency might be to play the scene: "They traded and 'em for one and a half niggers!"

I learned this from Anne Bogart -- I know you all love her in this town, right? -- that you don't put the answer onstage, that you need to allow the audience work to do. You'll have to make them work for something. I always say: If you lay too much in their lap and you're the only one working and they don't have to put together anything, then they're going to fall asleep.

Q: Every play has head-scratching difficulties not every director can surmount. In this play, what has been the hardest problems to solve?
A: The hardest problem is, I think, really embracing the contradictions so that one character can still look like one character instead of four. Almost every one of them at some point issues a statement that contradicts everything that's gone before. Doaker defends that piano to the end, and then goes: "Berniece, you need to go and sell it. That piano ain't caused nothing but trouble." Does he want her to sell it or does he not? It's in there somewhere, in the middle.

Q: Well, this shows the enormous challenge of establishing their characters with some depth. We can accept that people around us have contradictions --
A: But in the theater, we don't accept that as readily. You have to create the complexity within the character. That's been the most difficult, understanding how much we have to embrace . . . the contradictions -- walking that fine edge. As a person who's been onstage probably more than I've been sitting, directing, one of the things that I've learned that I've found was profound about acting is that the scariest moments are the most brilliant. Like, when you're out there and you say: "I have no idea what I'm doing next . . . what the next move is in my life as this character." And every night, when I hit this spot I feel like I'm falling off the stage. Then that is the moment that the reviewers go: "Wow! What she did with that character!"

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