By Jenna Purcell
City on a Hill Press Reporter
In the dimly lit Mainstage Theater during a late-night rehearsal, bright lights flood the stage and reveal Scene One of “The Piano Lesson.” As the scene progresses the actors become more and more focused and into character, their performances greeted by heartened “Mmm-hmms” and snaps of approval from fellow cast members. At the end of the scene, director Don Williams throws his head back and laughs in celebration before applauding his actors.
“That’s it! That’s it! You hit it! Yeah!” he said. “Now don’t stop guys, let’s keep it moving.”
This is the spirit of UC Santa Cruz’s African American Theater Arts Troupe, fondly known as AATAT. The troupe is currently preparing for their production of “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson, which opens Friday, Feb. 13, marking the troupe’s 17th season. Proceeds from ticket sales go toward AATAT’s scholarship program, which gives money based on merit, participation, and financial need, and can go to anyone involved in AATAT.
According to cast member Aja Flewelen, who plays the role of Berniece, situations like this rehearsal are characteristic of AATAT.
“We can get a little crazy,” Flewelen said with a smile. “But we’re very welcoming and accepting. It’s sort of like a family when we all get together.”
The show follows the story of an African American family in the 1930s that struggles over what’s to become of a precious and valuable heirloom, the old family piano. The spirit of respecting one’s past is embodied in sentimental Berniece, who wants to keep the piano, as she clashes with her ambitious brother Boy Willie, who wants to sell it.
Alex Whittlesey, who plays Boy Willie, feels that his character’s conflicts extend outside of the show.
“My character is really trying to build himself up, and in that way, I think he speaks to everyone,” Whittlesey said. “We’re all trying to sell ourselves, make a little bit of money, and chase that American dream. But you can lose yourself in it.”
Williams, who pioneered AATAT and has directed the troupe for the past 17 years, also felt that the show’s themes connected with problems of today. According to Williams, “The Piano Lesson” addresses a lapse of communication.
“Back then, people actually talked, spent time together, sang songs when there was nothing to do,” Williams said. “Today, if you lose your job and can’t afford to text or watch TV, what will you do? I think this show really expresses how much we need each other and how important it is to welcome your family in during hard times.”
According to Williams, Wilson — who received the Pulitzer Prize for “The Piano Lesson” in 1989 — is one of the best American playwrights and represents an essential perspective of the American experience.
“I don’t think you can call yourself American until you’ve seen Wilson’s work,” Williams said. “He is a masterful storyteller. He creates full, rich characters that you come to embrace. That’s the sign of a really classy playwright, when you walk away [from a show] knowing who those characters really were.”
Many of the characters in AATAT’s production have been double-cast, meaning two actors are cast in the same role. According to Flewelen, one of the two Bernieces, the extra work has paid off.
“It’s very hard being double-cast. We have two different personalities, we say our lines differently, and we have different approaches,” Flewelen said. “But I get stuff from her, she gets stuff from me, and we kind of mesh to get this really awesome character.”
Wilson’s play, which includes sharecroppers and other Southern characters, is marked by a regional discourse. Actors often found it difficult to accurately replicate the Southern drawl so essential to the show’s essence.
“The language in the show is so different from young African Americans today,” Williams said. “I’ve got three-point and four-point students with clear dialects trying to say things like ‘negro’ and ‘cuz’ in a deep southern accent. It’s definitely a challenge.”
Mastering an accent was not the only challenge these actors faced. The students in the production — many of whom are first-years, non-theater arts majors, and first-time performers — managed to survive regular evening rehearsals, a vicious 12-hour tech rehearsal, and the pressure of being the first UCSC theater arts show to open winter quarter. While the cast is excited about the show, the rush of performing is not the only payoff for many cast members.
“Every time I come to rehearsal, I learn something new about myself,” said cast member Patrick Lloyd, a first-year student who is double-cast in the role of Lyman. “I don’t really feel like I’ve learned anything in my classes yet, but when I come to AATAT, I feel like I’ve learned something, and I take a message home with me every night.”
It is this sort of reaction that Williams is hoping to get from his audiences starting tomorrow night.
“I’ve been a mentor and educator for 20 years, and I’ve noticed a prominent lack of understanding of black historical culture,” Williams said. “Most people associate the 1930s with the Depression, but for black artists, those were the greatest years, when people like Josephine Baker and Langston Hughes were in their prime. But we don’t learn about that. And if we don’t see it in the classroom, where do we go?”
UCSC’s Mainstage Theater at 7 p.m. tomorrow, Feb. 13;
Santa Cruz High School, 415 Walnut Ave., 7 p.m. Feb. 27-28;
and Oldemeyer Center, 986 Hilby Ave., Seaside, 7 p.m., March 6-7.
Tickets: $11 for students, $14 general.
Proceeds go toward scholarships for students who participate in AATAT. These are based on merit, participation, and financial need and can go to anyone involved in AATAT.
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