These are the End Times. Everywhere, everything is closed, canceled, and abandoned. Our lives are inconvenienced at best, mortally disrupted at worst. Small businesses are hard hit. Arts-makers whose media rely on the physical presence of patrons – like the theater – are struggling mightily to make tough choices, with stakes no lower than the ongoing survival of their institutions (and, perhaps, those patrons). And there’s no adequate precedent to look to for guidance.
Tempting as it is to follow that cheerful paragraph with a “However…” of some kind, let’s just say instead that a brave, handful of Maryland companies have decided (at least for now) to plow ahead with their plans. One of those is Baltimore’s Arena Players, the oldest African American theater company in the nation. On March 13 they opened August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” with the following advisory:
At this time, all plays and events will happen as scheduled. Plenty of exciting programs are coming up and we want to let you know about the serious precautions we are taking.
Here is what we are doing:
* All staff and volunteers are required to stay home if they are ill.
* We are sanitizing all surfaces in the theater, including door handles, push bars, and furniture multiple times a day.
* All staff and volunteers will use good hand-washing practice and gloves.
Here is what you can do:
* Please stay home if you are ill.
* Bring Individually wrapped alcohol wipes for cleaning the arm rests at your seat. Please discard in trash cans.
* Our restrooms have all the equipment you need for thorough hand-washing (20 seconds with soap!), which is the best method for keeping your hands virus-free.
In addition to increased sanitation throughout our facilities, we are also reducing our seating capacity, effective immediately. This allows for increased social distance. Due to the reduction in seating capacity, shows may sell out faster. We encourage you to purchase tickets in advance when possible.
Arena Players Inc. is dedicated to helping protect the health and safety of our patrons, volunteers, staff, and community as a whole. We are following instructions from the CDC very closely and will follow the guidance of all federal, state, and local authorities in responding to these events. Please refer to the following link for updated information and guidance on responding to the COVID-19 outbreak: Centers for Disease Control (CDC) https://www.cdc.gov
Any changes to our scheduled programming will be communicated via email, website, and social media. Thank you in advance for helping us keep a clean and safe environment. We’ll see you at the Playhouse!
Throughout the building, a very high level of cleanliness was observed on opening night. Restrooms were well stocked with soap, wipes, and paper towels. The concession area appeared spotless (and the popcorn machine is working!) When asked to comment for this review, Managing Director David D. Mitchell stated that the company is moving forward with caution, taking prudent safety measures and reassessing its options daily. He advised that the best way for patrons to receive up-to-the-minute information about scheduled performances is to phone the theater at (410) 728-6500. Regular updates will be posted by recorded message.
All that said, let’s talk about the show!
The fourth play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, “The Piano Lesson” is set in the 1936 home of Berniece Charles (Nikki Scroggins), her uncle, Doaker (John P. Comer), and her daughter, Maretha (uncredited). This modest city house contains a piano, which bears tremendous historical significance to the family, personal investment to Berniece, and opportunity to her brother, Boy Willie (Joshua Dixon), who arrives uninvited with sidekick Lymon (Awsim Amin) and selfish, possibly sinister motives. Doaker’s brother, Wining Boy (Isaiah Evans) and old buddy Avery (Tirrell Bethel) eventually join the mix along with club girl Grace (Erin Johnson). A great many relationships among the characters develop both texture and tension as the overarching conflict takes shape: Boy Willie wants to sell the family’s piano. Berniece is firmly resolved against him.
“In the Arena Players’ production, one finds an unqualified triumph.”
Arena’s Artistic Director, Donald Owens, helms an exceptionally fine cast and allows Wilson’s script to find its footing in a relentless – yet unhurried – pace. The play is quite long, clocking more than three and a half hours, but never at any point seemed to drag. Like all of Wilson’s plays, this story belongs to its characters and its success or failure is a direct result of the ensemble’s work. In the Arena Players’ production, one finds an unqualified triumph. As Doaker, John P. Comer exhibits a quiet, natural ease, serving as a steadying ballast when arguments heat up. Lest one forget that he’s there, Comer raises his game at just the right moment when Doaker has finally had enough. Amin, Bethel, and Evans really sink their teeth into their presentations of Lymon, Avery, and Wining Boy. Each delivers a rewarding richness of depth to his character – we experience their back-stories in ways that extend beyond the limitations of text, while none of the men can be “caught acting”. Nikki Scroggins provides Berniece with a complex energy that demonstrates immense range and sensitivity. Scroggins is fully in charge of the stage, even when Berniece is weary and defeated. Her performance is intense yet nuanced – the perfect foil for Joshua Dixon’s tour de force as Boy Willie.
If Berniece is “The Piano Lesson”‘s fulcrum, Boy Willie is surely its massive, powerful lever. In the role, Dixon is an absolute juggernaut who’s well worth the price of admission by himself. He uses his physical bigness to show the tremendous weight that his character carries inside – Boy Willie bears the ambitions and desperate yearnings of generations, deadly earnest; Dixon gives us all of this, while quick to either laugh at or threaten anyone who gets in his way. Arena Players’ 66th season has showcased a great many wonderful performances, and Joshua Dixon’s turn in the current production is the best of them to date.
Running Time: 3 hours, 39 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Racial epithet (“N”) frequently used.
“The Piano Lesson” appears through March 29, 2020, at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh Street in Baltimore. For tickets call (410) 728-6500 or purchase online.