Two Des Moines theater companies, founded a century apart, join forces to stage August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson’

'The Piano Lesson'

Des Moines Playhouse, Feb. 3-19, $29-43

The piano at the center of Des Moines Playhouse and Pyramid Theatre Company’s production of ‘The Piano Lesson.’ — Courtney Guein/Little Village

When last year’s revival of August Wilson’s 1987 play The Piano Lesson closed on Broadway on Jan. 29, it was the highest grossing show that week. In fact, the production, which opened Oct. 13, became the highest grossing play revival and highest grossing Wilson play on Broadway.

Wilson is regularly among the most-produced playwrights in the U.S., according to American Theatre’s annual surveys. For the 2022-23 season, he sits at number four on that list, beating out contemporaries like Sam Shepard and more modern darlings as well. Almost two decades after the playwright’s death, his work continues to move, challenge and inspire both artists and audiences.

The Des Moines Playhouse and Pyramid Theatre Company open their own production of The Piano Lesson on Feb. 3. It runs through Feb. 19.

This is the third show in a collaboration between the two theaters that kicked off in 2021 with Jonathan Norton’s A Love Offering, and continued last year with Beaufield Berry’s Buffalo Women. (Pyramid previously collaborated with Riverside Theatre in Iowa City for a 2019 production of Wilson’s How I Learned What I Learned.)

Pyramid and the Playhouse embarked on these co-productions in an effort to introduce wider audiences to both companies. The Piano Lesson involves both actors and design team members who have experience with one theater or the other, as well as some who are new to both.

The stage is set for ‘The Piano Lesson’ at Des Moines Playhouse, 831 42nd St. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Founded as the Little Theatre in 1919, the Playhouse is one of the oldest community theaters in the U.S. (the phrase “community theater” was only coined two years earlier). Together with the Waterloo Community Playhouse, founded in 1916, the theater serves to cement Iowa’s amateur performance bona fides and helps explain why new companies seem to keep popping up in the state regularly to add to that enduring legacy.

Pyramid is one of those newer ones, formed in 2015 following a 2014 production of another Wilson classic, Fences. Their mission, as stated on their website, is “to provide a gateway to the arts for the Des Moines community by illuminating the presence of Black artists in the theatre canon and providing a means of artistic expression to emerging Black voices.” They are the only Black theater company in Iowa, and Iowa is one of just 27 states that have similar organizations.

Among those coming full-circle with Pyramid as it enters its 10th year of performances is Ken-Matt Martin. Recently appointed interim artistic director at Baltimore Center Stage, Martin is also one of the founders of Pyramid, and he directed that 2014 Fences. He’s back in town to direct The Piano Lesson. The cast of the show includes Tiffany Johnson, also a Pyramid founder (and its current producing artistic director), as Berniece.

Fittingly, The Piano Lesson, part of Wilson’s 10-play arc The Pittsburgh Cycle, is a story bound up in questions of history and legacy. Set in the 1930s, it centers on the struggle between a brother, Boy Willie (Emmett Saah Phillips Jr), and sister, Berniece, over what to do with a family heirloom, an old piano decorated with carvings by their enslaved great-grandfather.

Onstage decor for the Des Moines Playhouse and Pyramid Theatre Company’s production of August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson.’ — Courtney Guein/Little Village

The play is steeped in spectral uncertainty, a ghost story as much as a family drama. The implications of the past hover over all of it, even aside from the actual haunting involved. As with all of Wilson’s work, it captures the truth of a slice of Black history that many are unfamiliar with, especially those not descended from enslaved people.

It’s an excellent choice for a collaboration between a theater older than when the play is set, and a company dedicated to capturing Black experiences.

Wilson was writing in a time when any work about a Black experience was often taken by the community as speaking for all Black experiences. But he forces a distinct and personal perspective in all his writing, that perhaps only recently is the U.S. at large becoming ready for.

As the Iowa Legislature debates whether to add civil penalties of $500 to $5,000 to the 2021 law banning the teaching of “divisive concepts” in Iowa public schools, it’s crucial for art to continue exploring these histories, which teachers now need to take caution introducing to students. The timing couldn’t be better for Pyramid and the Playhouse to be raising the profile of stories like these to a wider Iowa audience.

Genevieve Trainor is publisher of Little Village. This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 011.