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'The Piano Lesson' brings back Black Rep players

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 9, 2013 - Twenty years ago, a play marked the first performance by a St. Louis theater company in its new home. It was about a black family’s struggle to honor the past while still looking ahead to the future.

This month, the same play will be performed on the same stage, with many of the same people who’ve stood on that stage in the years since. And as with the family in the play, Ron Himes, founder and producing director is looking back at what The Black Rep has achieved, and he’s looking ahead, too.

"The Piano Lesson," the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winner for drama by August Wilson, tells the story of a black family struggling between cherishing the past and moving into the future. A treasured family piano holds the family’s history, but could have monetary value, too: Money made from its sale could buy land where the family’s ancestors once worked as slaves.

"We’re coming full circle," said Himes, who founded the theater 36 years ago. "The Piano Lesson" was first performed by The Black Rep in 1992, the first performance in its then-new home, the Grandel Theatre.

That’s true, both in having performed all 10 of August Wilson’s plays in the "Century Cycle," depicting the lives of African Americans throughout the 20th century, and in the actors who will take the stage this time around.

Actor Ron Conner performs the role of Boy Willie, and while he’s performed that role several times and won awards for that performance, Conner began his career at The Black Rep with its professional internship program.

Other former interns, workshop and class members make up the rest of the cast, including Sharisa Whatley in the role of Bernice, Robert Davis as Avery, Candice Jeanine as Grace, Chauncy Thomas as Lymon, Ethan Jones as Wining Boy, and Carli Officer as Marthea. In that first production 20 years ago, Bob Mitchell was assistant stage manager. This time around, he’s in the role of Doaker. Lorna Littleway is directing.

Himes sees maturation and growth in the actors who’ve worked in so many roles with The Black Rep over the years, and The Black Rep has done what he hoped it would, helping develop the next generation of black actors.

Over time, the company has performed plays by black playwrights, as well as classics, including Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams, from a black perspective.

"But we’ve also done 14 world premieres of African-American writers," he said.

And what’s happened outside the theater is important to Himes, too.

Grand Center is a different place than it was 20 years ago, and Himes thinks The Black Rep has had a role in that.

 

"We continue to build undoubtedly the most diverse audiences in the St. Louis theater community," he said.

And those people are coming to Grand Center.

"I think it’s possibly one of the biggest accomplishments of the last 20 years," he says.

Looking forward, Himes would like to see more black organizations and institutions in Grand Center. And he thinks, sometime in the next few years, it may be time for The Black Rep to find a new facility. 

Twenty years ago, the Grandel felt like home, he says. Now, it’s become more multi-use, and doesn’t feel that way anymore.

"We would like a second stage, we would like an educational facility; we could use a facility that allows us to expand educational programming," he said. 

If support and funding were available, Himes would like to offer year-round training the way they do with their intensive summer workshop. 

And he doesn’t have to look back 20 years to see The Black Rep’s impact on stage. The youngest actor in "The Piano Lesson," Carli Officer is 12, and she's already a product of their classes.

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