Time travel to 1936 by means of an empty space

By Annie Sadovsky Koepf

The Piano Lesson cast (the Charles Family) Jace, Will Smith III, Richard “Chomps” Thompson, Neaja Thomas, PJ Peavy

“Thompson commands the stage from the moment he enters … Peavy, as his sister, is a worthy opponent. The tension between the two of them is palpable every time they are together.”

A black box, an empty space, becomes whatever a director and production crew can imagine it to be. At Pima Community College, the black box theater becomes a home in 1936 Pittsburgh. Even before you enter the theater, you hear the haunting sounds of jazz that were integral to that time period. You are transported to that time and place. The Piano Lesson, which won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for best play, is getting ready to begin. It is the fourth play in The Pittsburg Cycle by August Wilson. He was once quoted as saying that this play is about “acquiring one’s self-worth by denying one’s past.”

The opening scene introduces Boy Willie, played by Richard “Chomps” Thompson, as he comes from the south with a truckload of watermelons and a dream of selling them. Additionally, he wants to return south to purchase land that he would work as a landowner, as opposed to a sharecropper.  A key to this dream is selling a piano, a family heirloom, that his sister Bernice, played by PJ Peavy, is adamant about keeping in the family.  The play features the major theme of legacy and its importance to all of us.  In addition, Wilson adds a dose of the supernatural to influence the characters’ decisions. 

The director, Chanel Bragg, and assistant director, Gianbari Debora Deebom, have truly worked to create an ensemble that is entirely believable as life long friends as well as family.  The inside jokes and teasing and tension that occurs in such relationships is palpably evident. Also, the collaboration between Arizona Theatre Company and Pima to create workplace and college partnerships is a perfect example for how these types of organizational relationships can work for the mutual benefit for all involved. 

The highlights of the acting of this ensemble are Thompson and Peavy.  Thompson commands the stage from the moment he enters.  His verbal delivery of the lines, using dialect from the time period, is pitch-perfect. Additionally, he is very gifted in using his physicality to totally own every scene. Peavy, as his sister, is a worthy opponent. The tension between the two of them is palpable every time they are together. She easily and flawlessly evokes and transmits the range of emotions that her character feels around the complicated family dynamics. I must mention Maretha, played by Neaja Thomas. She went from being a computer wife in the recent Sponge Bob production to an 11-year-old in this show very believably.  The standing ovation at the end of the performance that I attended was well-deserved for them, as well as the entire cast and crew. Kudos to all involved.

The set, lighting, and costume design are also well worthy of such accolades. All of these added to being transported back in time to the post-depression era. I was especially taken by the special effects used to give credence to the element of the supernatural.  I know that ATC was instrumental in many pieces of the set. No detail was overlooked, even to the piano’s embellishments.

As a current student in Theatre Arts at Pima, I must commend the college for producing a show which gives students the opportunities to practice their craft in real time. As a former educator myself, I know the benefits that such opportunities provide. With that in mind, any issues with the performance are likely due to that fact that many of the actors are having an early – or even their first – opportunity at a performance. Acknowledging that, they all did extremely well given those circumstances.

Andrea Pratt Anderson, the production manager, shared that she would like to do an August Wilson play each year. I commend Pima for giving future students continued opportunities to see artists of color as vibrant members of the theater community.  August Wilson said he wanted to give the white community a look at the black community in America. I think given the times, seeing communities both like an unlike your own continues to be as important as ever.

If you can grab a ticket for the upcoming performance this weekend please do. I think this show would be most appropriate for high school students as well as adults. The show runs through April 3; Thursday – Saturday shows are at 7 p.m., and Sunday shows are at 1 p.m. Visit https://pima.edu/community/the-arts/theatre-arts/pima-presents.html for more information or to purchase tickets. 

*Taming of the Review would like it to be known that Richard “Chomps” Thompson is a memeber of our writing collective.


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