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University of Iowa News Release


Feb. 22, 2008

University Theatres present August Wilson's 'The Piano Lesson' March 6-15

The University Theatres Mainstage will present "The Piano Lesson," the 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning play by August Wilson (photo, left), directed by University of Iowa Department of Theatre Arts faculty member Tisch Jones, March 6-15 in E.C. Mabie Theatre of the UI Theatre Building. Performances will be at 8 p.m. March 6-8 and 12-15, and at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 9.

The cast features well-known Iowa City blues guitarist and singer Kevin Burt, who learned to play the piano under Jones' tutelage, specifically to perform the role of Wining Boy. The brother-sister lead roles are played by a married couple, Makeba and Ethan Henry.

Set in the 1930s, "The Piano Lesson" pits aspirations against tradition, dreams against memories, and one part of a family against another. Boy Willie arrives at the home of his sister, Berneice, dreaming of buying the Mississippi land where their ancestors toiled as slaves.

And he hopes to raise capital for that purchase by selling a family heirloom, the piano that both recalls their slave legacy and is a testament to their perseverance and survival.

Critic Frank Rich wrote, "Like all Wilson protagonists, both the brother and sister must take a journey, at times a supernatural one, to the past if they are to seize the future. They cannot be reconciled with each other until they have had a reconciliation with the identity that is etched in their family tree, as in the piano, with blood."

"The Piano Lesson" was named Best Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle and won both the Drama Desk Award and Wilson's Pulitzer Prize.

Jones hopes audiences will be "changed, mandated . . . provoked," and invites them to witness "our American history . . . the history of Black folks," or in the words of W.E.B. DuBois, "a theatre that is by us, for us, about us and near us."

Wilson, who grew up in a Pittsburgh slum, bolted to the forefront of American drama in 1984 with "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," which was voted Play of the Year by the New York Drama Critics' Circle after premiering at Yale University.

Continuing his connection with the Yale School of Drama and its director, Lloyd Richards, Wilson set out to write a 10-play cycle, tracing the African-American history of the 20th century through each decade, focusing dramatically on what he perceived to be the biggest issue facing African-Americans in each period. His second play, "Fences," set in the 1950s, captured his first Pulitzer Prize.

Wilson wrote, "I wanted to place this culture onstage in all its richness and fullness and to demonstrate its ability to sustain us in all areas of human life and endeavor and through profound moments of our history in which the larger society has thought less of us than we have thought of ourselves."

Wilson completed his 10-play cycle in 2005, just months before his death. Wilson's other awards include the New York Drama Critics Circle Award (1985, 1987, 1988), the Whiting Foundation Award (1986), the American Theatre Critics Award (1986, 1989, 1991), the Outer Circle Award (1987), the Drama Desk Award (1987), the John Gassner Award (1987), the Tony Award (1987), the Helen Hayer Award (1988) and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (1987, 1990).

His obituary in the New York Times stated that Wilson's work "will stand as a landmark in the history of black culture, of American literature and of Broadway theater.

"Wilson depicted the struggles of black Americans with uncommon lyrical richness, theatrical density and emotional heft, in plays that gave vivid voices to people on the frayed margins of life: cabdrivers and maids, garbagemen and side men and petty criminals. In bringing to the popular American stage the gritty specifics of the lives of his poor, trouble-plagued and sometimes powerfully embittered black characters, Mr. Wilson also described universal truths about the struggle for dignity, love, security and happiness in the face of often overwhelming obstacles.

"In dialogue that married the complexity of jazz to the emotional power of the blues, he also argued eloquently for the importance of black Americans' honoring the pain and passion in their history, not burying it to smooth the road to assimilation."

The full article, which includes both history and analysis, is available online at

Artistic contributors to "The Piano Lesson" include Ellen Erickson, costume design; Ralph Hall, fight choreography; Anton Jones, sound design; William Moser, scenic design; Courtney Schmitz, lighting design; and Connie Winston, dramaturgy.

Tickets for "The Piano Lesson" are $17; UI student and youth $8; senior citizen $12. Tickets are available in advance from the Hancher Auditorium box office. Any remaining tickets for each performance will be available one hour before curtain time at the Theatre Building box office.

Tickets may also be purchased as part of a Division of Performance Arts subscription package. The events are detailed in a Division of Performing Arts brochure that has been sent to area music, theater and dance patrons. Copies of the brochure, which includes complete ticket information and an order form, are available at the Hancher Auditorium Box Office, in the UI Theatre Building and from the division's marketing office at 319-335-3213,

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered at

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail at

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail, go to, click the link "Join or leave the list (or change settings)" and follow the instructions.


STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACTS: Tisch Jones, Department of Theatre Arts,, 319-335-2700; Winston Barclay, Arts Center Relations, 319-384-0073 (office) 319-430-1013 (cell),