Set in 1938, August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson" centers on a black family involved in a fight over a precious family heirloom.
At issue is an ornately carved antique piano. A brother wants to sell it to buy land in Mississippi that the family once worked as slaves, but his sister wants to hold onto it as an important part of the family history.
The play will be performed Feb. 1-3 at the Gallo Center for the Arts by the new Sankofa Theatre Company in its debut production. The black Modesto theater group was founded by actors involved in the Prospect Theater Company's smash-hit 2011 staging of "To Kill a Mockingbird" at the Gallo Center.
"It's a family play," said John Ervin III, who stars as Boy Willie. "It's a play that any family from any ethnic background can relate to."
The play is directed by Jim Johnson, the white director who staged "Mockingbird." He said the play is appealing to audiences because it includes lighter moments to balance out the heavier material.
"It's a funny play," he said. "There are moments in there that are laugh-out-loud funny. I think it's one of August Wilson's best plays."
Another interesting detail is that the play contains references to the supernatural. The women in the play believe that the carvings on the piano can come to life and that the ghosts of ancestors are present.
The play won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 (his first was in 1987 for "Fences"). "The Piano Lesson" was performed on CBS in 1995 as a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie starring Charles S. Dutton and Alfre Woodard.
The show is recommended for junior high school students and up. Johnson said the N-word is used a couple of times when a character tells a story about the slave-era history of the piano, but there is no other profanity or other offensive content.
The Gallo Center production has a very strong cast, featuring a mix of experienced actors and novices, plus a beautiful set, Johnson added.
Audience members can expect to hear a lot of blues music, sung by the cast members as transitions between scenes.
The play is a great inaugural production for the new Sankofa Theatre Company because the "Sankofa" bird symbol in Africa stands for looking back at history while moving forward, which is an important theme of the play.
"August Wilson leaves it to the audience to determine who's in the right here is it the brother who wants to assert his manhood and buy land, or is it the sister right who wants to hold onto the family heritage?" Johnson said.
WHAT: Sankofa Theatre Company's "The Piano Lesson"
WHERE: 8 p.m. Feb. 1-2 and 2 p.m. Feb. 3
WHEN: Foster Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
CALL: (209) 338-2100