Modesto's new black theater company, Sankofa Theatre, sure knows how to make an entrance. The group's first production, of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson" at the Gallo Center for the Arts, is a soaring achievement that shows this is a company to be taken seriously.
The wonderful eight-member cast received a standing ovation on opening night Friday at the 444-seat Foster Theater. It's too bad the last perfor- mance is today Super Bowl Sunday. If you're not a football fan, be sure to buy tickets to this show.
Sankofa was founded by black cast members who appeared in Prospect Theater Project's smash-hit production of "To Kill a Mockingbird" in 2011. They enjoyed working together so much, they wanted to continue and they wanted to provide more opportunities for black talent in town. They asked Jim Johnson, the white director of "Mockingbird," to direct their first show, and he happily agreed.
"The Piano Lesson" is a great choice for a debut production because it's highly entertaining, combining a ghost story with family drama, comedy and the blues. It's part of Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, consisting of one play for each decade of the 20th-century set, and it won Wilson one of his two Pulitzer Prizes. His other Pulitzer Prize winner, "Fences," which also is part of the cycle, coincidentally will be performed Feb. 8 through March 17 by Stage 3 Theatre in Sonora.
Set in the 1930s, "The Piano Lesson" centers on a battle over an antique piano decorated with carvings of family ancestors in a Pittsburgh home. Berniece wants to keep it in the family, but her brother Boy Willie wants to sell it so he can get money to buy the Mississippi land the family's ancestors once worked as slaves.
Adding to the tension is the fact the piano is no ordinary musical instrument. Some family members believe it's haunted by the ghosts of the slaves. There's reason to believe the ghosts of the slave-owning family may be lurking about, too.
The cast members seem to genuinely enjoy working with each other and performing their parts. They have so much fun with their roles, it's impossible to not have fun watching them.
John Ervin III pulls out all the stops as the charismatic Boy Willie, filling the stage with his big personality. When he's not making forceful arguments about why the piano should be sold, he cracks jokes, leads his family in singing the blues or dances wildly about the stage.
Cheryll Knox is stubborn and prickly as Berniece (she alternates in the role with Elizabeth Garmon). She is every bit as committed to her position as her brother is, and she is not about to back down.
Dwight Dean Mahabir is a calming presence as the siblings' Uncle Doaker, who owns the home where Berniece, her daughter and the piano reside. Offering comic relief are Gregory S. Savage as Doaker's free-spirited gambler brother Wining Boy and Adam Torrian as Boy Willie's skirt-chasing sidekick Lymon. A highlight of the show is when all three plus Ervin sing a soulful blues song a cappella together.
Samuel John Mellor provides some old-fashioned Pentecostal religion as the preacher Avery. Garmon is feisty as Grace, who flirts with both Boy Willie and Lymon (Knox alternates in the role). Keiauna Ervin is sweet as Berniece's daughter Maretha (she alternates in the role with Samara Garmon).
Johnson keeps the action moving smoothly and adeptly uses sound effects and smoke to show the ghostly presence in the house. Jack Souza, Prospect Theater Project's artistic director, has created a stunning set that includes a vintage kitchen, tall staircase and lovely antique furniture. Costumer Jill Mochizuki outfits the cast in attractive retro hats and suits.
Hopefully we won't have to wait long before Sankofa Theatre stages another show. Modesto needs more of what these talented artists have to offer.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2313. Follow her on Twitter, @MilleganRenner.
'The Piano Lesson''
RATING: * * * *
WHERE: Foster Theater, Gallo Center for the Arts, 1000 I St., Modesto
WHEN: 2 p.m. today
RUNNING TIME: 2 hours 10 minutes, including an intermission
INFORMATION: (209) 338-2100 or www.galloarts.org
* * * * Excellent; * * * Good; * * Fair; * Poor