“As an actor you try not to put a label on a character. Like selfish, greedy, or whatever because you can’t play that,” says Mark Christopher Lawrence. “You have to play your intentions. My intention is, ‘I want this piano.’ So, my pursuit as actor is to get the piano.”
The Piano Lesson is one of ten of Wilson’s plays. Together the works are referred to as the Pittsburgh Cycle plays. Each play takes place in a different decade of the 20th century.
Wilson himself is the son of white father and a black mother. Although the themes for his plays center on African American life in the United States, they are universal. “Clearly the pursuit of the American Dream is one of the themes of this play,” says Lawrence.
Today, Wilson’s work as an artist is honored by the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.
As an entertainer Lawrence is best known for his comedic abilities. He frequently performs stand up in comedy clubs in San Diego and Los Angeles and he is also a veteran actor with over 60 screen and television credits. Currently he plays the loveable fan favorite role of Big Mike on Chuck, now in its third season on NBC.
In addition to comedic success, Lawrence is equally gifted as a dramatic actor as proven by his current role of Boy Willie that commands the Cygnet Theater stage in a cast of very strong actors.
On the surface it appears the Boy Willie is selfish because he is determined to sell his family heirloom, the piano, so that he can buy land for himself to farm. His sister Grace, played exceptionally well by Tanya Johnson-Herron, refuses to let Boy Willie sell the piano because their family’s ancestors are engraved on it. Therefore, to her selling the Piano would represent selling of their heritage.
Lawrence avoids turning the boisterous larger-then-life character of Boy Willie into a caricature of a greed-driven man. Instead, Lawrence makes the audience believe that Boy Willie is a simple yet highly driven man that is full of the same human foibles that haunt all of us. Lawrence is successful at doing this because he understands the nuances of what motivates his character.
“I don’t see him as selfish,” says Lawrence. “I see him as a person that is driven to build on his legacy. It appears that he is a selfish guy, until he explains his point of view. ‘I have to build on what my father left me. Since [Grace] is not doing anything with [the piano], it only makes sense that I do.’”
“As an observer, I believe Boy Willie’s greatest asset is that he is driven by what his beliefs are. It also becomes his greatest fault, because he steps on people to get it,” says Lawrence.
For Boy Willie the land that he wants to buy represents his heritage. “What you have to look at is not only what the piano represents, but what the land represents. It is the same land that their family was enslaved on. So, it is not that I want to get some land. I want to get this land,” explains Lawrence.
Like Wilson himself the conflicts in The Piano Lesson are not black or white. They are the seeds for thought-provoking, well-acted, quality drama that should not be missed.
A tip to the viewers, The Piano Lesson runs approximately 3 hours. With that in mind, skip the customary Old Town margarita at dinner so that you can keep your mind alert for the engaging dialogue.
About the Author: Dan McLellan has an MFA in Film from National University and BA in Theater with an emphasis in performance from SDSU. As an actor Dan has performed numerous roles throughout San Diego in both stage and television. Dan is also a variety entertainer most known for being the balloon man for the Worlds Famous Corvette Diner and the promotional Grinch for The Old Globe Theaters. Dan is also a sportswriter for SanDiego.com and hosts his own internet radio show, San Diego Sports a Podcast. Links to his articles and his podcast can be found at http://sandiegosports.typepad.com/. Dan can also be added as a friend at Facebook or followed at Twitter.