New seats, new box office, new photos, new concession stand - these are the news at Central Piedmont Community College's Pease Auditorium, which has stood in the shadow of Halton Theater and finally gotten a makeover.
But the newest thing about Pease just now is 23 years old. It's the Pulitzer Prize-winning "The Piano Lesson," which opens tonight as part of CPCC's Sensoria, a multidisciplinary arts festival.
This is CPCC's first crack at August Wilson, the most important African-American playwright. It's only the second local production of any Wilson play this decade, after Actor's Theatre of Charlotte's 2008 "Gem of the Ocean."
The show may not be news to playgoers, who asked for it in a CPCC audience poll. But that was news to Tom Hollis.
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"Each season has an American Classics slot," says the chairman of CPCC's drama department. "It can be Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, maybe 'The Miracle Worker.'
"Neil Simon's 'Barefoot in the Park' got the most votes; we'll do it in the lighter summer season. But 'Piano Lesson' popped into the top 10."
Wilson wrote 10 dramas, each set in a different decade of the last century, about his native Pittsburgh. "Lesson" may be the most accessible of those, along with "Fences."
Southern sharecropper Boy Willie comes north during the Depression to sell his family's piano, hoping to buy land. But his sister, Berniece, refuses to give it to him: The piano has the carved faces of their great-grandfather's wife and son, who were sold into slavery in exchange for it. (A chance encounter unearthed the piano Theatre Charlotte used in its 1998 version of the play, which reappears here.)
In a literal sense, all CPCC productions are educational: Actors have to enroll in a drama course to perform in the show. Yet 'Lesson' may provide younger actors with a different kind of education.
"I did a lot of table work with them, talking about the Great Migration (from the rural South to the urban North), storefront preachers, the (Harlem) Renaissance," says director Corlis Hayes. "Wilson was my dissertation topic, so I knew the historical elements behind his work."
The show's home will be a spruced-up, stripped-down venue that has lost 82 seats (down from 482 to 400) but gained wider chairs, deeper legroom, broader aisles and better handicapped access.
The orchestra pit is gone - a small matter, as CPCC's musicals go around the block to Halton - but the 13-row theater is now more intimate.
That's good for playgoers, though it puts more pressure on Hollis and company to sell tickets. Though the college subsidizes his drama programs, Hollis says he has to raise about 85 percent of his expenses through ticket sales or gifts. Alas, the winter-spring budget cannot be lumped in with the popular summer plays, which cost CPCC more to produce but run longer in a larger venue.
Luckily, he's coming off a successful "Bye Bye Birdie," and "Lesson" has its fans: The final performance has so few seats left that CPCC will sell those only through its Halton box office. (Other tickets are there and online.) Hayes is also reaching out to local African-American groups, such as the Mint Museum of Art's Romare Bearden Society.
Whatever the cash flow turns out to be, "Lesson" will broaden CPCC's dramatic range and help fulfill its mission of reflecting the community it serves, where black faces are seldom seen onstage.
"When you do Wilson, black audiences think, 'That's my cousin. That's my aunt,'" says Hayes. "They identify with these characters, and I'm hoping to bring some of that audience in for the first time."