Making his Broadway debut in August Wilson’s The Piano Lessonis a homecoming for Trai Byers. Wilson has been integral to Byers’ studies, especially while training at Yale School of Drama, where he was an understudy for a production of The Piano Lesson. The Tony-nominated play has its own roots at Yale, which was the site for its world premiere in 1987, three years before it debuted on Broadway. That production’s cast included Oscar honoree Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie, who now returns to the Pulitzer Prize-winning play as Doaker Charles. LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who is married to Jackson, makes her Broadway debut as director of the first Broadway revival, which opens October 13 at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.
The Piano Lesson follows the Charles family as they decide the fate of a family heirloom. Set in 1930s Pittsburgh, it is the fourth play in Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle (also referred to as the Century Cycle), a collection of ten plays, with each play set in a different decade.
Broadway Direct sat down with Byers, who plays Avery, to get the inside scoop on the highly anticipated revival.
What was your familiarity with August Wilson before this production of The Piano Lesson?
I was very familiar with August Wilson on a scene-by-scene basis. As a Black actor, we get a lot of scenes from August while we’re training [in school]—Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson—his stories are stories we can really understand and can sink our teeth into. I understudied the role of Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson during my final year at Yale, right before I graduated. It was the only August Wilson play in its entirety that I’ve done, so this is kind of like a homecoming for me. It’s a dream come true.
After studying his work so intimately, is there one that resonates with you the most?
The Piano Lesson is great. I loved understudying Boy Willie. The “born into a time of fire” monologue is one of my favorites of all of the speeches in the Century Cycle. I actually really love King Hedley [II]. I just love the fiery characters who seem so opposite of me. All of the characters are great, they all say something that resonates, but I love King Hedley and I love Boy Willie.
What has it been like to return to theatre after building a career as an onscreen actor?
I’ve always had an eye on TV and film. It was ingrained in me because I grew up in a house where we were watching movies and TV, but I trained in theatre. During my first year at Yale, I understudied an all-Black production of Death of a Salesman, starring Charles Dutton, who was the original Boy Willie [in The Piano Lesson] on Broadway. Knowing the history of Yale and August Wilson, I remember feeling like, ‘Wow, the ghosts of great actors are here.’ Now being here with Sam, I feel very blessed, and I’m so grateful to God. It feels very on purpose and very on time. I’m happy I can lend whatever I have to this magnificent masterpiece.
Are there actors who you feel like have gifted you artistic heirlooms as a Black male actor?
You want me to name drop?!
I’ve met some great people along the way. Great teachers, great friends. When I came out of Yale, one of the people that poured into me immediately was Courtney B. Vance. He was a solid rock for me as I headed into the industry. Terrence Howard and Forest Whitaker would both take me to the side and have conversations with me. David Oyelowo. Wendell Pierce and I did Selma together. He was very generous, very kind, and very open about his thoughts about being a Black actor and honoring the material. These men are mentors, they’re friends, they’re teachers, they’re brothers.
As we move on, as we get a little bit older and hopefully a little bit wiser, hopefully we can pass on what we know to the next generation of actors, like they all did for us, so we have something that continues on like an heirloom. We all continue to build onto it so that maybe today it’s a little house, but tomorrow it’s a kingdom.
I imagine y’all had a good time together in the rehearsal room. What has the process been like?
We got down to business. August Wilson is not easy. We’re still in the process with previews. There’s a lot of spirit. There’s a lot of soul. So much love. Brotherhood. Sisterhood. I can’t even begin to explain the love, the taking care of one another, the prayer. There’s a lot of Broadway debuts—mine included. Speaking for myself, it’s been a long time since I’ve been in a room where I feel God in the room and the feel the love of God on all of these people. I’m just happy to see the light shining on them as we grow together. We all support what everyone else needs in order to move in a straight line to our destination. It’s fun, and it’s also serious. It’s honorable, and there’s also responsibility. It’s everything that it needs to be.
On screen, you’re well-known for your role as Andre Lyon in Empire. How do you think the Lyon family and the Charles family would get along?
There is musicality within both families. I think the Lyons would probably want to sell the piano in order to get what they need, so they’d probably be on Boy Willie’s side. It might be a rough road, but at the end of the day, they’re both about love. They’re both about family. I think that either they would love each other or they would eat each other because they’re so passionate. There’s so much passion and that’s beautiful. I always find myself in passionate pieces. It’s a lovely thing to be a part of.
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