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Black theater icon directing 'The Piano Lesson'

Woodie King Jr. directs Seminole State students and local professional actors in a scene from 'The Piano Lesson.' King will participate in a symposium following the performance on Feb. 5 at the Seminole State's Fine Arts Theatre.  (Photo by Kelly Canova)

Veteran Orlando actor Joe Reed had played Wining Boy in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” many years ago, and he prefers to tackle new projects. But when he heard that black theater icon Woodie King Jr. would be directing the show at Seminole State College of Florida, he knew he had to audition.

Woodie King Jr. (Photo by Kelly Canova)

“Just the fact that Mr. King was going to be there was really a motivating factor for me to dust off this character and try it again,” Reed says. The experience has been “a dream come true.”

“What makes him exceptional is that he actually knew August Wilson,” Reed says. “He brings new information relative to what certain things mean in the play. He knows all the characters. He never sits there and refers to his script. He’ll say, ‘Now, isn’t there a line that says such and such?’ He knows it.”

As the founder and producing director of New Federal Theatre in New York City in 1970, King has worked with some of the world’s best African-American actors, including Morgan Freeman, Denzel Washington and Phylicia Rashad, as well as the late Ossie Davis and his wife, Ruby Dee.

The theater’s mission, as described on its website, is “to integrate minorities and women into the mainstream of American theater by training artists for the profession.” King has fulfilled that mission by providing a forum not only for actors but also for playwrights such as Amiri Baraka, David Henry Hwang and Ntozake Shange.

But don’t credit him with launching careers.

“We were there to provide the opportunity,” says King, 74.

Among the many playwrights he knew best was Wilson, whose “Century Cycle” of 10 plays is being produced at Seminole State College. Each play is set in a different decade; as a whole, they dramatize the experience of African-Americans throughout the 20th century.

“All his plays are really about the migration of blacks from the deep South into the urban North, and making that adjustment at crucial times in American history,” King says. And they’re deeply autobiographical.

“One time I introduced August at the 92nd Street Y in New York City,” King recalls. “He talked about his journey from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis to Connecticut’s Eugene O’Neill Theater Center to Yale University and to Broadway. It was incredible hearing how deeply detailed he was about each step of that journey. He really was able to absorb and write about what he had experienced.”

It’s not that any one character represents Wilson, King says. Rather, “a piece of him is in all of them.”

Discussing his characters with King, Wilson would assume the voices of the characters and quote entire monologues that he had excised from the script.

“He was a good actor,” King says.

Seminole State student Rosney Mauger is thrilled to have the opportunity to work with King.

"During the audition, I was pretty intimidated," says Mauger, 19, of Mount Dora. "But there was no need to be. He's completely relaxed and down-to-earth."

King's one-on-one attention to Mauger has helped him to grow as an actor, the Mount Dora student says. "He has brought out talents I didn't even know I had."

King has directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” once before, in Nashville. He decided to direct Seminole State College’s production after discussions with Rich Harmon, a theater professor at the College.

“For many years Rich and I worked in New York together,” King says. “He was technical director and set designer for six or seven plays we did at the New Federal Theatre.”

King’s goal with “The Piano Lesson” is simple: “To transfer what August had on paper to the stage and do it as truthfully and beautifully as he was able to.”

All of Wilson’s work, and especially “Piano,” “is deeply rooted in blues music and in the work of collage artist Romare Bearden,” King says.

Like Wilson, Bearden used his art to chronicle his experiences in the rural South and the urban North.

“I don’t think any writer of color has ever captured in any substantial way the breadth and depth of what he did with his 10 plays,” King says. Wilson’s ability to mesh the history of black Americans with the history of America, starting in 1900, “made him unique and a major contributor to American culture.”

“The Piano Lesson” opens Friday, Feb. 3, at 7:30 p.m. Subsequent shows on Feb. 4, 9, 10 and 11 begin at 7:30 p.m., and the Sunday matinees on Feb. 5 and 12 begin at 2 p.m.

The Feb. 5 performance will be followed by a seminar focusing on the intersection of language, music and history in “The Piano Lesson.” In addition to King, seminar participants include:

  • Be Boyd, associate professor of theater, University of Central Florida, currently portraying Aunt Ester in UCF’s production of “Gem of the Ocean” at the American College Theater Festival at Daytona State College
  • John DiDonna, theater professor, Valencia College, who is currently directing Valencia’s production of “Raisin in the Sun”
  • Dr. Julia Listengarten, associate professor of theater, University of Central Florida, who is currently directing UCF’s production of “Gem of the Ocean” at the American College Theater Festival at Daytona State College
  • Maurice Terrell, director of instrumental music, Seminole State College, and “The Piano Lesson’s musical coach

You can get a behind-the-scenes look at "The Piano Lesson" on the Arts Program Facebook site.

Along with seven other theater professionals, King will be inducted into the Theater  Hall of Fame in a ceremony on Jan. 30 at the Gershwin Theatre in New York City. For more information, visit the Theater Hall of Fame website.

Seminole State’s renowned theater, art and music programs make it one of the region’s leading venues for the fine arts. For information on cultural events at Seminole State, visit the arts website, or call 407.708.2040.

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