THE PIANO LESSON by August Wilson, directed by Alison Sealy-Smith, with Yanna McIntosh, Michael Anthony Rawlins, Ardon Bess, Walter Borden, D. Garnet Harding, Roy Lewis, Jajube Mandiela and Kim Roberts. Presented by Obsidian at the du Maurier Theatre Centre (231 Queen's Quay West). Previews tonight (Thursday, February 6), opens Friday (February 7) and runs to March 2, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm and Wednesday-Thursday noon (starting February 12). $30-$40, preview and weekday matinees $19.50, stu/srs discount. 416-973-4000. Rating: NNNNN
We're lucky actor Yanna mcintosh chose the spotlight -- audiences almost lost her to the classroom.Just after university, McIntosh was debating whether to continue her stage work or become a teacher.
"I love kids' openness. Even if 90 per cent of a school-age audience is focused on raging hormones, there's always a handful who've never seen a play before. It's a revolutionary act for me as a black actor just to be up there on the stage, a challenging of the status quo.
""If she's there,' they might think, "why not me? Why not? Why not?'"
McIntosh has a way of boring into a character with laser-like intensity. I noticed that immediately when I saw her as a riveting Medea nearly 15 years ago in her first post-school show.
Her latest project is The Piano Lesson, American playwright August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winner about a brother and sister in 1936 Pittsburgh and the piano -- carved with ancestral figures by their enslaved grandfather -- they fight over.
It's the second production by Obsidian Theatre, which premiered spectacularly last year with Djanet Sears's The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God.
McIntosh plays the widow Berniece, whose brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell the piano so he can buy a plot of land formerly worked by his family and make something of himself. Berniece, though she's not sure why, doesn't want the piano to leave the family.
"She's a woman who holds on," says McIntosh, taking a break from eating her lunch, putting her head in her hands to concentrate. "She's held on not only to her grief but also to her rage about how her husband died."
Wilson's play is deceptively simple on the surface, but it's loaded with emotional depth charges. Its characters include the siblings' two uncles -- one a thoughtful railroad cook and the other a drinking womanizer who shows up when he runs out of money -- and a ghost who gives added resonance to the work's title.
"Berniece spends the whole play in dread of that piano, knowing what it's cost her family. But she still wants to hang onto it, recognizing its value and knowing that if she, rather than the men, controls it she's somehow protecting her family."
Last season the two-time Dora winner went straight from portraying a woman reconnecting with a former lover in David Hare's intense Skylight to the exuberant Penelope, a young princess-in-training whose wealthy divorced parents compete for her affection by each giving her a cellphone, in David Craig's Danny, King Of The Basement.
"I modelled Penelope on my then 11-year-old neighbour," McIntosh laughs uproariously. "It's fun to play someone who believes she's the centre of the universe.
"I found similar qualities in Petruchio when I played him in High Park. I'd never performed a guy in Shakespeare before; it was amazing to see how much space he could take up and not apologize for it."
A founding member of Obsidian, she accepts the importance of both non-traditional casting and a community's staging its own culture and history as two givens in a vibrant theatre environment. But it's getting to the next generation that's on her mind now.
"What I notice in the rehearsal hall is the young black theatre artists, people I've never seen en masse before. This is the reason Obsidian must exist, so that another generation of artists can have a home to start their work, cutting their teeth on a production that's meaningful to them.
"There's where the future starts, and it's what I'm committed to."