Theater Info for the Washington DC region

Spotlight on Rikki Howie, and The Piano Lesson

By • Feb 22nd, 2008 • Category: Interviews

Listen to Mike interview Richelle “Rikki” Howie [MP3 15:20 7.0MB], director of Tantallon Community Players’ upcoming production of The Piano Lesson, choreographer and actor.

Mike: I’m chatting with Rikki Howie, the director of Tantallon Community Players‘ upcoming production of The Piano Lesson. Thanks for talking with me today.

Rikki: You’re so welcome.

Mike: We actually saw you in one of the very first shows we ever saw when we just started out a few years ago. We said to ourselves “Wow, we need to get to know her better.” That was the Arlington Players, Once Upon a Mattress.

Rikki: Oh my gosh, you saw Once Upon a Mattress.

Mike: That was such a fun show.

Rikki: Yes, I loved doing that one.

Mike: We’ve seen you in so many things since then, I’m glad we’re finally getting getting to talk with you.

Rikki: Good, it’s good to talk with you. I actually enjoy reading a lot of your reviews. Actually, all of your reviews I enjoy.

Mike: There’s so much we can talk about. Let’s start with your upcoming show, The Piano Lesson. What is that show about?

Rikki: It’s written by August Wilson. It’s pretty much how August Wilson depicts African American families and lifestyles back in the 1930s. This was the fourth in his series of ten that he did talking about African American life and depiction and how it goes. But in this particular story, it’s about Doaker, and his niece Berniece, and her brother Boy Willie, and all the characters that intermingle with the three of them, over a piano that is historically been passed down through their ancestors.

It’s really interesting to see how it unfolds with how each one has a different perception of what the piano means to them. Berniece doesn’t want to touch it because it will bring back memories. Boy Willie wants to sell it, in order to get rid of the memories, and also to make a little money for himself. And Doaker really just doesn’t have an opinion. He tries to be the peacemaker, he’s not always good at it. But they all have a different angle to it.

And the the sub-characters that come in to the system through the telling of the story, it’s very fascinating piece of work. And you get to see how everything unfolds and how the ghost of the past actually either shapes your future, or basically creates some instances of unrest in your present, which is the best way to put it.

Mike: I googled the show and found that lots of people are writing lots of papers about this show. Has that been a good thing, or a bad thing?

Rikki: I think it’s a good thing. There are a lot of reasons why people would write papers on it, or even want to do the show. One of the things I found out when I was looking at the history of The Piano Lesson is that there were multiple endings to it. The one that’s actually occurred in our particular play is of course the one that is published, but there were at least three other endings to it. Every time August Wilson put the play up in production somewhere, the audience would give him feedback as to what they liked and what they didn’t like. Because the Piano Lesson was still a work in progress for him, as far as putting it on stage. And it was very interesting to hear the different endings that occurred, whether there was resolution with the family and the piano, whether there was resolution between the actual family members themselves outside of the piano, or whether or not the ghosts were resolved in leaving the piano alone.

So, not to give away what our ending is, but I think it’s interesting that the reason a lot of people are writing about it is because (1) it does tell a piece of African American history in a way that you don’t often get to hear; and (2) it’s a fun way of doing it, a fun way of examining your current history so to speak.

Mike: One of the articles I read talked about there’s a flashback to the story that the piano is telling. Do you actually have to do that too?

Rikki: Yes, that is what we call when we are in rehearsal, the four and a half page monologue. It is the longest thing and Doaker is the one that tells that story. And it goes all the way from slavery time about how his parents were bought and sold, and how the piano was a part of his parents being bought and sold. So it gives you the full history of why certain people in the family have different perspectives about it. And it’s essentially the only time in the play when you actually hear him care about the piano. Outside of that, he’s just the mediator between Berniece and Boy Willie, trying not to have them beat each other up. They’re pretty antagonizing with each other throughout the whole thing.

Mike: Were there any other challenges because this show takes place in the 1930s?

Rikki: Yes, it was a challenge for me, since I don’t have much knowledge of the 1930s. The only challenge I think that we really ran into was the vernacular. One thing that August Wilson does in all of his writings, he’s extremely verbose. And not all of the time in a way that flows naturally for the way we speak today. so trying to direct the actors to say it as August Wilson write it was a challenge, and still is a challenge.

Also, finding some period furnishings, and pretty much how the houses were back then, and some of the clothing aspects. It seems that the further way we get from the 1930s, the harder it is to find anything that pertains to that time period, especially when you are trying to put it on stage.

Mike: Do you actually have a piano?

Rikki: Yes, we do.

Mike: Did you have to carve it up?

Rikki: No, they told us we could. But I really couldn’t, because I have a love of pianos. We did the next best thing. There are masks that I was able to locate, and also pictures of masks, and we did a little decoupage and attached things to the piano so hopefully when the light hits it, it will look realistic. We still have some more work to do before we open on Friday to make sure that comes across.

Mike: Is this your directorial debut?

Rikki: Yes, it is. About a year ago, Tantallon said that they wanted to do The Piano Lesson. I’m on their board, and they said “who can we get to direct it?” And somehow, I opened my mouth and said “Oh sure, I will.” I’m used to choreographing shows, and in my mind I said “oh, it can’t be that much different.” I am now here to tell you it is very different.

Mike: What types of things have you learned?

Rikki: I’ve learned especially with this one, acting is very different from dancing. You can pull out a lot of emotions when you’re dancing and how you move. But when it comes to acting, you actually have to know from a directorial standpoint, where you want people to go, how you want them to emote, and be able to bring that out of them. I literally went into this, not sure if I could do that. I’ve actually surprised myself. I surprised myself in the audition process when people would come in and read from the sides from Piano Lesson. When normally, they would just read them and I would just move on to the next one. I realized then “this is how I want this character to sound,” or “this is the story I want this character to tell.” It hit me then I actually had an opinion about how I wanted this show to turn out, which for me was very shocking, coming out the gate for first time directing.

I’ve also learned that time in itself, no matter how much time you have, you can always use more time to fine tune everything you need to fine tune. We put this show together in five weeks. Normally you can have two and a half months, to three months to put together a straight play. We did it in five weeks, with weather interfering, me doing other shows, and trying our best to get in at least three rehearsals a week. So I am very pleased with the cast.

I was very lucky, I got so much talent on that stage. I look at them every night and I’m almost in tears, because they are that good. I’m very lucky the first time out the gate.

Mike: Very good. Well, hopefully it won’t snow on Friday like it’s supposed to.

Rikki: I know. We keep toying with that. It’s like tonight, I keep getting emails “are we still having rehearsal?” I’m like “yes, it’s tech week, we are.”

Mike: Let’s talk about you a little bit. We talked about how we’ve seen you in several shows, a wide range of shows it seems like, dancing and choreographing. Do you have a preference, of being on stage, or choreography?

Rikki: Actually I think it’s all about equal. I was talking to Ms. Charla, the artistic director of Tantallon, last night and she asked which one I prefer. I said “I love being in the shows, I love choreographing the shows, I think I can probably add directing to that.” It’s just interesting because now I have all these different areas that I can perform in. I’m not going to get bored, I can just switch in and out.

Mike: Do you have a favorite role you’ve played?

Rikki: Oh, goodness gracious. I would have to say, wow. Actually, the favorite role I’ve played is the Narrator, in Joseph. I did that when I was in North Carolina. In the DC area, I would have to say my favorite role was Muzzy, in Thoroughly Modern Millie.

Mike: Yes, that was a great show.

Rikki: Yeah, I loved that role. That was just a nice one. I’ve done so many, but those two, I’ve done more than once, so they lead right up there.

Mike: What is your day job, are you a theater person by trade?

Rikki: No, but I might be moving in that direction. I’m a performance management consultant. Pretty much I work for VerTec Solutions, which assists government entities with looking at their learning capabilities. So, pretty much like a learning management consultant. A computer geek, that’s what I call myself.

Mike: We saw somebody at a show we were at a couple weeks ago, he said he was at Tantallon. He thought we were WATCH judges, because we were making notes about the show, and we said we run He said he was at Tantallon, and he mentioned there were a lot of issues with the crew. Is that something you’d want to talk about, or is that not appropriate?

Rikki: Oh yes, I can talk about it. First of all, Tantallon as wonderful as they are, trying to find a crew to put this show together, was a little difficult. Not from Tantallon’s perspective, but just from the perspective of trying to find all African Americans to be on staff. That was one of the things that, as I was pulling in everyone I knew, when that came down, that everyone must be African American, it kind of posed a bit of a problem.

Mike: Right, sure.

Rikki: That everyone working or backstage had to be African American, which completely threw a wrench in my whole, who am I going to get? Do I know enough African American people to be a stage manager backstage, to do costumes, do props. So the cast, we just came together as a group and pulled it together with people who knew what to do, telling us how to do it. But yeah, that was most likely the strangest thing I have ever heard of. I’m going “are they even allowed to do that nowadays?”

Mike: If it were the other way around, would an author or playwright be able to say “you have to have an all white cast and crew?”

Rikki: I don’t think so. But it was really weird, and they finally relaxed the reins a little bit, and said, “well, that was just the initial intention of how he would like his plays to be produced.” Nowadays you just can’t do it.

Mike: This was written in 1990, right?

Rikki: Yes.

Mike: Well, in 20 years, things have changed a little bit.

Rikki: Yes, but we were able to pull it off. I have a fabulous stage manager, who used to work with me at Toby’s Dinner Theatre. We were both stage performers, she’s never stage managed before, so I said “since I’ve never directed and you’ve never stage managed, why don’t we go into this blindly, and see what we can do?” She is phenomenal. If I ever have to direct another show, Robin has got to come with me, because she is fantastic. She’s kept me sane for the past two months.

Mike: Tell us how people can get tickets, and where the show is being held.

Rikki: People can get tickets by calling 301-203-6070. Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and students. If you have a large group, which we gladly welcome, they’re $10. It’s at Harmony Hall Regional Center, in Fort Washington, Maryland. The address is 10701 Livingston Road. The shows this Friday, February the 22nd. It runs two weekends, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. 8:00 performances on Friday and Saturday, and 2:00 performances on Sunday. I will warn you, it is a long show. No matter how much you try to cut out of August Wilson’s scripts, it still ends up being a three hour show with an intermission. But it’s very entertaining. Sunday the 24th there will be extra cake after the performance, because it’s my birthday.

Mike: Oh, happy birthday!

Rikki: It’s going to be a great show. If people have the opportunity, come out. The cast is all from PG County. I have two people on stage who have never performed on stage before. And they are phenomenal. It’ll be a good show.

Mike: Yes, we’re looking forward to it, hope people come out to see it. Thank you for talking with me, I appreciate it.

Rikki: You’re welcome, thank you.

Tagged as:

This article can be linked to as:

Comments are closed.