Empowering narratives: ‘The Piano Lesson’ unites community with South Bend Civic Theatre performance

Author: Colleen Wilcox

Sarai Hill, 12-year-old South Bend student, plays Maretha in "The Piano Lesson"
Sarai Hill, 12-year-old South Bend student, plays Maretha in "The Piano Lesson"

Sarai Hill, a 12-year-old South Bend student, is a triple threat. She was excited to take her singing, dancing and acting skills to the local stage, auditioning for a role in an upcoming performance at the South Bend Civic Theatre.

As Sarai finished her audition, the director turned to her mother, Redgina Hill, vice president for inclusion and equity at Saint Mary’s College, and asked if she would pick up a script and read a few lines. Caught off guard, Hill reluctantly agreed, despite lacking any prior acting experience. The next morning, she was approached with an offer she hadn’t anticipated — the lead role of Berniece in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Piano Lesson.”

“Everything in me said no, but there was a small voice that told me to walk through that door,” Hill said.

Hill joins a select group of nine cast members hand-picked for the performance, scheduled to run March 15-24 at the South Bend Civic Theatre. Berniece, Hill’s character, engages in a heated dispute with her brother, Boy Willie, over the family heirloom — an intricately carved piano bearing a painful history of the Charles family’s legacy of slavery, struggle and sacrifice.

“This powerful narrative, delivered by an all-Black cast, delves into authentic family dynamics, and everyone in the audience will identify with the characters,” Hill said.

“There is a part of me that identifies with Berniece — she is my mother, my grandmother, my aunt. We have all been shaped by a Berniece, so this character and her focus on family legacy really resonates with me.”

Drawing more parallels to her personal life, Hill portrays a single mother to Maretha, an 11-year-old girl played by her own daughter, Sarai.

A commitment to August Wilson

The family's heirloom is an intricately carved piano bearing a painful history of the Charles family’s legacy
The family's heirloom is an intricately carved piano bearing a painful history of the Charles family’s legacy

“The Piano Lesson” is just one chapter in the South Bend Civic Theatre’s ambitious odyssey through August Wilson’s plays. In 2019, the theater committed to staging all 10 of Wilson’s timeless plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. The century cycle began with “Gem of the Ocean,” set in the 1900s, where the audience was transported to the times of post-slavery America. “The Piano Lesson” is the fourth installment, set in Pittsburgh in the 1930s during the Great Depression.

With each production, the South Bend Civic Theatre hopes to become a beacon of diversity and inclusivity, attracting a wide range of audiences across the community.

“The audience gains a deeper understanding of the African American experience and its impact on American history,” said Aaron Nichols, executive director of the South Bend Civic Theatre. “We are building momentum each year through storytelling, and that commitment is part of our mission to enrich the community.”

In line with this mission, Nichols recruits directors capable of authentically bringing these stories to life. For “The Piano Lesson,” he wanted a Black director who could dive into the historical context of the story and spark meaningful conversations. In the past, he would bring in directors from Chicago. But this time, he reached out to Natalie Davis Miller, a Notre Dame employee in Internal Communications who had experience as an assistant director and actor.

“I was instantly drawn to this story and what it means for Black theater,” Miller said. “Once the lights go up, you will be invited into the home and see what Black family life was like in 1936.”

Miller emphasized the depth of the characters and the powerful dialogues they lead around the themes of history, family and the search for identity. Miller hosted auditions, but she prioritized community members willing to embrace roles regardless of acting experience, such as Redgina Hill. She recruited individuals from several local organizations, including the University of Notre Dame. University staff members involved with the play include Jonathan Bailey and Max Gaston from the Law School, Jessica Sieff from the Office of Public Affairs and Communications, and Tiana Mudzimurema from the Robinson Community Learning Center.

“There’s something special about this cast and how they all embody their characters so perfectly,” Miller said. “They sharpen each other every day, getting more comfortable on stage. It’s truly magical to see this all come together.”

Natalie Davis Miller, a Notre Dame employee, directs her first performance at the SBCT
Natalie Davis Miller, managing editor of NDWorks, directs her first performance at the SBCT

Community connection

In order to make these stories more accessible to community members, the South Bend Civic Theatre opened its doors for a “pay what you can” night on Thursday, March 14. These preview nights are now available for all South Bend Civic Theatre performances.

“We want to eliminate any financial hurdles for community members interested in experiencing these important stories,” Nichols said. “For our cast, this preview night provides extra encouragement as they are greeted with friendly faces during their final run-through.”

A special pre-show lecture will be hosted on Sunday, March 24, with local leaders sharing their knowledge on African American history. This event is free to ticket holders, but seating is limited.

In addition, the cast will take the show on the road. A special performance for students at Riley High School is scheduled for Tuesday, March 26. Prior to the performance, teachers will incorporate special lesson plans into their curriculum, teaching students about Wilson’s legacy and diving deeper into the decades reflected in the performances.

“The Piano Lesson” runs through March 24 at the South Bend Civic Theatre. Tickets are available for purchase online.

Photography by University photographer Barbara Johnston