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Why April Matthis loves playing the outsider in the starry Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson
Halfway through the new Broadway revival of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, a stranger named Grace arrives and changes the energy of this family drama. The part is played by April Matthis, and though she is a celebrated veteran of New York's theatre scene (she's graced the stages at Playwrights Horizons, New York Theatre Workshop, Signature Theatre Company and Roundabout Theatre Company), this is the first time she's been on Broadway. Like her late appearance in the play, this debut was well worth the wait.
As the sole outsider in August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece about siblings clashing over an heirloom piano in 1936 Pittsburgh, Matthis uses the talents that earned her a 2015 Obie Award for Sustained Excellence of Performance and multiple honors for her intensely physical turn as groundbreaking female ballplayer Toni Stone: a perfectly calibrated fusion of humor, compassion, daring and curiosity.
Matthis developed that sense of daring during her Texarkana, Texas childhood, amusing her family members with stories, jokes and playful performances long before she considered pursuing an acting career. But during a class taught by deaf and queer theatre-maker Terry Galloway at the University of Texas at Austin, Matthis had an epiphany. She was assigned to write and perform two monologues, so she crafted a dramatic confession to a murder, and a comedic piece about a naive young woman entering the world of online dating. From then on, she was all in on a life in the theatre.
After working as an actor in Texas, her friend, the future Tony-nominated performer Forrest McClendon, encouraged her to come to New York. He said there was a photo of them acting in Austin's Zachary Scott Theatre's 2000 production of Suzan-Lori Parks' The America Play hanging at New Dramatists in Midtown Manhattan. Clearly, it was a sign.
While visiting McClendon, he introduced her to the playwright Lonnie Carter, who invited Matthis to participate in a reading. The gig only paid $5, but she said yes "because it was me getting to act in New York City." She continued doing readings and soon booked a role in Kirsten Greenidge's Sans-Culottes In The Promised Land, part of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's 28th annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Finally, she earned her Equity card.
From the outset, new plays have been Matthis' métier. So, it makes sense that she's secured most of her work through readings, which she calls "a kind of a low-stakes audition. We're just sitting there, talking out ideas… the words are such a foundation."
Finding inspiration in language makes sense for Matthis, who majored in English at college and initially imagined she would become a writer. Despite describing herself as a shy person, she says being an actor is "galvanizing because you're a part of something," which she prefers to the solitude of writing. But that hasn't stopped her from using her literary skills.
Recently, she cowrote and appeared in the short film Amadi Comes Home, which explores transracial adoption. "I've found that acting helps me write," she says. "The farther I get in my career as an actor, the more writing emerges."
She also cowrote the scintillating final scene of Elevator Repair Service's Baldwin and Buckley at Cambridge, a recreation of the landmark 1965 James Baldwin-William F. Buckley debate that's currently running at The Public Theater. The sequence imagines a post-debate discussion between Baldwin and his best friend, A Raisin in the Sun playwright Lorraine Hansberry. A longtime member of the avant-garde theatre company, Matthis collaborated with fellow Elevator Repair Service stalwart Greig Sargeant on the back-and-forth, which includes Hansberry's incisive call to alleged white allies: "We have to find some way with these dialogues to show and to encourage the white liberal to stop being a liberal and become an American radical."
These projects reflect Matthis' commitment to telling "stories of Black women that are surprising, subversive and singular. I'm not interested in stereotypes, tropes or stock characters. I'm interested in roles I can get lost in, build on and explore. And Grace in The Piano Lesson has been a great mystery to home in on."
When rehearsals for The Piano Lesson began, the director, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, gave Matthis the challenge of figuring out what Grace does for a living, a process that's been difficult but also a fun sort of "choose your own adventure of how to play this person."
Throughout the play, Boy Willie (John David Washington) and his sister Berniece (Tony nominee Danielle Brooks) argue about what to do with the prized piano they've inherited. He wants to sell the instrument so he can buy the land where their ancestors toiled as slaves. She wants to retain this important piece of family history. Their uncle Doaker Charles (Samuel L. Jackson) is caught in the middle. This is the dynamic Grace encounters when Boy Willie brings her to his sister's place for a late-night bout of passion. Berniece kicks them out for causing a ruckus, but Grace returns the next day. In addition to offering an outsider's perspective on the central family, Grace also serves as a critique of how men in the community treat women.
Matthis says that playing Grace has reminded her about the pervasiveness of the patriarchy, and how essential it is that she's learned to "speak up, not apologize or feel guilty about making choices that are better for me."
"Being the kind of woman that Grace is at that time comes at a cost," she continues. "I am aware that, to a certain gaze, she might not be viewed favorably. My work has been to show her in her clearest light—not as a punch line or a plaything, but as a self-possessed woman who knows what she wants. She actively seeks pleasure and is unapologetic and very clear-eyed about that."
Grace stands in sharp contrast to the men in The Piano Lesson, who are allowed to indulge their sexual desires without worrying about reproach.
"Think about the Depression, the trouble that's brewing in Europe and Jim Crow in the South—it's a heavy time to be in the world," Matthis says. "In the social pecking order, an unmarried Black woman, what are her options? What is she looking for?"
Even though it's only a two-scene part, Matthis says making her Broadway debut as Grace is "a manageable-right-size-for-me" and that she's looking forward to the four-month engagement—a much longer run than she's used to Off Broadway.
"I've done shows or tours that I've come back to over the course of a couple of years," she says. "But it's not the same as doing a role consecutively for four months. I'm excited to see how the new repetitive process of living with this character night after night after night after night will sit with me. It adds character to me as a performer and that's really what I'm here for."
An added thrill is that Denzel Washington and Kandi Burruss are producing a film version of the play with the current Broadway cast, so Matthis will be able to put her stamp on the role in perpetuity. She's also already lined up her next stage role: starring in the world premiere of Eboni Booth's Primary Trust at Roundabout Theatre Company next spring.
When asked about her hopes for the future of theatre, Matthis doesn't mince words. "I want it to not be cost prohibitive to the audience or to the performers. I want it to be something that is accessible and a way to make a livable wage." Can she get an amen?
Juan Michael Porter II is the staff writer for TheBody.com and a contributor to TDF Stages, Did They Like It?, SF Chronicle, Christian Science Monitor, American Theatre, them, Into More and SYFY Wire. He is a National Critics Institute and Poynter Power of Diverse Voices Fellow. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: April Matthis.
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