In prepping for this feature story, the understudy cast for the current revival of The Piano Lesson gathered on the staircase to the mezzanine of the Barrymore Theatre for a "family" portrait session. Playbill photographer Heather Gershonowitz held her camera in one hand as she used the other to direct the cast: someone to move in here, someone go a step up. As she did, the standing camera flash behind her began to fire. She turned, "What is happening?" She resumed setting up her shot. The flash continued to sporadically go off. "I'm not touching anything," she exclaimed. "What is going on?!"
"It's a ghost!" someone exclaimed. Then in near unison, the cast on the steps spookily intoned, "Sutter," before breaking out in giggles.
Sutter is, of course, the ghost that haunts the Charles family in August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson, which ends its record-breaking run at the Barrymore on January 29. The marquis boasted some big names—Tony winner Danielle Brooks, film megastar and honorary Oscar recipient Samuel L. Jackson, and NFL player-turned-actor John David Washington in his Broadway debut. LaTanya Richardson Jackson makes history as the first Black woman to direct a Wilson work on Broadway. The Pulitzer-winning play and it's starry cast have made the show a top-earner this season.
But as we've learned in this past year, it's often the understudy that keeps the show running.
With COVID-19 still at the door and threats of cancelling performances, if too many actors take ill at once, it can spell disaster for a show. The theatre industry has come to rely on its understudy brigade in ways that it has not in the past. And in this "Year of the Understudy," those skilled artists are getting some long-overdue recognition for the difficult job they do.
Playbill sat down with the understudy company of The Piano Lesson for some insight on how they do that job and what their experience with the show has been. Despite the difficulties of performing during a pandemic and of understudying multiple roles, one thing was clear: They have indeed become a family. One that not even Sutter's ghost could break apart.
Meet the Understudies
Understudy Roles: Berniece
Backstage Must-Have: "My script!!"
A newer member of the company, Coleman just joined the production for its two week-extension, replacing original understudy Shirine Babb. Fun fact: this revival reunites Coleman with Samuel L. Jackson. She replaced Lisa Gay Hamilton as Grace in the original 1990 Broadway production of the play, for which Jackson was the Boy Willie/Lymon understudy.
Peter Jay Fernandez
Understudy Roles: Doaker Charles
Backstage Must-Have: Doaker's Glasses (gotta stay in character)
Fernandez made his Broadway debut in 1992's Jelly's Last Jam and his resume is dotted with appearances on Broadway, Off-Broadway, in regional theatre, and in film and television. He is also an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Columbia's School of the Arts.
Understudy Roles: Grace, Berniece
Backstage Must Have: A nap pillow...and a bottle of whiskey.
Following her Northwestern University graduation, Martin began her professional theatrical career in Chicago before coming to New York. She recently appeared Off-Broadway in The Confederates at Signature Theatre and is making her Broadway debut with The Piano Lesson.
Understudy Roles: Boy Willie, Avery
Backstage Must-Have: Peace!
Miller made his Broadway debut just prior to the pandemic in A Soldier's Play. He was on stage every night as Corporal Ellis, while also understudying the role of Private First Class Melvin Peterson.
Doron JéPaul Mitchell
Understudy Roles: Lymon, Wining Boy
Backstage Must-Have: A bowl of oatmeal and his Bible (don't make him choose!)
The Piano Lesson is Mitchell's second Broadway credit, having made his debut in the 2018 production of To Kill a Mockingbird. He appeared in the ensemble and understudied the lead role of Tom Robinson.
Understudy Roles: Wining Boy, Doaker Charles
Backstage Must-Have: The New York Times
The Piano Lesson marks Sullivan's Broadway debut, but the veteran actor has had a full career Off-Broadway (with several shows at New Federal Theatre) and in regional theatre. He has performed in all 10 of Wilson's Century Cycle plays. This is his fifth production of The Piano Lesson.
Playbill: Let's start with the big question: How do you do it? How do you approach the job of an understudy.
Kim Sullivan (KS): This is my fifth production of The Piano Lesson. So, I like to think that these roles are in my head somewhere. I did have difficulty getting Doaker's business down. He does a lot of stuff: He cooks, he pours drinks, he handles a pistol. He has to sing in concert with the other guys. And then I got sick while I was rehearsing it. So my rehearsal of Doaker got cut terribly short. I never really got a handle on it, to tell you the truth, because I got the COVID. During that time that I was recovering, I was told that I would be going on for Wining Boy, so I spent all my time concentrating on Wining Boy. Although we tried to revisit Doaker, it never really took off. So I got spared. Peter is justifiably the first understudy and the first guy who should go on. And he went on, thank the Lord, because I wasn't ready.
Peter Jay Fernandez (PJF): Yeah, but the other side of that is, as an understudy, none of that means anything. If they call you and say, "Look you're on tonight," you can't say, "Well, I'm not ready." You have to do the job. That's one of the reasons that makes it so hard. It's like, you have to stay in shape without going to the gym. You get to rehearse once in a while, but you don't get to rehearse with the people that are actually doing the performance. Regardless of where you are in your head or your mind, if they say it's your time, you have to get out there and do it.
Doron JéPaul Mitchell (DJM): I feel that the "second cover" concept is a direct result of COVID. I'm understudying Lymon, probably one of the younger characters in the show, and then Wining Boy, one of the older characters in the show, and it became a running joke throughout the entire production that I am the second cover for Wining Boy. The reality is, that's just because of the circumstances of the world we're in. I think musical theatre covers understand this; they navigate this all the time. But in the world of a play, this is a newer notion of having two things in your head at once, and be able to be at the theatre and present, while you're also simultaneously just trying to stay healthy yourself. I think it was definitely something that has forced the understudy role into not just being a talented actor, but also being a flexible Game Manager of yourself and your time.
Rosalyn Coleman (RC): Usually, I come home after the show and I do the whole play again with my husband. Or once I did it with Shirine [Babb], in the dressing room. We did the entire play, she helped me. So you just have to do it. I need repetition. Like Kim, I've done the play several times before, so that helps.
Warner Miller (WM): This has been one of the most challenging productions that I've been in. This is actually the first play that I've been in as a father of two, and this is also the first time I've been cast as an understudy. I came into this knowing to a certain degree what I was coming into, but was very ignorant of what I didn't have in order to complete this task, like sleep. Normally with a play, you go to rehearsal, and we didn't have that luxury for the most part. Rehearsing is how I memorize lines. So that being taken away was difficult.
I couldn't rehearse at home, because I have a toddler and a newborn that wants my attention. The role that I was understudying, Boy Willie, which is just a telephone book worth of text, was really, really tough. It was really, really tough. I was very thankful for the cast, because they were very encouraging. But then the other monkey wrench that was kind of thrown in is that second cover. Because of my ignorance, I really didn't think that I would ever be called on to do my second cover [the character of Avery]. Because Trai [Byers] takes care of himself. Then right before Christmas, the stage managers said, "OK, you're gonna go up on Saturday," [as Avery] and this is on a Thursday. I really hadn't rehearsed a lot of that second cover, and that was my own fault. But you know what? It's what the job calls for and I won't complain about that. But it was tough.
KS: And you came through like gangbusters.
WM: Appreciate that. That was an unexpected challenge. That made what I now appreciate to be an already difficult job as an understudy even more difficult. But again, the members of the first cast were very helpful and affirming. And my brothers and sisters in the understudy cast were very, very affirming. We got through it, but understudying ain't for the weak of heart, man.
Playbill: How much notice did you all have before going on? What was the shortest amount of time you had to prep?
KS: I had a good 10 days, so I was leisurely. And I was thankful to Sam and the other actors who went through a mild rehearsal with me. They didn't have to do that. They gave up their own free time—they weren't paid for it—to come help me. And that's courageous and brave and generous and thoughtful. And I loved them for that.
Sharina Martin (SM): I think the biggest surprise was when Charles, who was an understudy previously, had to go on mid show. Trai was having some vocal issues and they swapped out. Our stage manager, the amazing Beverly Jenkins, came on the mic at intermission and announced, "For Act 2, Avery will be played by Charles Browning." I don't think any of us expected that, like a mid-show replacement? That's a musical theatre thing.
PJF: It was pretty seamless, though. Because Charles had been on before in that part. He didn't lose his mind. He hyperventilated a little bit, but then got into his costume and went out and did his job, which was great.
I would add to all of that: At my age, my memory is, I won't say it's not sharp, but it is not as pointed as it once was. I was lucky in that I had plenty of notice that I was going to be doing this. But it also puts pressure on you, because I'm the last understudy to go on. And if you've had time to prepare, if you make a mistake, you can't point a finger at anybody but yourself. I do what Ros does; I run the play in my head at least twice a day to keep the lines there.
DJM: I found out day of. I woke up and had a text message from Ray [Fisher] letting me know that he wasn't feeling well. Then at 2:55, I got a text from Bev saying, "You're going on tonight at 7." And so yeah, that was probably the shortest for myself.
Ray told me he's really glad that he could call out in those moments. I think sometimes when you're in a cast, there's also unspoken pressures around making it as long as you can, especially on Broadway. "Can you make it the whole run without missing a show?" It's sometimes to the detriment of your own health. Going back to the "year of the understudy," and that kind of being in congruence with COVID, and our own personal well-being—I think it's really cool that we have been able to be a part of a cast that understood the value of health, first and foremost. We're getting paid to tell stories and inspire people and there's no way to inspire people if you're sick.
Playbill: What is the rehearsal process for the understudy? Are you in the room from the start?
SM: One of the beauties of this new age that we're now in is that people are expecting understudies to go on. So, they incorporate us earlier. From what I understand, before the pandemic, understudies often came in during tech. But here, we were welcomed into the room from day one, which was wonderful to get to know the entire team and really feel integrated into the cast. We were involved in a way that was really gorgeous, to see how these characters and performances are being built.
RC: When I came, I was really lucky because LaTanya came and worked with me. That was just exceptional, to have the director come in and work with you and get you on the right page early on.
DJM: We were all invited into the room from the table read. LaTanya was very smart in doing that, and it bore true fruit, because there was a seamless, effortless transition. She would always say that we're not just understudies. That's not the way we approach the role. We're all in the role when we get the role. So, for her to be able to come into rehearsals when we were understudy rehearsing, for her to give us notes and thoughts and opinions—it showed the emphasis of, "Don't think of this as I'm just here to fill in for this person," choose to think of this as, "I am the character." When you're an actor, and you're given that level of respect, no matter what your title is on the Playbill, you are able to tell the story with the fullest gravitas. And I think the audience benefits from it, as well.
What's been the most rewarding part of this experience for you?
KS: LaTanya made us a company. We pray before we go on. We are unified, and everyone's an equal. Sam has been a sweetheart and everyone has been even-keeled and loving and giving. We feel like a company—it's like we're at summer camp.
But I also never knew just how much goes on in front of house. I spent a lot of time watching the play from the audience's perspective, and I've never seen such goings-on with the audience. The fights with the phones, the late comers. Our ushers need hazard pay. There is almost as much drama in the audience as there is on stage!
PJF: It has to be family. Sam and LaTanya have been friends of mine for more than four decades. We all started in the business together. Understudying is too high pressure. I gave it up many years ago. But when they called and said, "We want you to cover Sam," well, you can't say no to family. But I also knew that, given their nature, they were only going to assemble family. And that's exactly what they've done. Michael Potts, he's family to me. I've known Rosalyn since she was a very young child. Kim, I've known for 40 years. All of these people, now they're family.
DJM: I will echo that sentiment. One of the biggest takeaways for me is just how quickly blessings and community can be built out of intentionality. I was talking to Sam about this—he and LaTanya have become like second parents to me. Peter Jay has always been a father figure in my life. In March, I was living out of a car in L.A., living a nomadic life, just chillin', when I got a text message from LaTanya. So I'm only here because my second mom hit me up. I've been able to meet such incredible people, now family, who I will be taking with me in my life.
SM: I'm most grateful for the education that I've gotten. This play in and of itself is a masterpiece. This production has been like a masterclass, walking into this room and being with centuries' worth of wisdom and practice and talent that has been forged. Peter Jay is somebody who has existed in my mind as this amazing teacher and mentor and guide and actor for my entire career in New York. And I get to see him every day and tell him bad jokes! I'm so grateful to just have the day-to-day, to just watch and listen and see these people build incredible performances. Some of my favorite moments in the show are Sam sitting silently and listening. Those grace notes are just brilliant. I'm just grateful for everything that I've learned, every second that I've gotten to spend with this group of people and this piece.
RC: This is definitely the warmest company I have ever come into. I've been on Broadway a bunch of times. I've done this play a bunch of times. There's never been a company like this that I've known. That is definitely the highlight: the people and the warmth and the respect.
WM: I'll continue the love fest. If you get cast in a production or a film, or whatever it is, you rightly believe that you've been cast to do a job. But I realized, I got cast in this play— not to just do the play, but also to meet these people. They have been blessings to me. Like I said, this thing has been on particularly challenging for me. But I definitely needed them, on a personal level, as well as artistic. The thing that I take away the most are the friendship and support that I've gotten from each and every person here. As a secondary, there is a feeling of accomplishment. I truly feel that if I could do this, I could do anything.
Please enjoy the photo of The Piano Lesson understudy company below, with ghosts.