Though Ray Fisher and Trai Byers now have famous screen faces, they both cut their teeth in the theatre. Byers last show at Yale School of Drama was August Wilson's The Piano Lesson and Fisher studied Fences at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. The two men have returned to the stage in the current revival of The Piano Lesson. It’s the Broadway debut for each of them.
“It feels like coming home,” says Fisher, who was performing in regional and Off-Broadway theatre, while grinding in New York for many years auditioning and bartending. (One of those bartending gigs was even at the Broadway bar of the Cort Theatre for the 2010 revival of Fences, where he nightly got to peek in on Denzel Washington and Viola Davis speaking Wilson's words.) Fisher rose to fame after landing the superhero role of Victor Stone/Cyborg in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and then later Justice League. “August Wilson seems to be a rite of passage for a lot of Black actors,” he says.
“These are the monologues we trained on,” says Byers, who pursued a television career immediately following his theatre training. He understudied the role of Boy Willie in his final year of school before "hightailing it to Hollywood." His breakthrough role came in 2015 on the Fox series Empire, where he spent six seasons as Andre Lyon, the eldest son in a family-owned entertainment empire (coincidentally, Empire was based on King Lear).
Wilson, who died relatively young at age 60 in 2005, left behind a large body of work, including his 10-play series The Pittsburgh Cycle. Sometimes called The Century Cycle, the plays chronicle the Black experience in America, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th century. Two of the plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson, were awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
The Piano Lesson tells the story of siblings Berniece and Boy Willie, and their fight to keep or sell a family heirloom—a piano carved by their great-grandfather with the likenesses of their great-grandmother and grandfather, all enslaved people. The piano, once owned by their family’s enslaver (a man called Sutter), is a connection to their past for Berniece. By contrast, for Boy Willie, it’s the hope of a legitimate future—he wants to sell the piano to buy Sutter’s land to farm. Tony nominee Danielle Brooks and John David Washington, also in his Broadway debut, lead the starry cast as Berniece and Boy Willie—along with Samuel L. Jackson as their Uncle Doaker. LaTanya Richardson Jackson directs, the first Black woman to helm a Wilson work on a Broadway stage.
Fisher and Byers have supporting roles in the masterwork, each rich with their own fully told arcs. “It’s a fabric that’s finely stitched with so many different pieces,” says Byers. “[Wilson’s] got an eye for detail with every single character that makes a world that you not only are interested in, but also recognize.”
Fisher plays Lyman, Boy Willie’s friend who travels with him from their home in the South to Pittsburgh. The play is set in 1936, in the middle of a period known as the Great Migration, which found six million Black Americans relocating from the rural South to urban areas of the North and Midwest in search of a better life. Fisher describes Lyman as the emotional opposition to Boy Willie.
“Lyman represents this idea of wanting to just get away from a lot of the trauma, a lot of the issues. Whereas Boy Willie really wants to stay and fight and change it because his family lived there, died there, bled there,” says Fisher. “He’s optimistic and excited about the world in front of him.”
Byers plays Avery, a preacher enamored with the widowed Berniece. He sees Avery as an optimist, too. Avery sees the ghosts that haunts Berniece and Boy Willie’s home and encourages the siblings to confront their past and exorcise their family demons. He’s “had eyes for Berniece for a very long time” and dreams of becoming a preacher, but things aren't necessarily working out as quickly as he wants them. "He has an anointing, but the time is not yet appointed," says Byers. "Ultimately, you know he'll get there."
Although written 35 years ago and set almost 100 years ago, the play’s themes—of family, history, legacy—resonate strongly today. "The Piano Lesson is about who gets to control the history, who gets to control the narrative,” says Fisher. “Boy Willie’s father was killed trying to reclaim that history. I think we’re still facing that now today, in America and around the world, when it comes to Critical Race Theory. And when it comes to the different narratives young people have been told in school.”
Working on the play has led both men to reflect on their own family histories. For Fisher, it was an exploration of his genealogy—he dove into ancestry.com, researching his family trees. For Byers, his faith came into play. “As a professing Christian, it’s interesting playing Avery in a manner of where there’s a little bit of a pull [between] Christianity and what would maybe be a traditional African belief in the idea of ancestor worship,” says Byers. “My overarching question for the play is: what do you believe? And how will you act upon what you believe?”
It’s hard to ignore the key word in the play’s title: lesson. Fisher’s Lymon learns a lesson about family. Byers’ Avery learns to not be so hasty in his choices to achieve his dreams.
For these actors, though, the greatest lesson is in making peace with a past. “It’s important for people to remember that this is a ghost story,” says Fisher. “Until you confront history, until you confront that trauma, until you confront all those things that you haven’t spoken about, it will linger. It will haunt you.”