Theater Review: August Wilson's The Piano Lesson
August Wilson, one of America’s greatest playwrights, is known for his series of ten plays focusing on African American life in and around Pittsburgh.
The Piano Lesson, the fourth play in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”, is set in 1936. It’s the story of a struggle between Berniece, recently widowed, and her brother, Boy Willie. The object of their dispute, and the reason for Boy Willie’s rude intrusion into the home of Berniece and her uncle, Doaker Charles, is an upright piano in the family’s living room.
This family heirloom bears carvings depicting the family’s history. It also carries with it the memories of Sutter, a former slave owner. His ghost visibly haunts the Charles household at the play’s opening and seems to preside over decisions about the piano’s disposition through sale.
Wilson’s play is rich in lively exchanges between characters. Director Anthony J. Hamilton’s cast captures the pitch patterns and intonations of many of these interactions, such as the ones between Boy Willie, played with energy by Delanti Hall, and Doaker, portrayed by Ronald E. Ware.
As head of the Charles family, Ware brings a note of wisdom and rationality to the often heated and whiskey fueled discussions that take place around his dining room table. Participants here include Hall’s fiery character, his amiable side kick, Lymon, played by Xavier T. Bolden, and the frequently tipsy Wining Boy, rendered by Sid Ellis.
Hamilton’s production works best, when its characters look to the future. We’re engaged by Delanti Hall’s argumentative and animated character.
We’re also drawn in by the play’s tender scenes. Dennis Dent, as storefront preacher, Avery, is fueled by his sense of self-importance, as he woos Berniece, played by Khadijah Brown.
Brown shows appropriate reluctance at Avery’s initial advances and his hints of a proposal. Later on, her resolve to resist the opposite sex, begins to crumble, as the good natured Lymon plies her with a small vial of perfume. Brown’s apparent surprise at the emergence of her rediscovered femininity deepens her character in this quiet revelatory moment.
A major challenge of this script, and any of Wilson’s scripts, is the delivery of numerous lengthy speeches scattered throughout.
And it’s the speeches about the past that are the most problematic in this production. While it is important to understand the yokes of yore that bind these characters, including slavery and prison, several performers labor under the weight and sheer volume of Wilson’s words in this two hour and forty-minute production.
Sid Ellis as Wining Boy comes closest to bringing his extended speech to life, as he recounts his role as a former saloon piano player. The key for Ellis is that he makes his past experience relevant to the play’s present and forward-looking action, while seated at the instrument itself.
Other performers are not so fortunate. The failure to utilize the music and rhythms, that Wilson has embedded in these extended passages, some resembling blues lyrics, jazz riffs, or operatic arias, tends to make the long speeches in a long play, seem longer than they really are.
A final challenge for any production of “The Piano Lesson” is rendering the play’s complex and explosive ending with clarity.
Directorial focus of the audience’s attention and better use of lighting were needed to impose visual order on this chaotic final sequence staged in the round in the Parish Theatre. Improvement in these areas would have helped us make sense of the exorcism of slavery from the Charles Family home, and deepen appreciation for the play’s conclusion.
There are moments in Anthony J. Hamilton’s production that do bring the past to life and capture the music inherent in August Wilson’s script. One of these is the vigorous recreation of a prison work song from The Parchman Farm. As Boy Willie, Lymon, Wining Boy and Doaker sing and shout to the table pounding beat of this raucous piece, they seem to be transported back to the labors of a Mississippi penitentiary. At the same time, they revel in the present-day notion that they are no longer shackled by the physical chains of the past, but are bound only by the lingering rhythms of traumatic days gone by. It’s a moment that epitomizes each of the characters in “The Piano Lesson”, and underscores the theme of this Pulitzer Prize winning play.