The Piano Lesson – Can History Be Exorcised?

August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning play is perhaps his most dense and demanding. In the right hands – like this production – rewards are many.

Pittsburgh 1936. The Charles house (fractured even in structural representation by Beowulf Boritt’s wonderful set) is home to three people, a hostile spirit, and a haunted piano. Doaker Charles (Samuel L. Jackson, who played Boy Willie  in the original production), an ex-railroad man, is calm, settled in his ways, sometimes passive. Widowed niece Berniece (Danielle Brooks) and her daughter Maretha (Nadia Daniel) share his home.

Ray Fisher (Lymon), Trai Byers (Avery), Samuel L. Jackson (Doaker)

The widow is being courted by evangelical reverend in training Avery (Trai Byers), a good man who unfortunately lights no fire in her breast. Berniece is in no rush to move on. She has a sense of her own worth and unresolved questions about the way her husband died. The past is omnipresent.

Berniece’s reprobate brother Boy Willie (John David Washington) and his friend Lymon (Ray Fisher) burst in at 5 a.m. Willie is loud, never still, a born troublemaker and con man. Lymon, sweet, rather slow, needed to leave Mississippi due to “a misunderstandin’ with the sheriff.”

John David Washington (Boy Willie)

The two have driven from down south with a truck of watermelons to sell. Asked by one customer whether they’re sweet, Boy Willie replies, “Lady, where we grow these watermelons, we put sugar in the ground.” That revenue, saved earnings, and half the proceeds from the sale of his family’s hand-carved heirloom piano, are earmarked (by Willie) to buy 100 acres from the estate of a recently deceased descendant. With visions of being a grand landowner, he wants to farm.

The piano depicts the Charles family history. Acquired by a man named Sutter, it was exchanged for two ancestors then slaves. Years later, Willie Boy and Berniece’s father is killed for stealing it. Berniece grew up playing for her mother. Though Maretha is learning, the instrument is otherwise rarely touched. Nonetheless, it makes music. Sutter himself has also been seen by most of the family, frightening only the 11 year-old. Kudos to projection designer Jeff Sugg, lighting designer, Japhy Weideman, and sound designer, Scott Lehrer for ghostly light, a piano with distinct personality, apparition, and really spooky house noises. (Actual manifestation rather than implication may offend purists.)

Samuel L. Jackson (Doaker), Ray Fisher (Lymon)

The widow is adamant about not selling their heritage of suffering (the instrument). Boy Willie ignores her (and the spirits) moving irrepressibly forward with his plan. He tries to convince Maretha she’d prefer guitar. There are threats and even guns, but the determining factor comes from elsewhere.

Also present are Doaker’s exuberantly manipulative brother, Wining Boy (the terrific Michael Potts who could sell you a swamp), and tonight, Sharina Martin as Grace, first Boy Willie, then Lymon’s bar pick-up (nice job).

August Wilson once again features irreparable history, disenfranchisement, strong women, and momentum for a somewhat changed future. Characters and relationships are rich, dialogue dense. Fifteen minutes or more could be cut with success. Still, the production is engrossing and enjoyable; its foreboding, tension, warmth and comedy like a well seasoned salad. Performances and direction are outstanding.

Michael Potts (Wining Boy)

John David Washington’s Boy Willie is a firecracker of determination and dreams…whatever it takes. The actor moves with earnest fervor and imbues every phrase with conviction. An auspicious Broadway debut.

Ray Fisher’s complete focus and halting timing makes Lymon’s naivete both credible and sympathetic. The audience literally moans when he’s taken advantage of and roots for the character during moments of unexpected romantic connection which are sensitively portrayed by Fisher.

As Berniece, Danielle Brooks gives us a fully rounded character, capable and stubborn, yet girlish in the face of chemical attraction. Her Berniece is the family foundation.

Trai Byers’ Avery delivers several marvelous as-if-from-the-pulpit speeches with fiery zeal, if perhaps less personal passion. His otherwise straight arrow representation fits as if bespoke.

Danielle Brooks (Berniece)

Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson fills the stage with captivating, character oriented business: Boy Willie’s dance-like enthusiasm, the affectionate who-knows-you-better relationship of Doaker and Wining Boy, Wining Boy’s barker-like pitch to Lymon – and its deftly revealed results, a delicate dance of possibility that occurs between Lymon and Berniece, the widow fixing her daughter’s hair at a kitchen table…There are, however, too many speeches delivered to the audience. While the reverend might think he’s addressing his flock, Boy Willie’s second act monologues often take us out of the action when he turns away from the situation.

Besides Beowulf Boritt’s inspired house frame including a view of the second floor, furniture looks just right, and oh, that piano! Toni-Leslie James’ costumes reflect date, economy and pride.

Spirituals (chosen/arranged by Alvin Hough Jr.) are beautifully performed by the men with harmony and infectious stomping and then Berniece who tunefully wails like her heart depends on it. (Voice coach – Kate Wilson)

Photos by Julieta Cervantes
Opening – Left: Danielle Brooks, Right: John David Washington

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson

Ethel Barrymore Theatre 
243 West 47th Street

About Alix Cohen (1395 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of ten New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, TheaterLife, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.