‘The Piano Lesson ‘ - a trem - AmNews Curtain Raiser


Monday, October 17, 2022

‘The Piano Lesson ‘ - a trem

Samuel L. Jackson in "The Piano Lesson"

The Piano Lesson - a tremendous re-staging of a classic by August Wilson - directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson.

Stand by because the ghosts that make an appearance in the Broadway revival of August Wilsons Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson” will shake your soul. It shook mine.

Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson The Piano Lesson” is the fourth chapter in Wilsons interlocking 10-play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle” and in creating these distinctive works Wilson tracks the African American experience across each decade of the 20th century.  

The Piano Lesson” is set in 1936 where the Charles family is etching out a living during the Depression. Doaker Charles (Samuel L. Jackson, who is married to the director), is the 

patriarch of the family and the owner of the home. Charles is a family man, strong and stable who is sharing his home with his niece, Berniece (Danielle Brooks), and her young daughter, Maretha (alternate performances by Jurnee Swan and Nadia Daniel).

Doaker did the hard work and when we meet him, hes a pensioned railroad cook who sprinkles life lessons with things he learned working in his treasured profession when you hear him say— “Now, Ill tell you something about the railroad” — you know the gems falling from his mouth are real. 

Berniece is the sturdiest of women, working as a domestic for a white family that seems to value her and it seems the Apple didnt fall from the tree with her daughter, Maretha an easygoing, breezy child who doesn't have to be nagged to do her homework. 

Then a whirlwind of energy arrives at their house, Bernieces brother, Boy Willie ( John David Washington, the son of Denzel Washington), makes a surprise visit from back home in Sunflower, a small town with a truck packed with watermelons hes focused on selling. We learn that the truck is ailing and belongs to his cousin Lymon (an innocent soul, played to perfection by Ray Fisher). The question of who does or does not own the truck is peppered into the conversation a few times. So, from the start, we question the integrity and the very words that come out of Boy Willies fast-talking mouth. 

Boy Willie is utterly unique. A man with a mission who makes it clear that the money he hopes to earn in selling all those watermelons is to put money toward the purchase of a plot of land owned by a white man named Sutter, who has conveniently” fallen down his own well, and died. 

Berniece is quick to look at Boy Willie with a hard, side glance but he vigorously denies having murdered Sutter choosing to push the rumors that the ghost claimed another victim as other property owners have also been mysteriously falling down wells lately, and dying too.

Money is all that Boy Willie seems to need to buy the land and hes got it in his head that he must sell his share of the family heritage which is their mothers hand-carved piano — a stunner, carved with the faces of their ancestors — which he jointly owns with his sister.  All he sees is the money from selling the piano despite everyone telling him: Berniece aint going to sell that piano.”

Theres no battle like those waged between this brother and this sister over that” piano and thats the center of the plot. 

But in fact, the piano is a sign of deeper, bigger issues some of which is the value of owning property and striving to get above those restrictions” and limitations thrust upon African American people. 

There are many questions that are raised in this classic play but the most pressing and the one that holds the story together is 

whether Berniece has the fight to keep the hand-carved piano with its stunning portraits of so many generations of human heritage firmly in her house. Or, will the sheer will and strength of 

Boy Willie and his land-owning aspirations win out?

Boy Willies rants are persuasive. The other characters that shape this saga is a brand new preacher named Avery (Trai Byers) who is courting Berniece. And Doakers gambler brother, Wining Boy (Michael Potts) arrives from Kansas City to demonstrate what a real hustler looks and sounds like; I mean the man is smooth. To wit, he sells a silk” suit to the very gullible Lymon and a pair of shoes that are clearly too small for his big feet. Hes a self-proclaimed rambler who can play the piano and pounds out a few 

Kansas City jazz songs. 

Wilson knows how to bring to life the characters that most folks of color know intimately. We all have a Boy Willie in our family and siblings fighting over property is nothing new to our communities. And seeing the ghost of our beloved and living in haunted houses, yup, folks got that one lock too.

But what makes Sutters ghost unique is that hes a white man, not a member of the family. And hes been seen by a few members of the family. In fact, fighting Sutters ghost is what Boy Willie had to do all along. Did he kill Sutter, did he not kill Sutter … make no mistake … he found his ghost-like battle in any case.  

The production team is perfection in motion. Designers Beowulf Boritt (set), Japhy Weideman (lighting) and Scott Lehrer (sound) time travel the audience back to 1936, and Wilsons language is the perfect blending of lyricism with a down-home flavor that settles into your memory and your heart. 

Broadway revival of August Wilsons Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson” directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson got it right. 

The Piano Lesson” directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson now playing at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.  Running time: Two hours, 45 minutes. 

Starring Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks, John David Washington, Trai Byers, April Matthis, Jurnee Swan, Nadia Daniel, Ray Fisher, Michael Potts, Shirine Babb, Charles Browning, Peter Jay Fernandez, Sharina Martin, Warner J. Miller, Doron JéPaul Mitchell, and Kim Sullivan.

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