Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Piano Lesson
Olney has chosen to stage The Piano Lesson in its flexible black box space, the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theater Lab. Daniel Ettinger's scenic design allows audience members to peer through the kitchen window in a wall as they enter, and the seats surround the set at a distance of a few feet. Audience members effectively become neighbors observing the human drama of the characters.
In 1936, Boy Willie Charles (Ronald Conner) is a sharecropper on the Mississippi land his ancestors worked as slaves. Now he has an opportunity to buy the land, but he needs money. That is why Boy Willie and his friend Lymon (Jon Hudson Odom), driving a beat-up truck filled with watermelons to sell, arrive at the Pittsburgh home of his sister Berniece (Jessica Frances Dukes) and their uncle Doaker (Jonathan Peck). Boy Willie has his eye on selling Berniece's piano, which has both spiritual and literal significance to their family, but she wants to keep it as a totem of their past. That's the central conflict of the play.
Wilson is telling a larger story than that, though. He weaves in blues singing and field chants as a way of grounding the characters in their shared experiences. He integrates the supporting characters, such as Doaker's brother Wining Boy (Harold Surratt), a one-time musician and high roller looking for a place to rest, and Avery (JaBen Early), a preacher and Berniece's beau. Each character is like one color of fabric in a quilt, sometimes subdued or repressed, sometimes shining like Berniece's young daughter Maretha (a warm, natural performance by Nicole Wildy).
Director Jamil Jude has taken a lot of care with his actors, allowing their characterizations to blossom gradually. While Conner's performance powers the action with the relentlessness of a freight train, he still has hidden layers, and Dukes depicts Berniece as she grows beyond her everyday defensiveness into openness and acceptance. The one somewhat weak link is Peck, who, at the performance I attended, noticeably tripped over some of his lines but kept on going.
The Piano Lesson, which received the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, is part of Wilson's "Century Cycle" of 10 plays, each one examining the African-American experience in a different decade of the 20th centuryan unparalleled achievement in American drama.
Olney Theatre Center