Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

The Piano Lesson
Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe
Review by William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of 13


Earley Dean, Noelle Strong,
and Michael Mendez

Photo by Don Daly Photo
January/February is drama time at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, and for the third time in five seasons, they turn to August Wilson—this time one of his most celebrated plays of the Century Cycle, The Piano Lesson. It won one of Wilson's two Pulitzer Prizes; Fences, currently a motion picture starring Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, was the other. WBTT is planning to produce the entire cycle, although I am not sure over what period they are planning this.

The Piano Lesson is one of the strongest plays in The Century Cycle, at least until the denouement which comes to suddenly. The story revolves around two siblings: Boy Willie, still living down South, and his sister Berniece, now a resident of Pittsburgh. Boy Willie has his eye on selling a family heirloom piano and using the money to buy farm land back home. Berniece most definitely does not want to part with this important part of their family's heritage. Two of their uncles and assorted other characters help flesh the piece out, making it about far more than a simple family squabble. During this tapestry of black life in the post-Depression 1930s, we learn about the stark differences between life back home in the South and the more urban life as blacks migrated in large numbers to the North.

The Piano Lesson provides meaty roles and opportunities for great acting. Earley Dean as Boy Willie shows huge talent as an actor, a side of him I have not been exposed to before this (a few years ago he strut the same stage in the musical version of Purlie, so his musical talents have never been in doubt). The character is in high gear, partly because he sees something wonderful in his future, just a little out of his grasp but obtainable. Mr. Dean captures the rhythms of the character, speaking a mile a minute, racing to keep up with his dreams. Michael Mendez, another company stalwart, as Boy Willie's sidekick Lymon, also gives one of his finest performances. He is a fine singer, an excellent dancer, almost always a star in the musical productions. Who knew he had so much potential as an actor? Noelle Strong makes a company debut as Berniece. Based on her biography, I suspect she is 10 years or so younger than the 35-year-old character. Ms. Strong is completely believable, and her take on the character is multi-faceted, corresponding to the many emotions Berniece is trying to deal with, trying to just keep her life on some sort of track.

In last season's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom Kenny Dozier, Patric Robinson, and Henri Watkins played the older, more seasoned members of the band, hired to accompany the title character at a recording studio, and they were magnificent, the chemistry between them palpable. All three return, giving equally fine performances: Watkins as Boy Willie and Berniece's Uncle Dozier, Patric Robinson as his gambler brother Wining Boy, and Dozier as Avery, wannabe suitor to Berniece. Emerald Rose Sullivan has a small, really thankless role as Grace. Jireh Pierre, daughter of company favorite Neyce Pierre, plays Berniece's daughter Maretha and, oh my word, adorable doesn't begin to do justice to this young lady. This is one of the things I most love about WBTT, it's a family affair.

Director Chuck Smith is Chicago's Goodman Theatre's Resident Director and also a resident director at WBTT. It is yet another testament to Artistic Director Nate Jacobs that he can attract such great artists to his company. When you see a stage full of great acting, there is a great director involved. The scenic design by John C. Reynolds is well nigh perfect, the room is tidy, a little threadbare and lived in. The heirloom piano, almost a central cast member itself, looks exactly like the one used at American Stage four years ago. I wonder if each company rents this prop. Costumes by Cristy Owen are authentic for the period, but for this production they are not a major element. Lighting design by Michael Pasquini is effective until the forced ending, and the problem is not in the lighting. Company regulars Annette Breazeale, property master; James E. Dodge, II, production manager; and Juanita Munford, production stage manager, do their always superlative jobs. Daniel Granke gets a credit as fight director.

Every time I return to The Piano Lesson, I am awed by the brilliance of August Wilson's writing. One of my greatest dreams is to see all 10 plays within a reasonable time frame, perhaps one or two theatrical seasons, to experience the cumulative power as they draw from each other. I nominate Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Chuck Smith to tackle this, based on this very fine production.

I congratulate WBTT at the same time I offer Sarasota audiences my extreme sympathies, as WBTT's next production Girl Groups has posted sold out notices for the entire run, March 1 through April 9. The same thing happened last year for the production of The Sam Cooke Story, a combination of high season in Florida and the appeal of musical productions conceived by Nate Jacobs.

The Piano Lesson, presented by Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, through February 19, 2017, at 1646 Nate Jacobs Way, Sarasota, Florida, 941-366-1505. For more information, visit westcoastblacktheatre.org.

Cast (in order of appearance):
Boy Willie: Earley Dean*
Doaker: Henri Watkins
Lymon: Michael Mendez*
Berniece: Noelle Strong
Maretha: Jireh Pierre
Avery: Kenny Dozier
Wining Boy: Patric Robinson
Grace: Emerald Rose Sullivan*
*=Member of Actors' Equity Association

Directed by Chuck Smith^
Scenic Design: John C. Reynolds
Costume Design: Cristy Owen
Lighting Design: Michael Pasquini
Fight director: Daniel Granke
Property Master: Annette Breazeale
Production Manager: James E. Dodge, II
Production Stage Manager: Juanita Munford*
^=Member of Stage Directors and Choreographers Union


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