The Piano Lesson
Also see Fred's review of This
The playwright sets the scene in urban Pittsburgh in 1936. Berniece (Eisa Davis) lives in the well-worn house with her uncle Doaker (Keith Randolph Smith) and daughter Maretha (Malenky Welsh). Her brother, Boy Willie (LeRoy McClain), and his easygoing friend Lymon (Charlie Hudson, III) drive up from the South. The men have a stolen truck which they have filled with watermelons Boy Willie intends to sell.
A polished upright piano, stationed stage right, has been in the Charles family since the middle of the nineteenth century. Two people in the family (slaves) were sold by the Sutters (who owned them) in exchange for the piano. One Charles family member was told to emboss and carve the faces of the relatives who were sold into the piano's legs. Berniece and Boy Willie's father managed to steal back the instrument which she now owns with Boy Willie; his father was killed by the Sutters.
It is Boy Willie's intent to sell the piano, get the cash, and buy back land in Mississippi where his ancestors were sharecroppers. Bernice, however, is steadfast in her belief that no amount of money can replace the piano. She will not let go of it. Wilson, inspired by Romare Bearden's Piano Lesson painting, invests the piano with the legacy of history. The relative who worked on that piano rubbed his blood into the woodwork. Those who were subjected to slavery symbolize an identity which needs to be honored.
Another uncle, Wining Boy (Charles Weldon), comes upon the scene; he is a man who has moved about, gambled, and played piano in bars. Wining Boy is the man on stage who will make some music which tells something of his own story. Avery (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), a preacher, hopes that Berniece will marry him. Berniece lost her own husband, Crawley, a few years earlier and she blames Boy Willie for that.
Wilson writes profusely and profoundly. His play is also about spirits: Berniece insists she recently saw Sutter's ghost. If she did, it was at the top of a long, dominating staircase, designed by Dede M. Ayite. Otherwise, the set is appropriately drab, including a couch and a kitchen which includes suitable stove and refrigerator of the period.
Boy Willie coaxes Lymon, who would rather pursue women, to help move the piano into the truck. But they can barely budge the object. It is in a late scene with Bernice that Lymon reveals a tender, perceptive side as he speaks of and to both of them through Wilson's words: "I get me a job and a little place and get set up to where I can make a woman comfortable I might get married. Avery's nice. You ought to go ahead and get married. You be a preacher's wife you won't have to work. I hate living by myself ..."
Wilson, who premiered this work at Yale Rep in December, 1987, a performance I attended, leaves us a play depicting African-American life for each decade of the twentieth century. The scripts are layered in complexity and metaphor and they locate reality with the knowing ear and eye of an inspired poet who had a transcendent vision. See a Wilson play and select a perspective: examine the characters or concentrate upon theme or, perhaps, his symbolism.
The current production, especially during its first act, is sometimes quite comic. Wilson grew up in a part of Pittsburgh called the Hill District and he knows the territory. Thus, when people come on stage and interact, the theatergoer feels as if he is eavesdropping upon cultural time and place. The show also boasts original music by Eisa Davis, lyrics by August Wilson and "Berta Berta" music and lyrics, traditional. Jennifer Salim's outfits are excellent. Lighting shifts assist with plot development and designer Alan C. Edwards' contributions are key.
Liesl Tommy, who directed the impressive Eclipsed at Yale last year, pays attention to every detail with her fine cast and crew. The entire acting ensemble is to be complimented. Eisa Davis, as Berniece, deserves special praise. She fully captures the touching pain of a young, attractive widow and mother who desperately holds her ground with both strength and dignity. On opening night Keith Randolph Smith, as Doaker, seemed a bit tentative in the early going but his performance became steadfast as the evening moved on.
August Wilson wrote with resonance and perspicacity as he delineated people and circumstances he knew and/or imagined. His plays are typically epic and this one is not an exception. Wilson speaks from his own heart and soul, and his focus begins with an heirloom. That is a beginning. While he passed away in 2005, we, fortunately, will forever have his courageous and abiding plays.
The Piano Lesson continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through February 19th. For ticket information, call (203) 432-1234 or visit www.yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol