Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 13, 2022
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt. Costume design by Toni-Leslie James. Lighting design by Japhy Weideman . Sound design by Scott Lehrer. Hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan. Projection design by Jeff Sugg. Music and music direction by Alvin Hough, Jr. Choreography by Otis Sallid. Associate director Evan Coles. Vocal coach Kate Wilson. Fight director Thomas Schall.
At its best, which is to say through the entire first act, The Piano Lesson presents us with a grand and glorious domestic drama, in which we have the privilege of spending time with family and friends who weave in and out of the household of Doaker Charles. The stalwart anchor of the play, Doaker is being portrayed here by Samuel L. Jackson, the husband of the director and who, 35 years ago, originated the role of the same character's nephew and the play's protagonist, Boy Willie.
Doaker is the de facto keeper of the family's history, including its not-too-distant past when many were enslaved. He has known and seen a lot in his lifetime, but now he is content to welcome one and all into the home that he already shares with his niece Berniece (Danielle Brooks), three years a widow, and Berniece's 11-year-old daughter Maretha (Jurnee Swan at the performance I attended).
As the narrative unfolds, however, it must compete with the many characters who show up, engage in rich conversations and shared stories, tease one another, and even break out into song. Boy Willie has brought along his friend Lymon (Ray Fisher), who intends to stay up North when Boy Willie returns home. There's also Avery (Trai Byers), a preacher who is trying to establish himself and who wants very much to marry Berniece. But the one who grabs and holds our attention the most is Wining Boy (Michael Potts), Doaker's elder brother, who comes around whenever he is in need of money. Wining Boy is both utterly charming and a real conniver, and the role generally is a feast for anyone who has ever tackled it. Here it fits Michael Potts like a glove, and he plays it to the hilt. The only other (living) character who shows up is Grace (April Matthis), whom Boy Willie and Lymon meet at a bar.
There is so much going on in the first act, and the characters and the conversations are so interesting, that you likely will be thoroughly engaged. It's like the first hour or so of a family Thanksgiving get-together. And there's the rub. Because, just like Thanksgiving, the guests grow less charming and more annoying, especially in the second act. Wining Boy is drunk and annoying. The quarreling between Berniece and Boy Willie is repetitive and annoying. Avery's preacherly advice is annoying. It's going to take something big to defuse the tension, especially when a gun shows up. And so, right on cue, something big does happen, and all of the play's realistic and supernatural elements smash into one another to bring about a resolution.
The Piano Lesson won a Pulitzer Prize for August Wilson, his second to do so, after Fences. It is a scrumptious drama by any measure, and this excellent cast does it honor. But there are some tedious, melodramatic stretches in the second act and an ending that might well serve one of Jordan Peele's horror films or Misha Green's HBO series "Lovecraft Country." I do wonder if a more experienced director of Wilson's plays (Ruben Santiago-Hudson comes to mind) might have done a better job of getting us through the bloated parts. Nevertheless, there are tremendous riches to be found throughout, thanks to memorable characters and solid performances all around.