Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews

The Piano Lesson

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.
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington, Ray Fisher, Danielle Brooks, Jurnee Swan, Nadia Daniel, Trai Byers, Michael Potts, and April Matthis.
Theater: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

John David Washington and Samuel L. Jackson
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
The year is 1936. The place is Pittsburgh's Hill District, where thousands of Black Americans settled during the Great Migration from the South. This locale places us smack dab in the midst of theatrical territory carved out by playwright August Wilson, a world where naturalism and expressionism, religious faith and superstition, present and past co-exist, sometimes in joyful harmony, sometimes in rattling collision. The revival of Wilson's The Piano Lesson, opening tonight at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, incorporates all of these in generous portions. It also marks the Broadway directorial debut of LaTanya Richardson Jackson, a courageous pairing between director and a play that simultaneously juggles so many elements.

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).

Michael Potts
Photo by Julieta Cervantes
It is no exaggeration or even a cliché to say that The Piano Lesson starts off with a bang, with enough noise to waken the dead; as it happens, both of these are true. It is five a.m., and someone is hammering at the door, demanding to be let in. Doaker complies, and in bursts Boy Willie (an intense John David Washington), calling out for his sister Berniece and carrying on like the loud and swaggering man he is. In opening the door to Boy Willie, Doaker has kick-started the plot, one that centers on a treasured and intricately carved piano that holds as much of the family's history as is contained in their collective shared memories. Throughout the play, Boy Willie and Berniece argue and fight as only siblings can. At particular issue is Boy Willie's plan to sell the piano they jointly own and use his share to buy some land back home, land that is currently held by heirs of the white man for whom the family had toiled as slaves.

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.