January 20, 2016

August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” Digs Deep Into the Past, Features Powerful Lessons on Family, History, Perseverance

Photograph © T. Charles Erickson

HUMOR AND HUMANITY: (L to R) Lymon (David Pegram), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks), Doaker (John Earl Jelks), and Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) share stories and memories of the past in McCarter Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre through February 7. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

Twenty-eight years after its original creation, 90 years distant from its Depression-era setting in the Pittsburgh Hill District, August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson (1987) speaks powerfully, lyrically, and eloquently of an African-American family in conflict and of their past, which they must confront, embrace, and overcome in order to move forward.

Currently playing in a moving, exhilarating production at McCarter’s Berlind Theatre, Mr. Wilson’s drama is richly universal, but also detailed, specific to its time and place. It is as much about #BlackLivesMatter, a country still in the 21st century’s dark shadow of America’s racist past, as it is about a crucial point in the lives of the members of the Charles family in 1936 Pittsburgh.

The piano in question, ornately carved by the great-grandfather of the main characters, depicts much of the family history in its panels and becomes a symbol of the soul of the family, their history, their struggle for dignity, and their identity.

The piano stands on stage right in the parlor of the Pittsburgh home where the widowed Berniece (Miriam A. Hyman) lives with her uncle Doaker (John Earl Jelks) and her eleven-year-old daughter Maretha (Frances Brown).

The lights rise and the action starts quickly with the arrival of Berniece’s brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams), knocking at the door in the early morning hours. The central conflict emerges as Boy Willie, who owns half of the piano, declares that he wants to sell it, along with a truckful of watermelons he and his friend Lymon (David Pegram) have just brought up from Mississippi. The money, added to his savings, will enable him to buy a piece of land that his ancestors worked as slaves and sharecroppers.

The rest of the play focuses on the battle between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano, which Boy Willie, determined to further his economic situation, insists on selling, while Berniece, clinging to this symbol of her family’s history, refuses to let the piano be moved.

Doaker, an understated, stable railroad cook, supports Berniece, and presides over the house, while another uncle, Wining Boy, a wandering musician perennially short of cash, stops in from Kansas City and on his way south.

Though no white characters actually appear in the play, they do loom prominently seemingly just offstage. Most notable is the ghost of James Sutter, whose grandfather sold one and a half slaves, Boy Willie and Berniece’s great grandmother and her nine-year-old son, to buy the piano. James Sutter recently drowned in his well, perhaps pushed in by Boy Willie, or possibly by the ghost of Boy Willie and Berniece’s father, who, after stealing the piano from Sutter, was burned by a lynch mob. Sutter’s ghost threatens various members of the family throughout the play.

Also dropping in on Berniece is Avery (Owiso Odera), who works as an elevator operator, but wants to marry Berniece and start his own church with her in the choir. Berniece, whose husband was killed stealing wood with Lymon and Boy Willie three years earlier, is not ready to accept Avery’s persistent offers.

Despite these and other supernatural, romantic and familial plot complications, plus a couple of slow moments in the second act of the two hour and forty minute show, this Piano Lesson is riveting in its drama, and thoroughly entertaining. The playwright, the director Jade King Carroll and the eight actors in this top-flight cast collaborate brilliantly to create in-depth, credible, fascinating human beings. The illusion of lives actually being lived, of humor and pain and love, individual struggles and a tight, yet troubled familial bond is utterly convincing and pervasive in this production.

There are many memorable moments, and often it is music that provides the impetus for transcendence and an understanding that eventually leads to resolution and reconciliation. At one point Boy Willie leads his two uncles and his friend Lymon in a chant, orchestrated by their foot stomping and percussive clapping, that seems to evoke a whole history of suffering and the hope of release.

With his piano playing and singing, Wining Boy repeatedly dispels, or at least interrupts, the conflict between his nephew and niece and helps them towards harmony on a higher level.

Mr. Williams as Boy Willie is a fireball of energy and edginess. He remains adamant about his need to move his life forward with the sale of the piano, and his actions dynamically drive the plot. As Berniece, Ms. Hyman is dignified, reserved, still mourning her husband’s death, and a formidable adversary to her brother, though a more commanding presence, particularly in the culminating dramatic scene, would be helpful. Mr. Jelks’s Doaker, a Tony nominee on Broadway in Mr. Wilson’s Radio Golf, provides a rock-solid centerpiece of this drama, while Cleavant Derricks, Tony Award winner for Dreamgirls, creates the constantly captivating, colorful, humorous, and intriguing musician Wining Boy.

As Lymon, on the run from the Mississippi sheriff and seeking romance and fortune in Pittsburgh, Mr. Pegram is appropriately naïve and charming. He is particularly effective, affecting and humorous in putting on his new suit, purchased from Wining Boy, and attempting to woo Berniece.

Mr. Odera as Avery, an interloper and a contrasting element in the midst of this family, is suitably earnest and credible in his religiosity and his pursuit of Berniece. Ms. Brown ably portrays the young Maretha, who practices the piano and carries the hope of the next generation, and Shannon Janee Antalan is excellent in the supporting role of Grace, a brief late-night visitor to the house and would-be girlfriend to Boy Willie.

The ensemble works together beautifully, comfortably and smoothly, and the action moves swiftly under Ms. Carroll’s sensitive, focused direction.

Neil Patel’s unit set establishes a realistic parlor and kitchen, rich and vivid in its detail, complemented by Edward Pierce’s effective lighting, which, along with sound effects by Bill Kirby, helps create this world with both realistic and supernatural elements. Paul Tazewell’s costumes are spot-on in establishing these characters in this particular time and place, and the original music by Baikida Carroll, father of the director, delivers high entertainment and a crucial element to the production.

The Piano Lesson is the fourth of August Wilson’s cycle of 10 plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th century, to be staged at McCarter. It follows Gem of the Ocean (2005), Radio Golf (2007) and Fences (2014). This production will surely leave audiences eager to see the other six.

August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” will run through February 7 on McCarter’s Berlind Stage, 91 University Place in Princeton. Call (609) 258-2787 or visit mccarter.org for tickets and information.