The Broadway Theatre Review: The Piano Lesson
Like a ghost standing in the hall, August Wilson’s epic Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Piano Lesson, the fourth of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, strides strong onto Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre stage, filling the air with energy and excitement. It’s one of those plays that I have heard so much about, but never actually seen live and in person. It resonates with legendary magic, aching to be seen and witnessed. And as directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, the dynamically enlightened piece overflows with flashes of African American folklore and mythology, drawing us in, like a broken down truck of watermelons, with some fine performances that bring weight to the story, but overall stays a bit too long in the driveway, repeating itself over and over until the produce doesn’t register as appetizing as it sounded from the beginning.
Set in 1936, The Piano Lesson shines its ambitious light on the Charles family, living their life in a dynamically fractured house and home of Doaker Charles, played touchingly by the always confident Samual L. Jackson (Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction“), uncle to Berniece, played gorgeously by the magnificently talented Danielle Brooks (Broadway’s The Color Purple). We see her shifting herself upstairs in the bedroom trying to get some sleep, in a space shared with her 11-year-old daughter Maretha, played in the performance I saw by an appealing Nadia Daniel (otherwise I could be Jurnee Swan), but it’s the piano sitting center stage, down in their living room that we begin to pay attention to. The set, designed by Beowulf Boritt (Broadway’s POTUS), and the lighting by Japhy Weideman (Broadway’s Dear Evan Hansen), draws us in with its ghost story formulation, enhancing that energy in a way that I wasn’t prepared for. But when the ghostly apparition of Yellow Dog takes its place on that creaking staircase, the complications of legacy and history make their way in, melting the past and future trauma together in the most unsuspected manner.
The main conflict at the heart of this play is unleashed with the arrival of Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, played forcibly by John David Washington (Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman“), who has come to coerce his unwilling sister into selling the family heirloom piano. It’s a grand looking piece, one that has been etched with familial history by an enslaved ancestor. It speaks volumes to his sister, Berniece, quietly playing all the harrowing tunes from the spirits of their great-grandparents from the days of their enslavement. She has no mind to sell it, even if she can’t actually sit and play that particular piano without being overwhelmed with emotion. Boy Willie has other plans, and it has nothing to do with holding on to a history he so wants to put behind him. He sees selling that heirloom as a way forward, granting him the opportunity to buy some land, Sutter’s land, where his ancestors once toiled as slaves. It would be a new beginning for him and his legacy, but Berniece doesn’t believe the spirits are aligned with Boy Willie. And she is adamant.
Arriving into Pittsburgh early one morning with a bunch of watermelons to sell, Boy Willie, with his dim friend Lymon, played to absolute perfection by Ray Fisher (NTYW’s Fetch Clay, Make Man), barge in, waking everyone up, but maybe not to the welcome Boy Willie was expecting. The ghosts of Yellow Dog have also been woken up, it seems, as the reasons for Boy Willie leaving Mississippi are brought forward into the light of the new day ahead. It seems Sutter, the landowner whose family once owned the Charles ancestors has mysteriously died under some very telling ghostly circumstances. Boy Willie blames the legendary ghosts of murdered Black men seeking vengeance, but Berniece only sees guilt in her brother’s eyes.
With flashes and screams of supernatural visitations and hauntings sneaking in between the floorboards, the art of The Piano Lesson feels as mystically powerful as it most likely did when it first appeared back in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theatre, with a cast that included Jackson as Boy Willie, before making its Broadway debut at the Walter Kerr Theatre on April 16, 1990, starring Charles S. Dutton. The cast finds meaning, energy, and exceptional amounts of humor within its wound-up vision, enhanced by the solid sound design by Scott Lehrer (Broadway’s The Music Man) and superb ghostly projections by Jeff Sugg (Broadway’s Tina). But it doesn’t hold us as spellbound as one would imagine. The play seems to languish inside its repetitive old-school rhythm, repeating itself endlessly around themes that have been unearthed and played with already.
It doesn’t help that Washington, making his Broadway debut in the role Jackson originating 35 years earlier, doesn’t seem to know how to take us on a journey from one emotional place to another. He acts as if he’s playing the same note on that same piano for the entirety of the play, walking in with the same bombastic volume as he does when he leaves. Much like his father, I might add, who I also find somewhat heavy-handed. The resemblance is uncanny, as is the style of acting that fails to connect to the stage as well as it does in film and television. He needed, possibly, a stronger framework to guide him, rather than director Jackson’s straightforward, sometimes haphazard approach. But the rest of the cast, particularly the very electric April Matthis (Soho Rep’s Fairview) as Grace, finds the melody that advances The Piano Lesson all the way to its final chords.
“Ain’t nobody said nothing about who’s right and who’s wrong,” Doaker states. “I was just telling the man about the piano. I was telling him why we say Berniece ain’t gonna sell it.” Knowing the intentional outcome, the vengeful ghosts find their way through, demanding to be heard and engaged with, even if it takes all night. There is tension and some worthy moments, mostly when Brooks takes charge of the room, finding authenticity and clarity in the well-designed costumes by Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Paradise Square). But the ending, unfortunately, stifles the focus. The Piano Lesson creaks itself together clumsily in a manner that doesn’t illuminate anything but the unwinnable battle between history and reality. Those last moments pull the legacy apart, taking it into an arena unworthy of the impact it was desperately trying to build for the last three hours. It doesn’t expand the horizon, but leaves us to wander out into the streets wondering why it took so long to unleash the angry ghosts from within. It was worth it, in a way, seeing this conflict play out to the end, but not completely.