|THE PIANO LESSON|
It may be true that those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it, but what about those who know it and choose to ignore it? What fate befalls them? That question looms large in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “The Piano Lesson” – the fourth play in his “Pittsburgh Cycle” -- which is now receiving a high-octane Broadway revival at the Barrymore Theatre.
For the brash Boy Willie, brought to blazing life by John David Washington in a highly memorable Broadway debut, the history of his family piano, intricately carved by his great-grandfather with the faces of his ancestors, is secondary to what the instrument can do for his future. He wants to sell the piano (which will fetch over $1000) so he can return to the south and buy the land where he works – and on which his family were slaves.
But selling the piano is not purely his decision; Boy Willie’s sister Berniece (a superb Danielle Brooks, showcasing a moving combination of anger and pain) is determined to keep it as a reminder of the suffering both she and her family have endured. Further, as we will learn, she will go to any lengths to ensure it remains in the house that she and her 11-year-daughter Maretha (an adorable Jurnee Swan) share with her uncle Doaker (a marvelously understated Samuel L. Jackson), a now-contented railroad worker.
Boy Willie knows -- just as well as Berneice, Doaker and Doaker’s brother Wining Boy (a remarkably entertaining Michael Potts in a flamboyant performance) -- just how much getting that piano back up north has cost their entire family. But what is most important to him is the future, not the past. And the stories behind the piano – and those sculpted into it – can easily be ignored (until they can’t).
The constant arguing between Boy Willie and Berneice about the fate of the piano, along with some commentary from the two uncles, make up the bulk of the nearly three-hour play, which contains some of Wilson’s most beautiful and poetic writing, as well as his most repetitive. Like in life, when we watch two people have the same argument over and over, unable to find a compromise, it can be taxing.
There’s also not much in the way of subplots here; the largest one is whether the long-single Berneice will agree to marry the wannabe preacher Avery (Trai Ayers) or perhaps find some comfort in the arms of Boy Willie’s sweet but simple friend Lymon (an outstanding Ron Fisher).
As a result, for “The Piano Lesson” to maintain our interest throughout, it requires superb acting – which it fortunately gets from the entire cast – and dynamic direction, provided here by Latanya Richardson Jackson (Samuel’s wife), who becomes the first woman to helm one of Wilson’s plays on Broadway.
Working with the brilliant set designer Beowulf Boritt, as well as lighting designer Japhy Weidman and sound designer Scott Lehrer, Jackson lets us know from the get-go we are in a house that is truly haunted, not only by the family’s past but by the ghost of the slave owner Sutter (who recently died under mysterious circumstances). And the show’s final sequence – an “exorcism” of the piano – is literally earth-shattering.
In 2022, any revival of a play by the great August Wilson is to be celebrated, especially one that hits as many of the right notes as this one does. Play on!
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks, John David Washington, Trai Beyers, Ray Fisher, April Mathis and Michael Potts
Ethel Barrymore Theatre
234 West 47th Street
New York, NY 10036