The Piano Lesson
Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Eisa Davis, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Charlie Hudson III, LeRoy McClain, Keith Randolph Smith, Charles Weldon, Malenky Welsh
At the heart of August Wilson's America is music, as evidenced by the ten plays he wrote spanning the twentieth century. Amongst the most musical of his plays, The Piano Lesson, winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, can currently be seen in a top-shelf production at Yale Repertory Theatre, where the play had its world premiere in 1987 with a cast led by Samuel L. Jackson in the role of Boy Willie.|
Though Miller, O'Neill, and Williams each stake powerful claims to the title of best twentieth-century playwright, Wilson wholeheartedly deserves to duke it out as a fourth formidable contender. His plays, each finely crafted and individuated though distinctly part of his oeuvre, chronicle black America by telling about the humble lives of his characters, most of them citizens of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
At the heart of The Piano Lesson is a classic struggle between tradition and progress. Berniece, a widow who lives with her daughter and her uncle Doaker, is greeted by unexpected company when her shiftless brother, Boy Willie, arrives with his friend Lymon and a truck full of watermelons.
He's set his sights on a piece of land down south. The land, which has the potential to yield crops, once belonged to Sutter, a recently-deceased man whose family once owned Willie's, and Willie wants the land not only because of the opportunity it promises for him but for the symbolic significance of the acquisition.
As it stands, Willie only has a third of the money saved. He expects to earn another third selling watermelons to the locals but hopes to come by the other third by selling the family's prized piano. Berniece, who hasn't played the piano for many years since the death of her mother, who tended to the intricately-carved instrument, holds steadfast to the idea of keeping the piano in her home as an heirloom.
This fine production, directed by Liesl Tommy, makes haste in setting up this central struggle. Tommy is aided by a fine cast of actors, particularly Eisa Davis, whose hard-edged vulnerability makes her the perfect Berniece, and LeRoy McClain, who gives an impetuously bold performance as Boy Willie, full of fury but ultimately subject to fate.
In supporting roles, Keith Randolph Smith as Doaker is commandingly fatherly, and Charles Weldon, artistic director of the Negro Ensemble Theatre, makes a fine Wining Boy, particularly when he sits down at the piano in the play's final moments.
The play runs a lengthy three-and-a-half hours but rarely loosens its hold on one's attentions. Though occasionally the didacticism of Berniece and Boy Willie's feud grows wearying, Wilson is sure to undercut each moment of the play with intricate plotting. Wilson's lines are rarely, almost never, empty of some larger meaning within the structure of the piece. In that way, individual lines and threads of thought come together to form lyrical Wilsonian chords of dramatic music.
The actual music of the piece, besides for the traditional piece Berta Berta, is scored by Eisa Davis, who, besides for acting in the play, is the production's music director. Though her original melodies for the piece are striking, her decision to intersperse more modern hip-hop-infused strains of song between scenes is occasionally jarring without commensurate reward.
It's the music of Wilson's speeches and the converging songs of the characters in this masterful, occasionally messy, finely-produced play that ultimately catch our ears. On stage is bound to be someone we relate to; Wilson's characters by and large defy notions of race and encompass humanity on a swirlingly universal scale.
Whether one is a traditionalist the way of Berniece, however, holding tight to an object of fine craftsmanship as a way of proclaiming one's roots, or a progressive like Boy Willie, willing to sacrifice worldly things in favor of the promise of better opportunities, both competing viewpoints are likely to strike a chord with each viewer on an entirely individualistic level, and this, as with many great plays, is what makes The Piano Lesson, particularly in this fine production, worth seeing.