"The Piano Lesson"
Yale Repertory Theatre, New Haven
Playwright August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” roars into Yale Rep and maintains its high level of excitement for an amazing three and a half hours. Granted that the play is too long, and indeed could be pared, with no loss to the story and its theme. But who would dare to edit the great Wilson, who has left behind a remarkable legacy?
“The Piano Lesson” is one drama within Wilson’s cycle of plays, covering black life in Pittsburgh over several decades. It depicts, not only Wilson’s own background, but that of the African-American experience in this past century, as the blacks migrated north for new economic opportunities.
“The Piano Lesson,” smack in the middle of the cycle, covers the 1930s. Wilson’s genius lies in turning the general into the particular, in this case focusing on a family in the Hill District (the black neighborhood) of Pittsburgh. It is Doaker (the uncle), his niece Berniece, and her eleven year-old daughter Maretha.
Into their orderly world, Berniece’s brother Boy Willie arrives from the South, with his crony Lymon. They are bent on selling a truckload of watermelons and making mischief generally. Topping Boy Willie’s plans is his determination to sell the family piano, which he owns jointly with Berniece and which is ensconced in her living room. He needs the money, he claims, to buy land back home and launch his own farm. Berniece is equally determined not to sell the piano, which she views as the family heritage. These differences are played out with fierce exchanges which mount steadily in intensity.
“The Piano Lesson” deals vividly with a particular time and place, but extends its range far beyond that. While Wilson’s characters contend with the gritty reality of daily routines, they are also haunted by the past. Ghosts, literally, invade the household. Both Berniece and Boy Willie, each in his own way, must face down these ghosts, before they can move on with their lives.
Wilson creates characters so flawed but so human that one cares about their fates, even that of the amoral, self-centered Boy Willie. He is indeed a force of nature as he storms about the stage, superbly played by LeRoy McClain. Charlie Hudson, III, as his partner-in-sin, provides a nice contrast—an endearing country boy, an innocent, who arrives for the first time in a city of new sights, new temptations. But under Liesl Tommy’s sensitive direction, all the actors come together like a jigsaw puzzle—an ensemble with each diverse piece in place. This fine cast also includes (alphabetically) Joniece Abbott-Pratt, Eisa Davis, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson, Keith Randolph Smith, and Malenky Welsh.
Moreover, music is interwoven so effectively into the production that it greatly enhances the scene. From time to time, the cast spontaneously (it seems) bursts into song—or the piano comes to life—with the sounds of blues, boogie, jazz. Original music by Eisa Davis adds to the mix.
In all, a fine offering of an August Wilson classic. One emerges from the theater close to midnight—in a state of exhaustion and exhilaration.
Feb. 5, 2011