August Wilson is one in a sacred selection of American playwrights who is recognized as a canon all their own. His plays — a series of 10 titled “The Pittsburgh Cycle” — chronicle Black life throughout the 20th century. In these plays, Wilson architects humble men and women who drive trucks, work on farms and make music on the road — yet stretch to every corner of the emotional imagination. Wilson, who died in 2005, was a virtuosic composer of contradictions; he imbued his stories with poetry and prose, detailed events of the past in ways that remain prophetic to this day and gave human characters just as much backstory as he did their ghosts. In “The Piano Lesson,” which falls fourth in the Cycle’s sequence (set in 1936), Wilson does all three. The script, which in 1990 earned the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, remains a thing of lyrical beauty. You could close your eyes, skim through its pages and rest assured that your finger would land on brilliance. So what happens when such perfect words are lifted off their pages and hoisted onto a Broadway stage? The words could fly or fold under the weight of extra cargo: directors, actors, designers. Thankfully in the current revival at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, director LaTanya Richardson Jackson (the first woman to ever direct an August Wilson play on Broadway) artfully pilots a contemporary and comedic rendition of the work, even if she doesn’t quite stick the landing.
In “The Piano Lesson,” the Charles siblings, Boy Willie (John David Washington) and Berniece (Danielle Brooks), are at odds about the fate of a piano. More a treasured inheritance than a musical instrument, the piano is worth all the familial bifurcation because of what is engraved on it. Several generations prior, Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandfather etched the faces of his enslaved family members onto the wood. Each carved ridge represents a ripple in the family’s timeline. The play’s central conflict arises from each sibling’s beliefs about the piano’s worth: While Boy Willie values it for money, Berniece measures it only in blood. All of their arguing takes place in the home of their Uncle Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson, husband to the director), a location which has developed a bit of a ghost problem ever since Boy Willie returned hell-bent on selling the instrument. Doaker’s home is cramped by its inhabiters: Berniece, her daughter Maretha (Jurnee Swan at the performance I attended), Boy Willie, his down South friend Lymon (Ray Fisher) and Doaker’s brother Wining Boy (Michael Potts); they all lay down their load at some point. That same home, however, is made barren by a lack of understanding. Veteran set designer Beowulf Boritt reflects this flawlessly by cluttering the kitchen and living room areas but stripping the home of a solid roof or walls.
While Wilson’s plays are a pleasure to read, they come across as torturous to act. The scribe made maestros out of his male characters — less so from his female ones, unfortunately — ordering them to journey quickly between humor and grief, passion and strife, all in a single scene. For a show with eight characters, it is remarkable how many times (and for how long) only one person is speaking. Richardson Jackson accounts for this by splitting the performances into two subsets: one of acting and one of reacting. The production runs nearly three hours, so when the audience’s inevitable moment of exhaustion hits — mine did during one of Boy Willie’s numerous spirited tirades à la Kanye West — my advice is to pivot attention to what other characters are doing in their silence. It helps that most of these actors have danced with the Black Bard before: Samuel L. Jackson originated the role of Boy Willie at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987. John David Washington is son to Denzel and Pauletta Washington, prominent interpreters of Wilson’s work. Potts (truly spectacular) starred in Broadway’s 2017 run of Wilson’s “Jitney.” The entire ensemble is enveloped in its auteur’s reverential spirit.
What is mostly a great production turns gimmicky in its final moments. Yes, ghosts are having their heyday on Broadway (“Death of a Salesman,” “Beetlejuice”) but they remain a tricky thing to stage. In a final exorcism of the apparition haunting Doaker’s home, Richardson Jackson and her designers erupt the stage into a nonsensical haze of smoke, noise and slow motion. It’s a formulaic and slightly amateur choice that dents the surface of “Piano” but mercifully does not destroy it.
“The Piano Lesson” opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Thursday, Oct. 13, 2022.
Review photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Creative: Written by August Wilson; Music by Jason Michael Webb; Musical Director: Jason Michael Webb; Directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson; Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Wig Design by Cookie Jordan; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg.
Producers: Brian Anthony Moreland, Sonia Friedman, Tom Kirdahy, Kandi Burruss and Todd Tucker.
Cast: Danielle Brooks, Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington, Trai Byers, Ray Fisher, April Matthis, Michael Potts, Nadia Daniel and Jurnee Elizabeth Swan.