The Piano Lesson, one of August Wilson's ten plays about the experience of Black people in the 20th century, is one of his most symphonic works. It is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, as African Americans were being transported northward as part of the Great Migration, where they faced an uncertain future while still being bound by the cruel legacy of their Southern past. The conflict between a brother and sister over a family heirloom—a piano polished with their late mother's tears and blood—is a metaphor for the challenging reconciliation that comes with the promise of freedom.
One of Wilson's most potently charged symbols is the musical instrument that is the focal point of their standoff; their great grandfather's elaborate carvings of the brothers' enslaved ancestors decorate its woodwork. And in this captivating return to Broadway after more than ten years away, Samuel L. Jackson recounts its history in a hypnotic invocation of the past.
Jackson savours every word of Wilson's exquisite prose, whether he is describing a difficult grocery list, thinking about the pleasures of train travel and its reliability in a world of uncertainty, or ironing a shirt while humming an old railroad song. His portrayal of Doaker, the main living memory for the broken family whose home the play takes place, is vividly inhabited, and he delivers every line with a balance of tired experience and sarcastic wisdom.
The actor first became involved with this exceptional drama in 1987 at Yale Repertory Theatre, when he played Boy Willie, Doaker's impulsive, obnoxious nephew on whom the action centres. Jackson's commitment to this revival is further made stronger by the participation of his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, who is directing it on Broadway for the first time. But one of the main weaknesses of this beautifully constructed production is the uneven directing, which is frequently overly strong or literal with a language that benefits from a more delicate touch.
Wilson's play, which also stars John David Washington as Boy Willie and Danielle Brooks as his sister Berniece, may not grate on viewers who are unfamiliar with it as much because it pushes its subtle humour into the realm of borderline broad comedy at the expense of the drama's melancholy undercurrent. However, a lot of regular New York theatregoers will find it difficult to forget Ruben Santiago-brilliant Hudson's 2012 Signature Theater production, which was arguably the most flawless staging this drama has ever seen. At the time, there was speculation of a Broadway transfer, but since the excellent ensemble was dominated by stage veterans Brandon J. Dirden, Roslyn Ruff, and Chuck Cooper, there were no big stars to boost the box office.
Boy Willie's desire to sell the pricey piano, which Berniece finds unfathomable, fuels their simmering conflict. Berniece is a young widow who resides in her uncle Doaker's home with her preteen daughter Maretha (Jurnee Swan alternates with Nadia Daniel for matinees).
Boy Willie has driven a cargo of watermelons into Pittsburgh with his less outgoing friend Lymon (Ray Fisher). With the proceeds from that cargo, he would have a stake in a Mississippi farmland whose owner, Sutter, recently passed away after falling down a well on the property; his heirs are now trying to sell. Boy Willie believes that the proceeds from the sale of the piano will provide him with the necessary funds to purchase the land where his family formerly toiled as slaves.
Sutter was just the most recent in a string of white locals to pass away under mysterious circumstances. They were all thought to be accountable for the burning alive in a boxcar 25 years earlier of Berniece and Boy Willie's father. Berniece has doubts regarding both Boy Willie and Lymon's rightful possession of the truck as well as his innocence in Sutter's death. The apparition of Sutter's ghost, who appears to have followed Boy Willie all the way from Mississippi, at the home feeds her suspicions even further.
With Sutter appearing in front of Berniece, Maretha, and as later turns out, Doaker, as well as many references to the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog—as the boxcar victims are known—there is no doubt that The Piano Lesson is a ghost story. The series of well mishaps are thought to be the result of the ghosts of Black men.
However, Richardson Jackson, who played Joe Turner's Come and Gone in a magnificent 2009 production of a different Wilson piece, amps up the supernatural elements to a point where it becomes intrusive in the work of such a refined dramatist. Instead of using over-the-top effects, Wilson's plays rely on the force of words that moves through his characters like music. Wilson's texts don't require a lot of bells and whistles since, as Toni Morrison once said, they are so richly textured that they could serve as radio dramas.
The personal focus of the connection between past and future personified by Berniece and Boy Willie is eclipsed when Beowulf Boritt's stunning set, a skeleton of Doaker's house, cracks open and Japhy Weideman's lights flicker eerily as Scott Lehrer's sound design goes into shuddering overdrive.
The performers' direction has also played a role in that to some extent. Washington makes his Broadway debut with a bang, coming off as a high-energy force and a loud talker as the role demands. Acting in this part alongside the original Boy Willie might seem daunting, but Washington's performance lacks modulation and she has nowhere to go from there.
To a lesser extent, the same is true of Brooks, a more seasoned stage performer who was outstanding in The Color Purple and a Shakespeare in the Park adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. But Berniece's obstinate, don't-mess-with-me wrath could use more variety. She does have nice moments, though, when she's occupied with home tasks like cooking or brushing Maretha's hair, paying close attention to every word her shady brother says, whom she accuses of being responsible for her husband's passing. The most heartfelt moment in Brooks' work is a private conversation between Berniece and Lymon, who intends to remain in Pittsburgh and yearns for a woman who looks and feels like her.
Another newcomer to Broadway, Fisher, is fantastic as the guileless rube who submits to Boy Willie's demands with meekness. He is humorous, never attempting to make others laugh, and his hope and apprehension about what this new big-city setting may store for him is really moving.
Along with Jackson, another Wilson veteran who starred in the groundbreaking 2017 Broadway revival of Jitney and the movie adaptation of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, Michael Potts gives the play's other outstanding lived-in performance. He gives Doaker's older brother Wining Boy, a faded musician whose memories of burning out on the excesses of his piano-playing days, his encounter with the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, and his memories of his one true love are some of the play's most exquisite arias, salty humour and a hint of the shameless scammer. He also dumps a showy plaid suit onto Lymon in a hilarious sequence, despite the fact that it is obviously a few sizes too small for the rangy dupe ("The women will fall out their windows when they see you in a suit like that").
The key that Potts, Samuel L. Jackson, and Fisher understand is that the satisfaction of a Wilson play rarely comes from the events being portrayed or recounted. This is something that, perhaps, will come more naturally to the full cast as they settle into the run and gel into a more cohesive ensemble. They are told in a style that makes remembering easier.
His narration has a very musical feel to it, and the best performances seamlessly transition from one persona to the next. The direction of Richardson Jackson too frequently descends into stand-and-deliver declaration. However, when the melodies are free, the great music engulfs you, much like how the past still engulfs characters who are trying to go on, their legacy eternally a part of them.
Location: New York's Ethel Barrymore Theatre
Cast: Michael Potts, Trai Byers, April Mathis, Jurnee Swan, John David Washington, Danielle Brooks, Ray Fisher, and Samuel L. Jackson
August Wilson wrote the play.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson is the director.
Designed the sets: Beowulf Boritt
Designer of costumes: Toni-Leslie James
Designer of the lighting: Japhy Weideman
Alvin Hough Jr., music
Scott Lehrer, sound engineer
Designer of the projection: Jeff Sugg
presented by Todd Tucker, Kandi Burruss, Sonia Friedman, Tom Kirdahy, and Brian Anthony Moreland