August Wilson is famous for his cycle of ten plays that each takes a decade of the 20th century and looks at a facet of the African-American experience (often called the Pittsburgh cycle). Pulitzer Prize winner ‘The Piano Lesson’ is set in the 1930s during the time of the ‘Great Migration’ of blacks from the south to start a new and hopefully better life in the north. Berniece Charles (Sharisa Whatley) came to Pittsburgh from Mississippi after the violent death of her husband and joined her uncle, Doaker (Bob Mitchell), who has been working for the railroad for over 25 years. She brings with her her daughter, Maretha (Carli Officer), now 11 years old, and a piano replete with carvings. Left behind in Mississippi is her brother, Boy Willie (Ronald L. Conner), who she blames for the death of her husband.
Berniece also brings ghosts from the past with her. The carvings are by her slave great-grandfather, Willy Boy, and reflect his memories of his family. The piano is also inextricably linked to the lives and deaths of several generations of not only the Charles family but of the Sutters, the family that originally owned Willie Boy and tore apart his family by exchanging his wife and son for the piano. This linkage is furthered by the apparent presence of the ghost of a descendant of the Sutters who recently died in suspicious circumstances.
Boy Willie arrives at the house with his friend, Lymon (Chauncy Thomas), and a truck load of water melons. He plans to sell the melons to raise capital to buy the last remaining land owned by the aforementioned deceased Sutter . To make this dream come true, he also needs to liquidate his half share in the piano. Although it is Berniece who has moved to Pittsburgh to create a new life for herself and her daughter and although she has not played the piano since her mother died she is the one determined to retain the heritage intact. Boy Willie believes the heritage is best served by investing the value of the piano in land originally worked by his slave ancestors and proving his equal worth to the local white population by owning and working his own land.
In a very strong cast, Whatley and Conner are both excellent as the two warring siblings. They both create very real people on the stage and handle some fairly long monologues with power as they forcefully present their opposing views and the tension between them. One of the most memorable scenes is when Berniece is physically pounding on Boy Willie as she vents her anger and grief over the death of her husband. Bob Mitchell as the uncle, in whose house, the action takes place, also is very good and establishes a slightly world weary character who can see both sides but is ready to take firm action when needed.
Chauncy Thomas provides a lot of comedy as the friend of Boy Willie who wants to remain in Pittsburgh due to his issues with the sheriff back in Mississippi. Ethan Jones as Wining Boy, the itinerant musician/gambler, brother of Doaker and Robert Lee Davis, III as Avery, the would be preacher and courter of Berniece, also add many funny moments. Sixth grader Carli Officer plays Maretha with confidence and charm and Candice Jones was also good as Grace, the woman brought home by Boy Willie.
Director, Lorna Littleway keeps the action moving quickly and balances well the humor and drama in the script. At one point in the play, four of the men begin to reminisce and start to sing an old work song – this could have seemed intrusive but the director and actors skillfully transitioned from dialogue to what was quite a tour-de-force of song and movement.
The set by Tim Case made excellent use of the space at the Grandel and costumes by Daryl Harris were very evocative of the period. Lighting by Jim Burwinkel was also generally good although the spirit/ghost lighting changes were a little confusing at times, whether due to design or timings issues was hard to tell.
Although in the end, I felt that August Wilson's way of ending the play was rather a cop-out – a deus ex machina solution - this did not detract from the overall enjoyment of the show. The script is clever, funny and challenging and this production is very good. In 1992, "The Piano Lesson" was the first show produced by the Black Rep at the Grandel Theatre which has been their home ever since. I did not see that production but this one is certainly one to see.