The Piano Lesson
Synopsis: A battle is brewing in the Charles household. At the center lies the family’s prized heirloom piano. On one side, a brother plans to build the family fortune by selling it. On the other, a sister will go to any length to keep it and preserve the family history. Only their uncle stands in between. But even he can’t hold back the ghosts of the past.
The Piano Lesson, the fourth play in August Wilson’s series of plays dubbed The Pittsburgh Cycle is the latest to receive the revival treatment for the Broadway stage. Directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, new life is breathed into this show, showcasing a slice of the life of a family directly impacted by slavery as a malevolent supernatural entity haunts them. After the former slave owner Sutter falls down a well, Boy Willie (portrayed by John David Washington) comes to visit his sister Berniece (portrayed by Danielle Brooks) in hopes that he can convince her to part with the family piano, giving him the money needed to buy the farm from Sutter’s family.
Mrs. Jackson faced a massive undertaking with the cast as August Wilson writes deeply complex characters with complex relationships. Through her direction, however, the cast navigated Wilson’s complex with breathless ease. Latanya Jackson in the staging kept the show moving and keeping a brisk pace, which helps to not make a 2-and-a-half-hour show feel laborious. Adding to the strength of this cast was Danielle Brooks as Berniece, the central point of grounding the story and the character with the most emotional growth needs to express. Danielle Brooks gave a show-stopping performance that kept the audience begging for more. John David Washington as Boy Willie, the member of the family hoping to toss the history to the side, provided moments of comedy alongside Ray Fisher as Lyman while also alongside Danielle progressing the emotional thread of the broken family torn apart by the throes of a family secret. However, Samuel L. Jackson in his portrayal of Doaker did feel at times to struggle with the material, creating at times clunky connections between various characters.
While the story is about a family, the house itself also acts as a central character to interact around. Beowulf Boritt was able to create an entire house on the stage of the Barrymore Theatre, working faucets and all. In the penultimate moment of the show as the family begins mending its broken threads, the entire house shifts and rebuilds itself to further signify the mending. While simplistic in appearance, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design was able to signify and showcase the moments of the spirit in the house without needing to have a physical spirit appear to the audience.
Where this show struggled was in the material itself. August Wilson set a mighty bar with his work, plays like Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom draw you immediately into the worlds August Wilson has created. While this story explored powerful themes regarding a family beginning to finally heal from the generational trauma of slavery, the supernatural elements felt clunky and detracted from the relationships at the core of the story. Without the elements of the supernatural included this story I feel would have been stronger and potentially held a better emotional impact.
Overall, The Piano Lesson is an important piece of material and more poignant than ever. Its discussion of generational trauma and utilizing the piano as the crux of this story allowed for the multiple aspects of this complicated topic. The supernatural element, however, did make the show at times feel weaker than the other works of August Wilson.
For me, the Piano Lesson earns a solid 4 out of 5 stars.
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