“The Piano Lesson” on Broadway at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on W. 47th Street is a living, breathing testament to the prolific, brilliant writing of the late great August Wilson. Wilson’s gift to stunningly put the legacy of African Americans in this country on stage and present it through the detailed background of one family’s story through the generations is something to experience and cherish. This play is a PERFECT THEATRICAL MASTERPIECE! Wilson always had a way of introducing us to characters through engaging discourse that gives you bits and pieces of what a person is about. Then he lets each character have their moment in which they reveal who they are and the issues they are experiencing. There is a great deal of humor, moments of bringing up the past, and especially in “The Piano Lesson,” moments of recognizing the presence of spirits.
“The Piano Lesson” tells the story of Boy Willie who has come to Pittsburgh to try to get and sell his late father’s piano, which has been in the family for generations. The piano has the personal history of this family on it, going as way back as their grandparents who were enslaved. The piano is something that belongs to him and his sister Berniece. He looks at it as a means to a new beginning for his life, but Berniece sees it for the importance it played in the lives and deaths of their family members. The rich history of this piano is beautifully and grippingly shared by characters throughout the play from Berniece to Doaker, the uncle who Berniece and her daughter Maretha live with, and Wining Boy, his brother. Regardless of the sharing of the story with Boy Willie’s friend Lymon, who has come to help him retrieve and sell the piano, Boy Willie is determined to go through with it. This production is the quintessential example of August Wilson’s work being presented with a great deal of flair, humor, respect and distinction.
The cast is absolutely mesmerizing to watch! John David Washington brings a fire, relentlessness and a demand for respect to his character that makes you see the multi-layers that Boy Willie has. Danielle Brooks as Berniece is stupendous! She is the keeper of the pain, the love, the flame and the legacy that is held in every piece of wood and carving in this family heirloom. Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker has such a naturally smooth presence on stage. He is the wise elder in the family that keeps the peace, but also has a firm hand on what happens in his home. Michael Potts as Wining Boy is very funny. His character provides that musical element that fits so very well with this play. There is a shallowness and a depth to Wining Boy. Berniece has an up-and-coming preacher who is interested in her named Avery; that role was played by the understudy Charles Browning at the performance I attended, and he was tremendous. When he began to talk of God, he could have led a revival! He was absolutely wonderful, while also demonstrating that he was a man with needs. Nadia Daniel was delightful as Maretha, a role she shares with Jurnee Swan. April Matthis is quite funny as Grace, a girl Boy Willie brings home to romance, but then ends up with Lymon.
“The Piano Lesson” is what EXCEPTIONAL theater looks like! I felt like I was given a gift! In fact, the gift started even before the curtain went up, as I looked around the audience and saw it filled with African Americans of all generations. All there to support and see these actors who have found special places in our hearts—Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks and Michael Potts. This play is also an unbelievable Broadway debut for actors we will be talking about in the future. Washington makes a flawless, powerful Broadway debut! His Boy Willie is intense and unforgettable! Ray Fisher as Lymon is also someone making his Broadway debut and is destined to become a household name. He is funny, endearing, and has a stage presence that reaches over the footlights and eases into your heart!
All the technical elements helped to transport us to Pittsburgh in 1936 through a detailed, two-level set designed by Beowulf Boritt, costumes by Toni-Leslie James, lighting by Japhy Weideman and sound by Scott Lehrer, along with hair and wigs by Cookie Jordan. There was also a scene in the play that brought the house down and included choreography by Otis Sallid, but I won’t say anymore.
If there is one play you see this season, make it “The Piano Lesson”! Allow some of August Wilson’s brilliance and mesmerizing words to serenade your heart and nourish your soul. This play comes together with such joy, splendor, respect and care and that is due to the sterling direction of Latanya Richardson Jackson. Jackson took Wilson’s words and these actors and handles every moment with great care. There is a feeling of the Black family experience that comes from that stage that pulls you in, body and mind. For some, it is a moment of reflection and affirmation and for others, it is a moment of realization of what we have been through to get to where we are today and Wilson’s love and respect for that!
Go see “The Piano Lesson” and make sure you take someone from the younger generation to keep the love, appreciation, and pride in Wilson’s work in the family! For tickets and more info, visit www.pianolessonplay.com.