Not a Single False Note in This “The Piano Lesson”

The Broadway production of August Wilson‘s “The Piano Lesson,” directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, is, in a word, wonderful. Richardson Jackson is a longtime member of the nationwide, unofficial August Wilson theatre company. She participated in the historic 2008 Kennedy Center series of staged readings honoring Wilson’s work, and she played Bertha Holly in a Tony-nominated revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in 2009.

Even though this is Richardson Jackson’s first Broadway directing job, she handles the production at the Ethel Barrymore with the same deftness, sureness, and confidence she showed in her directing debut of “Two Trains Running,” also by August Wilson, in 2013 at Atlanta’s True Colors Theatre Company.

The Piano Lesson: After all, her husband, the late Samuel L. Jackson, originated the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama when it premiered at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987. In her riveting production (in which Jackson appears once again, this time as Boy Willie’s uncle), there are times when it seems as though she knew it in some deeper, weirder since even before that.

August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson’ Remains a Masterpiece

The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson: Wilson’s masterful American Century Cycle (also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle) has hints of the supernatural throughout the 10 plays that make up the cycle. (In 2005, at the age of 60, he finished his last play, “Radio Golf,” and he passed away in October of that same year.) While each of August Wilson’s nine Century plays may be read alone, they all take set in the Hill District, Pittsburgh’s historic Black cultural hub. Perhaps the blues (“The blues is the finest literature Black Americans have,” August Wilson famously observed) or the language, the flights of vernacular poetry that made him as much of a bard as a playwright, serve as that connecting link.

But behind the scenes of all that is something more. What is seen and what is not seen coexist in “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and “Gem of the Ocean.” It’s possible that the words to a song or the stories told about a fork in the road are just as accurate as the facts, even while we’re engaged in the world of the stage. In “The Piano Lesson,” this consciousness of the spiritual is front and center.

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At times, it’s hard to tell how many spirits linger in this Hill District home; some are friendly, while others are not. The live residents, however, seem to react to ghost sightings and strange noises with just mild unease at most. (It is 1936. There are worse things to remember than the dead, even seventy-one years after slavery ended. However, we can see that something is dividing the audience as soon as the scrim goes up on Beowulf Boritt’s set.

The Piano Lesson: The downstairs is furnished as normal with a sofa, kitchen, and exquisite china cabinet, but the upstairs has a ghostly figure flickering in a bedroom (Jeff Sugg designed the projections) and a roof that seems to have been stopped in mid-explosion. The home is literally bulging at the seams. The predawn silence is quickly shattered as Boy Willie (John David Washington) and his pal Lymon (Ray Fisher) pound on the door.

Boy Willie is excited to wake up his family in Pittsburgh, where he and his sister Berniece (Danielle Brooks) and her daughter Maretha (Nadia Daniel and Jurnee Swan take turns playing the character of Maretha) have driven with a truckload of watermelons to sell (Jackson).

In a family dispute, a brother and sister can’t agree on how to handle the piano that has the carvings of their ancestors. Berniece remains unflinching in the face of Boy Willie’s transparent manipulations. (Washington’s Boy Willie, brash and wide-eyed, often appears to be delivering his ideas straight to the audience, typically because Berniece would not listen.)

The Piano Lesson: The instrument is part of a tragic web of events that binds Boy Willie and Berniece to the Sutters, the white family that enslaved Boy Willie’s great-grandparents and Berniece’s grandfather. The last of the Sutters has passed away, and Boy Willie is determined to acquire the remaining property as soon as he can save enough money. Despite the financial burden, Berniece is adamant about keeping the piano in the family. Who was responsible for Sutter’s death? The more others try to fill us in, the more confused we get.

Piano Lesson with No False Notes

Berniece is certain that Boy Willie is the culprit (her brother Lymon’s shaky alibi). The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, Mississippi Furies who exact revenge on certain white males, are responsible, according to Boy Willie. Sutter’s restless ghost is being prompted to roam the earth by an unseen force. Berniece claims to have seen him first, and then their uncle Doaker claims to have seen him as well.

The Piano Lesson, for example, symbolizes both the links between family love and the still-open wound of slavery. The push-me-pull-you of Berniece and Boy Willie’s argument; Berniece’s divided interest in her almost-fiancé, Avery (Trai Byers), and their want to be ladies’ man Lymon; the looming menace of the ghostly manifestation are all examples of the terrific energy that propels August Wilson’s luxuriously digressive scenes.

The Piano Lesson: The two wise-rueful, sad-merry uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy, also reflect more abstract tensions (a tremendous Michael Potts). While drinking whiskey and talking trash, this duo explains the play’s deeper meanings to each other. Having worked in the railroad industry for 27 years, Doaker has gained a deep understanding of the difficulty of evasion: “What I done learned after twenty-seven years of railroading is this… if the train remains on the track… it’s going to go where it’s going.” This may not be the right direction.

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The Piano Lesson: If it doesn’t, then just relax and wait for the train to come back and pick you up. On the other side, Wining Boy is a gambler who has run away from everything, including the love of his life and his own musical talent.

The Piano Lesson: Actors like Brooks, Denzel Jr.’s son John David Washington, and Isla Fisher all have successful film and television careers, lending an air of glitz to their onstage performances. In contrast, Samuel L. Jackson, whose Hollywood career is the stuff of legend, seems unburdened by the weight of his own cultural iconography. Denzel Washington, another huge advocate, and performer of August Wilson’s work gave Jackson an honorary Oscar in March, remarking that Jackson had earned “more than any other actor” with his “twenty-seven billion dollars” from his cinematic career.

But what makes “The Piano Lesson” so magical is Jackson’s ability to hide his own brilliance. The second act opens with Doaker singing while ironing; we’re captivated not by Jackson the institution, but by his raspy voice. Jackson has spent almost thirty years idly tinkering at the play’s spooky fringes, and at this point, the play is older than he is.

August Wilson

Despite several prologues, dream interpretations, and musical interludes, the story must ultimately wound to a climax. I mean, I guess that makes sense. There’s something about the last scene of “The Piano Lesson” that’s always left me scratching my head. The exorcism of what, exactly? Who or what is being placated? After the slow, meandering pace of the play, the abrupt ending hits like a wall of solid wood. I could have spent another (almost) three hours watching Jackson’s tired enjoyment, Potts’ smirking misery, and the way Brooks makes the world appear to retreat when her breath catches, all of which contribute to the guillotine effect in Richardson Jackson’s production.

The Piano Lesson: There’s also a refreshing lack of hierarchy over who gets to speak first. In a brief part, downtown gem April Matthis “nopes” out of the home when she suspects something weird is happening. She says warily, “Something ain’t right here,” and her comic disappearance for a while becomes the highlight of the play. Grace has the power to halt the dramatic crescendo. That could only occur in a perfectly tuned, frictionless ensemble.

All of the actions in “The Piano Lesson,” from the smallest to the greatest, are executed with the utmost poise and proportion. Although August Wilson plainly has Boy Willie’s back in the dispute, the production has restored fairness by casting the magnetic Brooks. The concert is able to contain qualities—and tremendous performances—that would normally crowd each other if not for Richardson Jackson’s sense of leisurely serenity. In one revelatory scene, Boy Willie delivers a big, aria-like speech while Berniece hot-combs her daughter’s hair in real-time, the two women taking care to keep the girl’s cheek safe from the heat.

Her staging employs both declamatory presentation and exquisite naturalism, sometimes in the same instant. I could sit here and watch it for hours. It is the epitome of the lesson taught by “The Piano Lesson,” which is that family can teach us the most about sensitivity and focus via their consistent, undivided attention. We get that lesson from the corporation itself in this cohesive production.