‘The Piano Lesson’ is a Striking Revival That Delivers Exceptional Acting, Acute Direction and Prodigious Mastery
How do we reconcile a past of misery, torment and devastation? Do we bury it or embrace the goodness our ancestors brought to bear as they raised us? Do we take the next steps to rise up to the inner glory they encouraged, or mourn in resentment never exorcising the anguish that seeped into our psyches? In August Wilson’s richly crafted Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, the character Berniece (superbly portrayed by Danielle Brooks) must reconcile herself to her past and become the conduit that translates legacy into new beginnings for her family and her daughter.
The Piano Lesson symbolizes how African Americans must approach their painful history of slavery as a planting field which may give birth to strong generations that carry new hope and opportunity for a positive future. Additionally, in this production directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson, Wilson suggests what that future might be with an uplifting conclusion where family understanding and unity are restored after nefarious forces steeped in colonial, paternalistic folkways and institutional racism, sought to keep the family divided and conquered.
August Wilson’s play debuted on Broadway in 1990, not only winning the Pulitzer Prize but also winning the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, as well as the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Best Play. The Piano Lesson which takes place in Pittsburgh, 1936 is one in a collection of 10 plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. Each of the plays, set in a different decade, chronicles African American struggles and triumphs as various families move away from the remnants of slavery and its impact from 1900 through the 1990s. The work has enjoyed three revivals, one Off Broadway in 2013 and the two Broadway outings (1990, 2022).
This outstanding revival features seminal performances by a superb ensemble and a clarifying vision about the play by the director. Each actor brings vitality and authentically to manifest the roiling fear and oppression that still hangs over the lives of characters Berniece (Danielle Brooks) Boy Willie (John David Washington) and family uncles Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) and Wining Boy (Michael Potts) as they attempt to move beyond their traumatic past. It is a slavery past where ancestors saw toil and heartache and a recent past where Berniece and her family saw violence, bloodshed and anything but a peaceful passing to ancestral graves.
Events come to a head when Boy Willie visits the family for the first time in three years since Berniece lost her husband Crawley. Boy Willie comes with a vital personal mission so he braves his sister Berniece’s ire because he is at a turning point in his life. Berniece and Boy Willie have been estranged because she blames him for Crawley’s death. Tired of sharecropping for others, Boy Willie leaps when he is offered an opportunity where he, too, can embrace the “American Dream.” In an ironic twist he would be purchasing land his ancestors worked as slaves made available after the slave master’s descendant, the head of the Sutter family, fell down a well and died. Boy Willie’s purchase would allow him to end being exploited by others so he might work to lift himself to a better life.
However, he needs to raise more cash to complete the land deal, so he intends to sell their family heirloom, a beautifully carved upright piano which is housed in Uncle Doaker’s Pittsburgh home where Berniece and her 11-year-old daughter live. As is often the case with inheritances, there are family squabbles about how to dispose of various items. The piano not only is valuable materially, it symbolizes the family’s history and legacy, which is both beautiful and terrible. An ancestor carved the faces of family members on it to soothe the slave master’s wife who was missing her slaves that were traded for the piano. Over the years, the piano has become the family totem that conveys a spiritual weight and emblematic preciousness. Wilson signifies this when Boy Willie and friend Lymon find it nearly impossible to lift by themselves.
Berniece understands the piano’s significance to the depths of her soul and refuses to allow Boy Willie to remove it. For seven years after their mother died, Berniece stopped playing it to honor her mother’s remembrance. Though only Maretha (played by Jurnee Swan at the performance I saw) and Uncle Wining Boy play it, Berniece justifies keeping it because of Mama Ola Charles. Mama Ola daily polished it “til her hands bled, then rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it” and mourned over the tragic loss of her husband, Boy Charles who was murdered after he stole it and hid it to retain its ownership. He believed if the Sutter family kept the piano, they symbolically “lorded” it over the Charles family, who they would oppress as their ersatz slaves, if not physically, then psychically and emotionally.
Gradually, Samuel L. Jackson’s Doaker reveals the story of the piano’s history since slavery days. With understated reverence as an explanation why Berniece will never let it go, he discusses how the carvings of each ancestor and their stories reside there as a remembrance of their identity and the sacrificial death of his brother Boy Charles, who first imbued the piano with the symbolic and spiritual significance of their family’s legacy of forward momentum.
Jackson’s Doaker and Danielle Brooks’ Berniece superbly translate the importance of this magical object with nuance and power that gives rise to our understanding why the ancestral spirits are hovering in the piano’s majesty in a battle that becomes otherworldly between the Sutter and the Charles family. It is a battle which has been continuing revealed at the top of the play with Boy Willie’s excited, impassioned entrance and reflected in Beowulf Boritt’s incredible set of Doaker’s simple four room house whose spare roof timbers exposed to the sky appear to be split and separating.
Indeed, the Charles family is a house divided by disagreement, disharmony and mourning tied in and caused by the racial discrimination, and inequitable economic opportunities intended to keep African Americans entrenched in poverty and peonage. To be free of Sutter oppression the Charles family must move away from the Sutters’ (symbolic of white racists) murderous, thieving behaviors, exploitive folkways and lack of empathy for others. They must free themselves from materialism, selfishness and criminality that has destroyed their humanity, as Brook’s Berniece expresses in her indictment of the men in her immediate family, including her dead husband Crawley.
Boy Willie’s presence at this point in time after Sutter is found at the bottom of a well is intriguing. Has Sutter’s wicked ghost driven him up to trouble Berniece about the piano despite its legacy? Or does he just want to make a better life for himself as he suggests? Berniece believes he pushed Sutter to his death, knowing the Sutter land would be put up for sale. Though Washington’s Boy Willie makes a convincing argument that he is not a murderer and Pott’s colorful Wining Boy suggests it’s the vengeful “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” that caused Sutter’s fall to his death, Berniece is not convinced. Boy Willie’s presence has brought confusion and turmoil, exceptionally rendered by Washington’s Boy Willie, who appears so impassioned about selling the piano, he acts like a man possessed.
Additionally, Boy Willie’s obviation of the importance of the piano as their family legacy is answered with his apology to Berniece as if that is enough because he will sell it regardless. That answer isn’t enough for her. However, Boy Willie insists forcefully almost manically that he will use the land and make something with it, even though the deal is by word of mouth and could be another bamboozle by the Sutter family as Uncle Wining Boy suggests.
That the ghost of Sutter appears to members of the family around the same time that Boy Willie appears is more than a coincidence. That Boy Willie is the only one who doesn’t see the ghost is also more than a coincidence. Berniece, Doaker, Maretha and Wining Boy see the ghost who has been manifesting on the second floor above where Boritt’s roof timbers separate, threatening with well-paced grinding sounds (Scott Lehrer) to split the house up and fragment it completely.
Why doesn’t Boy Willie see Sutter’s ghost? Has Boy Willie become an instrument of the Sutter family, influenced/possessed by Sutter’s ghost to continue the tradition of theft, exploitation and bloodshed (the chains of slavery days) luring Boy Willie with the dream of being “his own boss?” The longer Boy Willie stays to sell a truck load of watermelons, the more the arguing and airing of grievances continues, intermingled with wonderful songs they sing, the first led by Jackson’s Doaker and the last by Potts’ Wining Boy who made a profitable living which he couldn’t sustain playing piano and cutting a few records.
However, nothing will ameliorate Boy Willie’s lust for the money the piano will bring. Finally, when push comes to shove, Berniece and Doaker do take out their guns ready to shoot Boy Willie if he and his friend Lymon (Doron JePaul Mitchell when I saw the show) remove the piano.
Brooks’ Berniece is so fervent that we believe she will shoot her brother to protect her ancestors’ legacy whose symbolism and spiritual strength she has embraced during Boy Willie’s importuning her to give it up. Washington’s Boy Willie is every inch her equal, stoked by the Sutter relative with the lure of land and his own ambition, like the Biblical Esau, willing to sell his birthright without any guarantees. Brooks and Washington are perfect foils and deliver amazing performances. Jackson’s Doaker and Pott’s Uncle Wining Boy present the stabilizing, humorous counterbalance to the frenzied brother and sister. If not for Wining Boy’s playing the piano at that heightened moment when Berniece has the gun, she would shoot Boy Willie, and Sutter’s ghost would have triumphed, completely destroying the family. Jackson’s direction and the timing of Potts and Samuel L. Jackson’s interference and distractions round out the incredible drama that moves toward the last scene of the play.
It is then that all the characters acknowledge the ghost of Sutter’s presence in the grinding sound of the house being pulled asunder by the warring spirits which also represent the values which the families prize. These are the values which Boy Willie must decide on. Should he be like the Sutters or raise up his own family’s legacy as Doaker has learned to do as a trainman and as Berniece has done steadfastly living one day at a time? Does Boy Willie have the resolve to shake off destructive forces and slowly carve out a life for himself with a lasting peace? At the top of the play Washington’s Boy Willie is so possessed by the Sutter’s offer and righting the past exploitation of his family, he can’t wait to follow them down the same pathways. However, Washington’s Boy Willie does change and is redirected.
Encouraged by everyone who feels the presence of Sutter’s ghost, preacher Avery (Trai Byers-another superb performance) who Berniece has been seeing, attempts to cast out the pernicious Sutter. He fails. Only Berniece calling on the help of her ancestors’ spirits who assist in the spiritual battle overcomes the ghost of Sutter’s presence and hold over their family. As she sings and plays the piano, on the second floor we watch the impact of her prayers and the Charles family’s spirits on Boy Willie as Washington manifests the struggle with Sutter’s ghost. As his body arches over then releases, we note that Sutter’s ghost, its tormenting lures that possessed Boy Willie leave. The two siblings are finally in agreement with Doaker and Wining Boy that what Sutter represents has no place in their family. As it leaves Boy Willie, miraculously, the house is made whole. With a grinding sound and the final sighting and restitution of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (you have to see the play to understand what happens) the separated timbers rejoin. It’s an incredible effect and magnificent, symbolic realization of Wilson’s immutable themes, about family unity in reconciliation with the past to move forward, thanks to the creative team, wonderful actors and Jackson’s direction.
Jackson’s staging and use of special effects (Jeff’s Sugg’s projection design, Lehrer’s sound design, Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, Boritt’s fabulous set) convey Boy Willie’s struggle, exorcism and redemption from the tradition of oppression, bloodshed and materialistic selfishness that have corrupted the Sutters and work to corrupt him and completely divide his family. He is only able to gain strength to be released when Brooks’ Berniece accepts how the legacy of past can be turned into a positive future by becoming the conduit of the ancestral spirits. It is their beauty, sanctity and strength that rise up to lead her, Maretha and the others forward, if they allow themselves to be led.
Boy Willie and Berniece join hands in unity. His demeanor transforms into calmness. He no longer wants to sell the piano, understanding that his family history and his identity are in unity. With the house returned to wholeness, the wicked impulses will no more occlude the lives of Berniece, Boy Willie and the others. Now they can move forward and carve their own history in the reality of their lives.
Throughout Wilson raises questions whether Boy Willie got revenge on Sutter for having his father burned alive and the question of whether he killed him to get the land in an ironic triumph. Another question is whether the Sutters are serious about selling the land to Boy Willie given the history between the two families. In the production these questions are emphasized by director Jackson’s vision of the themes and characterizations of this complicated work brought to a phenomenal apotheosis at the conclusion. However, as in life, ambuity is the spice that keeps us enthralled along with the chilling presence of the supernatural hovering.
This is a one of a kind production that exceptionally realizes August Wilson’s intent with every fiber of the artists’ prodigious efforts. I have nothing but praise for what they have done and will do for the run of the play.
For tickets and times to see this living masterpiece go to their website: https://pianolessonplay.com/