Twenty years ago the Black Rep opened their inaugural season at the Grandel with The Piano Lesson, now they are giving it another interpretation, utilizing the skills of actors who learned their craft as interns at the Black Rep and many who continue to return to the “family.” August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning script, the fourth in his Pittsburgh Cycle, has ghosts and music, avarice and love, sex and innocence. In the capable hands of director Lorna Littleway, it is a rollicking good time.
Boy Willy comes to visit his sister and uncle in Pittsburgh, ostensibly to sell his truckload of watermelons, but really to acquire and sell the family piano, carved with decades of family faces. His sister Berniece refuses to let it go. To her it is a legacy of their history, for him it is the means to a better life. And therein lies the central question, how to best honor your family legacy, how to keep your history, but let go of the pain and the ghosts so you can move forward to a better future.
Ultimately, this is a play about the transformation of black America, from slaves to free people to successful free people. Wilson tells us that you must understand and accept your past, in order to build a better future. If you remain with the ghosts as Berniece does, you cannot move forward; if you deny the ghosts as Boy Willy does, you find your future haunted and unstable. It is only accepting the pain and darkness as part of your history, and then exorcising the demons that haunt you, that allows you to build a better future. Wilson represents this future in Berniece’s daughter Maretha, charmingly played by Carli Officer, who plans to be a teacher.
Ron Conner nails the energy and passion of Boy Willy, his focus is so specific you have no doubt, from the moment he steps on the stage, what he wants and what he will do to get it. His rapid fire delivery of the script was flawless and indeed, most of the actors handled the script with fluidity and ease. Only Robert Mitchell, playing Doaker, stumbles his lines from time to time and breaks the pacing Conner sets, although I suspect getting opening night under his belt will improve his delivery, but his portrayal of family patriarch, was calm and strong.
The Piano Lesson has wonderful performances throughout. Chauncy Thomas’ Lymon, with his lanky build, adroit physical comedy and sweet, almost innocent approach to women made him one of my favorites. Ethan H. Jones’ Wining Boy was equally funny and when the four men come together to sing an old railroad work song, it is delightful. Sharisa Whatley’s Berniece has softness and strength and proves a proper foil for Boy Willy. Her scene with Thomas, which ends in a gentle kiss, was enchanting.
Tim Case’s set and Jim Burwinkel’s lights help us visualize the ghosts that surround this family. From the odd green light of slaveholder Sutter’s ghost, to the faces on the piano and walls, the past surrounds the Charles family. Daryl Harris’ costumes are spot on for period and character and I especially loved the white, silk zoot suit Lymon buys from Wining Boy.
The Piano Lesson continues at the Grandel Theatre through February 2nd.