by Mike “Buzz” Buzzelli, ‘Burgh Vivant.
Huzzah! A rare theatrical event has taken place. There is an August Wilson play at the August Wilson Center, and its breathing new life into the iconic building. Ironically, “ The Piano Lesson” is about the value of something long-unused, an item of importance that lay fallow.
When Willie Boy (Wali Jamal) heads north to visit his sister Berniece (Karla C. Payne) in her Hill District home, all hell (figuratively and literally) breaks loose. He and his friend Lymon (Monteze Freeland) cause a ruckus, the first of many, when they enter the house at five in the morning.
Willie Boy’s uncle Doaker (Kevin Brown) receives him warmly, but his sister Berniece does not. She knows he’s scheming something, and she can’t wait to be rid of him. It doesn’t take too long to reveal that Willie Boy wants to sell the family piano so he can buy a piece of land in the South.
The piano has historical significance to their family, and Berniece has a love/hate relationship with the wooden heirloom. Each ivory key resonates with the pain of past suffering. Doaker doesn’t take sides in the family disagreement, but he explains the macabre history of the device. He simply says, “Ain’t nobody said nothing about who’s right and who’s wrong. I was just telling the man about the piano. I was telling him why we say Berniece ain’t gonna sell it.”
Meanwhile, Doaker gets a visit from his brother Wining Boy (Garbie Dukes), a musician and gambler. Berniece is courted by a novice preacher, Avery (Edwin Lee Gibson), while mourning the death of her husband and tending to her daughter Maretha (alternately played by Trysta Miri Lei Fields and Nia Woodson). In an additional subplot, Willie Boy and Lyman vie for the affections of Grace (Brenda Marks). There’s an unseen presence in the story as well.
Wilson’s play won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990. It also won the New York Drama Critic’s Circle Award, Drama Desk and a Tony for Best play that same year. “Piano Lesson” packs quite a punch. It’s a humorous drama with some metaphysical overtones. It’s a lyrical, beautiful play. Though, it is a bit long and there are a few moments of repetitive dialogue, particularly the roundabout over the upright.
Mark Clayton Southers returns to the director’s chair, after an extended stay in the hospital from complications from a car crash. He picked some of the best actors on the Pittsburgh stage to join him in this new collaboration between the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust and the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre. Everyone hands in stellar performances, and the air in the August Wilson Center was electric, palpable.
Jamal shines as the desperate and devious sharecropper. Though he had some opening night jitters, Jamal handed in a terrific performance. It’s no small feat. The role has been performed by heavyweights Samuel L. Jackson and Charles S. Dutton.
Payne does a marvelous job. Being a widowed, black woman in 1930s Pittsburgh isn’t an easy task, but her character carries the weight of it without making it a burden. When she’s delivering a speech, it’s easy to forget where Berniece ends and Payne begins.
The final scene thrusts the play forward like a freight train (actually, just like a freight train), and the family learns to love and respect one another, if only for a little while longer. It’s a surreal moment in a very real play, but it works here.
Scenic Designer Tony Ferrieri does another splendid job. This time he’s recreating the feel and texture of a 1930s Hill District home, which was perfectly complemented by Cheryl Walker’s costumes.
“The Piano Lesson” asks, “What do you do with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use?” Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust know the answer that question. The August Wilson Center is back, and Pittsburgh is richer for it.
“The Piano Lesson” runs November 13-15 and 19-21 at the August Wilson Center. For more information, click here.