Artistic Director Emily Mann brings Princeton a fourth play by American playwright August Wilson. Gem of the Ocean, Fences, and Radio Golf have preceded The Piano Lesson at McCarter Theatre Center, which just so happens to be the fourth play of the Pittsburgh/Century Cycle of a ten plays by Wilson. The cycle illustrates African-American experiences each decade from the 1900s – 1990s. Over 10 years ago, Jade King Carroll assisted Ruben Santiago-Hudson on August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean as a directing intern at McCarter. She has previously directed Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Seven Guitars, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf, and fittingly comes full circle back to McCarter directing The Piano Lesson.
The Piano Lesson was the winner of a Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1990, and a Peabody Award in 1996. It was inspired by the collage Piano Lesson created by American painter and collagist Romare Bearden.
“What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence.”~ August Wilson on Romare Bearden’s Art (Fishman 134)
The Piano Lesson is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s childhood neighborhood, in 1936 during the Great Migration. The story focuses on the Charles family, their legacy, and how they have chosen to honor it over generations, and to where the path is leading. The two siblings in the story have different points of view regarding their legacy, restitution, retribution, and obligation. They take us on a journey disclosing how they resolve their conflict. The presence of superstition, humor, and music tie everything together.
Land is something God is not making more of. You can always get you another piano. ~ Boy Willie
A piano sits in Uncle Doaker’s living room. Boy Willie sees it as his ticket to a brighter future after he is given the opportunity, for a limited time, to recover the land of his family’s former slave owner. He saved money over the years as one part of the payment, purchased a truckload of watermelon with his friend Lymon who drove them up to Pittsburgh to sell as the second part of the payment, and has hopes to sell the piano and keep half of the proceeds in order cover the remaining cost of the land. Boy Willie wants to leave his mark just as his father Boy Charles did when he stole the piano.
Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for 17 years. For 17 years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in, mixed it up with the rest of the blood in it. ~ Beniece
His sister Berniece claims that Boy Willie thinks like their father Boy Charles did. Boy Charles’ father and grandmother were slaves sold for the piano. He unlawfully retrieved the piano from the former slave owners of their family. He was later found and for it killed. This left their mother, Mama Ola, a grieving widow. She feels obligated as a guardian to preserve her family’s legacy by passing down the heirloom along with all of its significance.
Berniece has lived with her 11 year-old daughter Maretha at Uncle Doaker’s house since after the death of her husband, Crawley. Doaker is the patriarch holding the family together. His brother Wining Boy is a ramblin’, gamblin’, former recording artist, who just so happens to be passing through town during Boy Willie’s visit. While there, Doaker shares how the carvings on the piano explains the family history. View the Charles family tree here.
This vibrant cast was powerful. Stephen Tyrone Williams (Boy Willie), Miriam A. Hyman (Berniece), Cleavant Derricks (Wining Boy), John Earl Jelks (Doaker), David Pegram (Lymon), Owiso Odera (Avery), Shannon Janee Antalan (Grace), and Frances Brown (Maretha) gave stellar performances. Director Jade King Carroll has a strong understanding of an August Wilson play, and it translates into powerhouse production that will immediately draw you in and lift you up, making The Piano Lesson a must-see (twice)!
Music can transport us to a different time and place, and the selections in this play paint a picture of life in the 30s for African-Americans. Boogie woogie, blues, and gospel are represented. The prison work song Berta Berta is derived from slave field songs, and is the root of spirituals and gospel music. Stephen Tyrone Williams (Boy Willie), David Pegram (Lymon), Cleavant Derricks (Wining Boy), and John Earl Jelks (Doaker) made this a highlight. The singing, stomping, and banging were so powerful that it stirred emotions from within. Derricks sings Travelin’ Man as he plays the piano and Jelks sings The Railroad Song, both showcasing genres of the day.
The Piano Lesson is playing on the Berlind stage at McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton until February 7, 2016. Run time is 3 hours with intermission. Age appropriate for those 13 and older. Tickets cost $35 – $94.50 and can be purchased online or by calling 609-258-2787.