The Piano Lesson: A Fine Drama about Family, Heirlooms and Their Meanings

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Christina Acosta Robinson with the piano that is the center of the dispute. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

By Karen Isaacs

 What do we do with our heirlooms? That is the focus of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson which is getting a fine production at Hartford Stage through Sunday, Nov. 13. The play is part of Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays, each one representing a different 20th century decade and telling the stories of African Americans.

The Piano Lesson is the 1930’s play which premiered at the Yale Rep in 1987 and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1990. It was Wilson’s fourth play, though the cycle was not written in chronological order and was the fourth to premier at Yale Rep after a staged workshop at the Eugene O’Neill Center in Waterford.

The heirloom in question is a carved upright piano that now resides in the home of Doaker and his niece Berniece and her daughter Maretha. We are only 60+ years removed from slavery and the family came from Mississippi. The carvings on the piano are the history of the family during slavery, carved by Berniece’s grandfather on a piano owned by Sutter, the plantation owner. On it are pictures of Berniece’s grandmother who was sold in a trade for the piano, as well as illustrations of family events and other family members. The piano was stolen from the Sutter family by Doaker and Berniece’s father who was killed in the robbery.

Berniece’s brother Boy Willie has arrived from Mississippi with his friend Lymon and a truckload of watermelons to sell. Sutter has died and his brother who lives up north is willing to sell the farm land to Boy Willie. He has some of the money, expects to get more from selling the watermelons and is determined that Berniece will sell the piano; his half of the proceeds would allow him to purchase the land.

Though Berniece doesn’t play the piano anymore, her 11-year-old daughter is taking lessons. As the play progresses, further complications enter;  Boy Willie is determined to find the white man who had come months before offering to buy the piano, plus he wants Lymon to help him remove the piano. Doaker’s brother, Wining Boy arrives; he is musician, gambler and alcoholic. There’s also Avery, the down home friend who has turned preacher and would like to marry Berniece. She is still pining for her late husband, Crawley who was killed in an escapade with Boy Willie.

The supernatural is also a part of this play — there is talk of the ghost of the yellow dog who pushes people into their wells down home (that was how Sutter died) – as well as Sutter’s ghost who seems to be inhabiting Doaker and Berniece’s house. Both of them have seen and heard the ghost though Boy Willie will not believe it. Sutter’s ghost is tied to the piano that was taken from him.

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Roscoe Orman as Doaker. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Overall, director Jade King Carroll has done an excellent job with this long (3 hour) play. It has always seemed as though Wilson needed but didn’t cut some parts of it. Carroll does a good job keeping the pace moving and focusing on the various relationships: The contentious one between Berniece and Boy Willie, the possible romance between Avery and Berniece, and the contrast between the stronger Boy Willie and his side kick Lymon.

While the central core of the play is the argument over the piano and by implication the purpose of heirlooms, it also illustrates sibling relationships, Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s as well as Doaker’s and Wining Boy’s. Berniece remembers her grandmother polishing the piano, she wants to keep the carvings of ancestors as a connection to her roots. Boy Willie sees it as an asset that can help him achieve his goal of owning land rather than being a sharecropper; of actually working the land that once was owned by those who owned his ancestors. Boy Willie believes that the whites down home will respect blacks who stand up for themselves.

Lymon, though young and seemingly less mature, plans to stay North, believing it is the only way to get ahead. He plans to settle in Pittsburgh.

This is a serious play though there are some humorous moments. Wining Boy adds touches of humor as does Lymon with his eagerness for female companionship. The scene where Wining Boy sells Lymon an old silk suit, that Wining Boy had tried to hock, than a shirt and finally a pair of ill-fitting shoes garners the most laughs. In prior productions I’ve seen, the suit was more ill-fitting than it appears here; though Wining Boy is much more rotund and shorter than Lymon, the suit fits him remarkably well.

Clifton Duncan plays Boy Willie as the brash young man who is sure that he knows

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Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

everything and believes that by talking loudly and long he will convince everyone else. Self-doubt is not part of his make-up. He has no doubt that Sutter’s brother will sell him the land; Doaker raises some questions about that. He is angry when his sister refuses to sell and when she objects to his interactions on the couch in the middle of the night with a “lady friend.”  At times he is a like bulldozer ready to run everyone in his path over. Duncan lets us see the childlike aspects of his personality; so while you may be annoyed or irritated with him, you also can admire his determination to better himself.

Berniece, as played by Christina Acosta Robinson, is more passive than I’ve seen in other productions, though she shows her backbone when needed. Yet she often seems to fade into the background surrounded by such strong characters. Her most touching scenes are the one with Lymon late at night and the ending when she finally plays the piano again.

Cleavant Derricks is Wining Boy and he turns the showy part into a scene stealer with his struts, dance moves, and shoulder shrugs. While it adds humor and lightens the mood, it also takes attention away from some of the other characters and becomes more of a caricature than a real characters.

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Galen Ryan Kane as Lyomon. Photo by T. Charles Erickson.

Lymon is the counterpoint to Boy Willie – younger, more naïve but is some ways more aware of reality. While Boy Willie thinks that an assertive personality will gain him respect from the Mississippi white, Lymon recognizes that respect may be easier in the North. Galen Ryan Kane’s portrayal is eager and enthusiastic. Yet Kane gives a core of common sense that moves him from just the stereotypical farm boy in the big city. This Lymon is not just Boy Willie’s sidekick who follows him blindly. He sees both sides of the issue of the piano.

Probably I was most disappointed in Roscoe Orman (for many years on Sesame Street) as Doaker. It was hard to tell if he was playing the role with a stutter or if he was having difficulty remembering his lines. Numerous pauses interrupted the flow of his dialogue.

Daniel Morgan Shelley gives as an Avery who is earnest and sincere; the opposite of Wining Boy. He is waiting for Berniece to end her mourning.

Elise Taylor plays Maretha, Berniece’s daughter. The role is the most underwritten; she is just there it seems to move the play along times.  Toccarra Cash is the flashy Grace, who both Willie Boy and Lymon find very attractive.

Adding to the quality of the production is the fine team of designers.  Alexis Distler has created a realistic 1930s row house showing us the dining and sitting rooms as well as the stairs and hallway on the second floor. The costumes by Toni-Leslie James again reveal character. You immediately know who Wining Boy, Avery and Berniece are just by their clothes.

Lighting designer York Kennedy and sound designer Karin Graybash have to create the impression of Sutter’s ghost, which they do effectively. Bakida Carroll has composed music that Boy Willie and Wining Boy play.

This production of The Piano Lesson is worth the time you will spend. While giving insight into the lives of African-Americans, it also raises issues with which we can all identify. After all we an heirloom or two that we must decide to keep or sell/discard.

The Piano Lesson is at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, through Sunday, Nov. 13. For tickets visit Hartford Stage or call 860-527-5151.

This content is courtesy of Shore Publicatoins and zip06.com.

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Photo by T. Charles Erickson

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