"The Piano Lesson,” is one of many plays about the African American experience that the late August Wilson produced during his long collaboration with Yale Repertory Theatre. Happily, it is currently being revived with a top-notch cast under the superb direction of Liesl Tommy and includes original music by Elsa Davis. The story takes place during the 1930’s in an area of Pittsburg where many Black folk have migrated to from the South. It’s a haunting, morality play that weighs a proud, ancestral heritage against survival, and letting go of the past.
Anyone who has watched “Antiques Road Show” can understand a person’s amazement at learning the high value of an inherited treasure and the subsequent dilemma of whether to insure the object and keep it in the family or to sell it for what it is worth. Sometimes the object’s monetary value is more than the owner’s house. What would you do? In this African American family’s case, an antique, hand-carved piano depicting images of departed relatives means much more than its monetary worth. Its spiritual symbolism and psychological impact evolves into haunting ghosts representing slavery, white ownership and present day guilt.
When “Boy Willie” (LeRoy McClain) accompanied by his friend “Lymon” (Charlie Hudson) invades his sister Berniece’s (Elsa Davis) household and announces that he wants to sell the family’s heir loom piano, half of which is his, in order to buy the land that their family once worked on as slaves, he unleashes a highly emotional drama that affects his sister and the rest of the family which consists of Berniece’s young daughter, “Maretha” (Malenky Welsh) who is expected to inherit the piano, and uncle, “Doaker” (Keith Smith), who is a rail road employee and part time resident. Other members of the cast are Charles Weldon as an itinerant musician, “Wining Boy,” Tyrone Mitchell as Berniece’s new suitor, a minister called “Avery,” and Joniece Pratt as Lymon’s loose girlfriend, “Grace.” The entire cast is outstanding. Several members are multitalented singers and musicians who break out into some piano “Boogie-Woogie” and rhythmic, table slapping, railroad/convict work songs. The recently included “Berta Berta,” is a fine example of a stirring, seldom seen, African American song-style that is certainly worth the hearing and seeing for its own sake.
Be prepared to accept that the play is 3 1/2 hours long with one intermission. Much of it could be cut, but then, part of its prose would be lost. Speaking of language, some members of the audience (alas, truth be said that most attendees were not African American) were standing in line for the women’s rest room and comparing notes. They found it difficult to understand the fast-paced dialect and misinterpreted how some of the characters were related. It would help to further identify the characters in the program notes and slow down the dialogue until the audience gets its drift.
“The Piano Lesson” is a play about the African American experience, but it contains a universal message for all cultures that had to struggle in a new land in order achieve success. The acting is so real that you will feel part of this slice of life. Don’t miss this rare experience.
Plays until February 19. For more information and tickets, call the Box Office: 203-432-1234.