August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Piano Lesson features the playwright working at full throttle; it is a self-assured work filled with a banquet of theatrical treats. The play is part of Wilson’s ten-piece Century Cycle that explores the lives of African Americans living in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Here we meet the Charles family struggling to establish a toehold in the harsh climate of a post Depression America. A top-notch cast and the Seattle Rep’s outstanding production values help make this a rewarding night of theater.
The piece explores how the Charles family can come to terms with their horrific legacy of slavery. Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandparents were Mississippi slaves and the story of the piano that sits in Berniece’s parlor is inextricably linked to that heritage. Berniece wants to honor her family and hold on to the instrument, while her 30 year-old brother, Boy Willie, is intent on selling the piano to buy land and thus be put on equal footing with the white men who held so much power over his people.
Wilson skillfully develops this essential dilemma amidst the vibrant lives of a host of entertaining characters that come in and out of the Charles’ parlor. Oregon Shakespeare star Derrick Lee Weeden is Doaker, the owner of the house, and Berniece’s uncle. His story telling skills bring a great deal of the vibrant family back-story to life. G. Valmont Thomas is his older brother Winning Boy, a disillusioned piano player, struggling to find a role for himself beyond the honkytonks.
Erika LaVonn plays Berneice, a hardened widow who approaches her family tasks with a weary resignation. Her final scene in which she acknowledges the power of her heritage provides one of the highlights of the evening. Ken Robinson ably handles the role of Avery, the patient suitor ready to court Berniece if she can ever move past the loss of her husband. Stephen Tyrone Williams has some spellbinding moments as Boy Willie, a man determined to better his lot, even if he must leave his family behind in doing so.
The play is filled with what Wilson called “the poetry of everyday Black America.” Here are tales of the railroad, musicians on the road, loves won and lost, brushes with the law, revengeful ghosts, slave life and prison terms.
The transformative moment in the play occurs in act one when the men begin singing a prison folk song. Suddenly the rich history from which the Charles family has emerged takes a tangible shape on the stage, right in front of the audience. It is one of the more magical moments I have experienced in the theater in a long time.
The Piano Lesson is directed by Timothy Bond. William Bloodgood is responsible for the spot-on set. A stirring blues themed set of background tunes was composed by Michael G. Keck. The show runs through February 8 at The Seattle Repertory Theatre in the Seattle Center. Go to http://www.seattlerep.org for ticket information.