The current iteration of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre is this play’s return to Broadway after last being seen more than thirty years ago. Ironically, one of the early productions featured Samuel L. Jackson who is the star attraction now lighting up the stage in a slightly less prominent role, Doaker, the uncle of the two leading characters and Wilson’s version of a Greek chorus.
Famously, Wilson wrote ten plays, his Pittsburgh Cycle, one for each decade of the 20th Century all set in the Black neighborhood he knew well. The Piano Lesson takes place in 1936, a particularly fraught time.
The Piano Lesson is one of the least-plotted of his plays. It consists mostly of monologues revealing the inner workings of each person. Even the central symbol of hope, the looming piano in the corner, slowly becomes heavy-handed and stretched to its limits. “Hope” has very different meanings to the brother and sister at the center of the play. What gives this play its heft is how Wilson has each character bares his soul to each other and to the audience.
Within Beowulf Boritt’s extraordinarily detailed set, a musty old house—transformed into an actual character in the play, performing otherworldly machinations—sits an ornately carved, old upright piano, prominently illuminated throughout the show by Japhy Weideman’s expertly moody lighting. This is the house of Doaker Charles (Samuel L. Jackson, in a restrained, emotionally rich performance). Doaker pretty much just sits at the kitchen table and watches his little world whirl about him.
Exploding into this dusty quietude is 30-year-old Boy Willie (John David Washington, bursting at the seams with energy and anger) who is joined by the subdued, slow Lymon (Ray Fisher, large, sweet-tempered and perfect).
Boy Willie hasn’t seen his older, widowed sister Berniece (Danielle Brooks, vigorously inhabiting her character) because he was serving time at a prison farm. Now he has come with a ramshackle truck filled with hundreds of watermelons from Mississippi, hoping that he and Lymon will earn big bucks selling them so that he can buy a plot of farmland. Unfortunately, he knows he will need more capital. This is where the heirloom piano comes in.
Berniece is adamant about keeping this instrument in her house. She pins her hopes on her young daughter, Maretha (an indifferent Jurnee Swan in the performance I saw) learning to play. This piano represents in its exquisite sculptural details her family’s tormented history a potent totem.
The extended family includes Avery (portrayed by a magnetic Charles Browning, subbing for Trai Byers, at the performance under review) who wants to form his own church and who displays his charismatic leadership late in the play. He is wooing Berniece and has his own secret plans.
Doaker’s brother, Wining Boy (Michael Potts making the most of a small role) appears, too. Formerly a pianist, he actually plays the blessed instrument with some skill.
The play is weighed down with otherworldly, spiritual tales, most prominently the legend of the Yellow Dog which is explained, not entirely satisfactorily and the suggestion of ghosts of previous generations hovering about. Doaker tells the long, involved tale of a man called Sutter, the history of the piano and how the family wound up as it did.
The final character is the loose lady, Grace (April Matthis, making a quick, colorful impression) whose assignation with a sex-starved Boy Willie is tragically aborted by Berniece.
Toni-Leslie James’ costumes are character and period perfect.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson (Samuel L. Jackson’s wife) has directed in a desultory fashion. Long, revealing monologues, the backbone of this particular play, are delivered directly to the audience rather than to the other characters, making them more speeches than important character revelations. She also chose to overdo the ending, which includes an ill-advised exorcism and won’t be ruined here.
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (extended through January 29, 2023)
Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 243 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.pianolessonplay.com
Running time: two hours and 50 minutes including one intermission