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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 30, 2015 - Volume 43 Issue 05
The Piano Lesson - a lesson worth learning
Arts & Entertainment
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The Piano Lesson - a lesson worth learning

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

THE PIANO LESSON
SEATTLE REPERTORY THEATRE
January 16-February 8


The Piano Lesson is the 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson. Telling the story of an African-American family in 1936 Pittsburgh, the play raises the questions: How much of our past history makes us who we are today? And what obligations do we have to honor it?

There is one stage set - the living room of the Doaker Charles' household - and all the action of the play takes place over a few days. The story revolves around Doaker Charles (Derrick Lee Weeden), his niece Berniece, her brother Boy Willie, and a family heirloom - a beautiful hand-carved piano depicting the family's slavery legacy. Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) arrives in Pittsburgh from down South with his friend Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) to convince his sister Berniece (Erika La Vonn) to sell the family heirloom piano.

Years ago Sutter (the head of the slave-holding family that owned Boy Willie and Berniece's great-grandparents and their children) broke up the family by selling off a mother (their great-grandmother) and a son (their grandfather) to buy a piano for his wife. The wife, although delighted with the gift, missed her slaves, so Sutter had their images carved into the piano. Sometime after World War I, Boy Willie's and Berniece's two uncles (Doaker Charles and Wining Boy) and their father stole the piano from the Sutter home. While their uncles got away with the piano, their father was shot and he died at the scene. Berniece took custody of the piano and watched her mother polish it daily with blood and tears; but Berniece refused to play the piano after her Mama Ola's death. The piano now stands practically abandoned but an ever-constant reminder of where they came from, and what they have accomplished since.

Weeden brings a sense of 'family historian storyteller' to his character of Doaker Charles. Charles, the patriarch in the family, shows support for his niece and nephew, but also is educating future generations on the history of the past. Weeden's voice is rich and deep enough to read a phone book and be entertaining, but his ability to show Doaker's vulnerability goes far beyond. Stephen Tyrone Williams' portrayal of Boy Willie expertly shows the conflicts between having one foot rooted in the past and his ambition to try and make a future for himself. His struggles are recognized as the sharecropper who wants to get ahead. Erika LaVonn does excellent work showing the inner turmoil of Berniece's feelings and desires. She allows the audience to empathize with her struggles to remember her family's past and her fears of becoming lost in it. Every actor in the play does a great job with their roles and characters using accents and personality traits that make these characters come alive. The remaining characters in the play are all performed very well and lend their support to the main set of conflicts. G. Valmont Thomas' portrayal of Wining Boy adds humor and a certain poignancy to the show. Yaegel T. Welch, as charming Lymon, gives his character a charming naiveté bringing further range to the show.

The play is a very well written and tightly acted drama. The tension of the sharecropping days versus the modernization and meshing of the African American family into American culture is brought out by August Wilson's brilliant writing, adding further dimension to the fourth installment of 'The Pittsburgh Cycle' of plays; ten plays are in the series with only one (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) taking place in Chicago and not Pittsburgh. Wilson's writing shows the journey of the African-American trying to find their place - from slavery to sharecropping to an established piece of the American pie.

The play brings a lot of thought to the audience long after the curtain falls. What are the responsibilities that we have to our pasts? What should we bring with us into the future and what information do we pass onto future generations? Can we leave behind the scars of yesterday or do they make up who we are today? Go see The Piano Lesson and come to your own conclusions.

The Piano Lesson made its first preview on Broadway April 10, 1990 and ran for over 325 performances. The play was nominated for five Tony Awards in the 1990 Season including Best Play. It was nominated for (and won) the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 1995 saw the Hallmark Hall of Fame television production of the play (airing on CBS), starring Alfre Woodard and Charles S. Dutton, who recreated his 1990 Tony-nominated performance.

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