August Wilson’s Beautiful Music Comes Alive on Broadway

While not all of the stellar cast of actors conjure the majestic rhythmicity of ‘The Piano Lesson’ with equal force, they are able to do justice to Wilson’s language under director LaTanya Richardson Jackson’s reverent guidance.

Julieta Cervantes
Samuel L. Jackson in ‘The Piano Lesson.’ Julieta Cervantes

Since George Floyd’s murder in 2020, diversity has emerged as a central concern on Broadway, both in telling new stories and in retelling old ones. The fall season has already brought stirring revivals of “Death of A Salesman” and the musical “1776” in which non-traditional casting features prominently.  

There is still something to be said, however, for staying close to the author’s original vision in reviving a play or musical. Just as classic works should be open to new interpretation, directors should be allowed to keep authenticity foremost in mind when honoring the characters, themes, and language offered by great writers.

This is more easily done in our current cultural climate when the writer is someone like August Wilson, who traced the journey of black Americans through the 20th century in 10 plays, two of which won Pulitzer Prizes. Like Arthur Miller, Wilson combined moral conviction with ferocious compassion; rather than judging individuals, both men warned of the dangers of a society that doesn’t respect their dignity and frailty. 

In Wilson’s case, this was accomplished with a poetry and musicality informed by the struggles he chronicled, particularly as they were captured in the blues recordings he cited as a key influence. As much as any playwright I can think of, he wrote dialogue that sings even on the page; on stage, it can be transporting when handled properly.

For her new revival of “The Piano Lesson,” Wilson’s second Pulitzer winner, LaTanya Richardson Jackson — making her Broadway directorial debut as the first woman to helm a Wilson play there — has enlisted a stellar cast including such noted actors as her husband, Samuel L. Jackson, “BlacKkKlansman” star John David Washington (Denzel’s son), and “Orange Is the New Black” alumna Danielle Brooks. 

If they don’t all conjure the play’s majestic rhythmicity with equal force and fluidity, they are able, under Ms. Richardson Jackson’s robust and unapologetically reverent guidance, to do justice to the sheer beauty of Wilson’s language and to his uncompromising humaneness.

Set in 1936 in Pittsburgh — Wilson’s birthplace, where most of his plays unfold — “Piano Lesson” focuses on members of the Charles family, the descendants of slaves. Doaker Charles lives with his widowed niece, Berniece, and her young daughter, Maretha. Their house, as represented by veteran scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, is eerily austere but boasts an imposing centerpiece: a piano, embellished with “mask-like figures resembling totems,” as the stage directions indicate, “carved in the manner of African sculpture.”

The carpenter responsible for these carvings was an ancestor of the Charleses, a slave separated from his wife and son when his owner, whose surname was Sutter, traded them for a piano. When Sutter’s wife came to miss the woman and child, the carpenter was enlisted to use his craft to provide likenesses of his lost family. Generations later, Berniece’s grandfather and his two brothers, including Doaker, decided to steal the piano from the Sutters; they succeeded, but at a tragic cost.

As “Piano Lesson” opens, Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, has just arrived from Mississippi, where the most recent Sutter to run the family farm has just died under mysterious circumstances. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano so that he can buy his own land, but Berniece is not keen to do so — or to have him around, for that matter. She believes that a ghost has begun haunting the premises, and has a theory about who it is and why it has turned up. 

Making his Broadway debut as Boy Willie, Mr. Washington proves a nimble actor and an undeniably charismatic presence, but he can overplay the character’s brashness. Frankly, I found myself responding to this Willie with less empathy — so core a feature in Wilson’s work — than I have in seeing other productions. 

Ms. Brooks’s Berniece, in contrast, is expertly measured; though her cadence and bearing seem a bit contemporary at times, she relays the young woman’s resilience with authority and grace. Mr. Jackson deftly shows us both Doaker’s restraint and his conviction, and Ray Fisher is funny and endearing as Lymon, Willie’s naïve friend and would-be business partner.

The actors who most vividly capture the pulse and lyricism of Wilson’s writing, though, are Michael Potts — a veteran of the playwright’s work, on stage and screen — and Trai Byers, an alumnus of TV’s “Empire,” who respectively play Wining Boy, Doaker’s louche elder brother, and Avery, a fledgling preacher courting Berniece. 

The two characters couldn’t be more different: Earnest Avery is all fired up about serving God, while Wining Boy, a failed musician and gambler — despite his blustery protestations to the contrary — wouldn’t chase salvation any further than the bottom of a bottle. For Wilson, though, both are souls grappling with legacies of injustice, as well as their own foibles, and Messrs. Potts and Byers find the music in their anecdotes and observations: gospel-like for Avery, bluesier and more rollicking for Wining Boy.

In fact, Mr. Potts offers a supple performance of a couple of short musical numbers in “Piano Lesson,” while Mr. Jackson sings at another point and Mr. Washington leads the men in buoyant song at another. At its best, this production reminds us how Wilson made speech itself swing, and pierce, and inspire. If only he were around to document this century.

The New York Sun

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