The first Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is full of stars and ghosts. The ghosts are what make it brilliant.
Don’t misunderstand. It’s thrilling that:
-Samuel L. Jackson, veteran of some 150 films, returns to the play in which he made his Broadway debut as an understudy three decades ago, which is now directed by his wife, Latanya Richardson Jackson
-newly minted movie star John David Washington is making his Broadway debut a dozen years after his movie star father Denzel Washington won a Tony Award for his role in August Wilson’s “Fences” (which, like “The Piano Lesson,” earned Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama)
-Danielle Brooks, who delighted fans nationwide with her portrayal of Tasha “Taystee” Jefferson on the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black is returning to Broadway a half dozen years after her Tony-nominated Broadway debut in “The Color Purple.”
It would be foolish to deny the appeal and the power of their celebrity.
But they work as an ensemble, portraying a family of storytellers in a play haunted by ghosts – literal, metaphoric, historic…above all, by August Wilson, who died in 2005, the year he completed his ten-play series that he had spent the last 26 years of his life writing. Called The Pittsburgh Cycle, or sometimes the American Century Cycle, it dramatizes the African American experience in the twentieth century, one play for each decade, all taking place in the Hill district of Pittsburgh.
“The Piano Lesson” is in the fourth decade, set in 1936; its characters still reeling from the brutalities of the South, as they adjust to an unfamiliar Northern world of movies and skyscrapers.
On the surface, the play focuses on the fight between a brother and a sister over a piano. Boy Willie (Washington) has traveled up from his hometown in Mississippi with his friend Lymon (Ray Fisher) to the Pittsburgh home of his Uncle Doaker (Jackson) to sell watermelons, and to retrieve the family piano. He wants to sell the piano in order to help him afford to buy a farm back home. But his sister Berniece (Brooks), a young widow who has recently moved with her daughter to live with her Uncle Doaker doesn’t want to sell the piano.
But their disagreement is steeped in history and blood and death. It is an elaborate and spellbinding tale, parceled out to the different characters to tell — how that piano was bought by the slave owner Robert Sutter for his wife Miss Ophelia, how in order to afford the piano Sutter sold two of Miss Ophelia’s slaves; how those slaves were Berniece and Boy Willie’s father and grandmother; how another enslaved family member of Berniece and Boy Willie’s, a woodworker, carved the faces of the family into the wood of the piano. Their father eventually stole the piano, and was killed as a result.
Now generations later, Sutter’s grandson has suddenly died; he fell down the well on his farm. It’s his farm — the farm where Berniece and Boy Willie’s family worked as slaves — that Boy Willie wants to buy.
Sutter is said to have been the latest white victim in the area of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (eventually explained by another spellbinding story.) Shortly after Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh, Berniece sees Sutter upstairs, wearing the blue suit in which he was buried – a literal ghost in a play that slips in and out of the supernatural.
The eight-member cast is adept at handling the horror, but also capturing August Wilson’s inimitable cadences, and his abundant humor; August Wilson’s pitch-perfect ear elevated bickering into an art form.
Samuel L. Jackson, one of the most reliable actors in a Hollywood, here portrays the most level-headed character in the play. Doaker has worked for the railroad for 27 years. He mediates between the two fiery offspring of his dead older brother. The character is not supposed to stand out.
“Boy Willie ain’t nothing but a whole lot of mouth,” his sister Berniece says, and John David Washington attacks the role energetically. But he has the disadvantage of portraying the character that Charles S. Dutton made indelible, both on Broadway and in a 1995 TV movie (which is available online.)
Of the three well-known performers, Danielle Brooks stands out the most, her face an expressive journey, angry and grief-stricken at the death of her husband three years earlier, which she blames on Boy Willie. She is devastating when she tells what the piano meant to her, how her mother “polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in… mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it.” But she is also exquisite – touching, warm and funny – in a scene with Boy Willie’s friend Lyman, her very posture revealing the years of loneliness as Lyman tests out a bottle of perfume that he bought for a dollar from a man who said it was from Paris “This is the same kind of perfume the Queen of France wear.”
Ray Fisher may not be quite as well-known as his three starry castmates (I found him terrific as Muhammad Ali in “Fetch Clay Make Man” Off Broadway nine years ago; he later became movie superhero Victor Stone/Cyborg.) But he deserves as much attention in his overdue Broadway debut, as the embodiment of the Southerner’s first moments up North. There is that brief semi-courtship scene with Berniece. He’s such a rube that he asks Avery (Trai Byers) if he isn’t afraid the rope will break in the elevator he operates, and he happily buys a suit several sizes too small from Berniece’s other uncle, the hard-drinking Wining Boy (Michael Potts.)
This is one of several choice moments immeasurably aided by costume designer Toni-Leslie James. Beowulf Boritt’s rustic two-tiered wooden set offers a hint of the Southern rural and the Pittsburgh urban, and sound designer Scott Lehrer works with lighting designer Japery Weideman in turning the play into a ghost story. But of course it’s August Wilson who is most responsible for haunting us with the still-present ghosts of America’s past.
The Piano Lesson
At Ethel Barrymore through January 15, 2023
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including intermission
Tickets: $48 to $318
Written by August Wilson
Directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson
Scenic Design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design by Japhy Weideman; Sound Design by Scott Lehrer; Wig Design by Cookie Jordan; Projection Design by Jeff Sugg
Cast: Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker Charles, Danielle Brooks as Berniece, John David Washington as Boy Willie. Trai Byers as Avery, April Matthis as Grace, Ray Fisher as Lymon, and Michael Potts as Wining Boy, Nadia Daniel and Jurnee Elizabeth Swan as Maretha, Understudies: Shirine Babb, Charles Browning, Peter Jay Fernandez, Sharina Martin, Warner J. Miller, Doron JéPaul Mitchell and Kim Sullivan.
Photographs by Julieta Cervantes