In today’s online Wall Street Journal I review a revival of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson in Sarasota, Florida. Here’s an excerpt.
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This is August Wilson’s year. Not only is Denzel Washington’s film version of “Fences” showing in theaters all over the U.S., but “Jitney,” the first installment in Wilson’s “American Century Cycle,” has finally made it to Broadway 35 years after its premiere. On the other hand, it’s always Wilson’s year in regional theater, where his 10 plays about the black experience in America are regularly produced from coast to coast. At the same time that “Jitney” is drawing crowds in New York, “The Piano Lesson” is being performed to magnificent effect by Sarasota’s Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe, which worked wonders last season with Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and has done even better by this play…
Named after a painting by Romare Bearden and first performed in 1987, “The Piano Lesson” is a domestic drama with supernatural overtones—you might call it a kitchen-sink ghost story. At its heart are two siblings who are at odds over a family heirloom, an elaborately decorated piano whose beauty memorializes the shedding of blood and the enslaving of men and women. Boy Willie (Earley Dean) wants to sell it to a white dealer so that he can buy a farm back home in Mississippi, but Berniece (Noelle Strong) believes that to do so would be disloyal to their ancestors…
Chuck Smith, the director, says in his program note that Wilson “is to the American theater what Dr. Martin Luther King was to American civil rights.” That’s an apt comparison, though it also brings a more specifically theatrical analogy to mind: Wilson is also America’s Brian Friel, a genius of language who turned the common speech of his people into rough-hewn poetry. Nowhere is that gift better displayed than in “The Piano Lesson,” the most operatic of Wilson’s plays, which consists in the main of a series of aria-like monologues in which the six principal characters tell tales illustrative of their varying points of view.
Such an approach necessarily runs the risk of becoming discursive and unwieldy: “The Piano Lesson” is three hours long, and in a less-than-ideal performance you can feel every minute ticking by. But Mr. Smith has paced his staging carefully and filled it with sharp contrast, and he has also encouraged his actors to give big, broad, passionately extroverted performances that march up to the line of exaggeration without once stepping over it….
Ms. Strong, a new face on the regional scene, makes the most of her part, giving a precisely shaded performance that encompasses everything from stoic loneliness to deadly determination….
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Read the whole thing here.
A TV version of The Piano Lesson, adapted by the author and directed by Lloyd Richards. The cast includes Charles S. Dutton as Boy Willie and Alfre Woodard as Berniece. This version, based on and featuring most of the members of the cast of the 1990 Broadway production, was originally telecast on Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1995: