An heirloom piano is the eye of a sibling storm of discontent, prominent in the home and the play. When Boy Willie shows up on the doorstep of his uncle’s home in the Hill, he brings with him much turmoil and lofty dreams as he stirs up a painful past. His sister Bernice, who arrived in Pittsburgh with the piano, will not part with it and becomes the obstacle Boy Willie must overcome.
Swept in the undertow are others who arrived with the Great Migration: Doaker (the uncle); Lymon who arrived with Boy Willie and is weighing his options in the North, Wining Boy (Doaker’s brother), an itinerate musician and Bernice’s suitor, and Avery, also from down home and a newly minted preacher. They all share the roots of strife, pain, indignities and a lack of self-determination; all up north to create redemption, except Boy Willie want to establish stability and value in the family by purchasing the land they used to work.
This core group embodies the best of ensemble acting. Wali Jamal practically morphs and oozes Boy Willie out of his pores with his best work to date. Kevin Brown is Doaker, the rock in this tale, as he is in almost every role he touches, the voice of reason and wisdom in his steadying presence. Karla C. Payne is a revelation on the no-nonsense yet obsessively sentimental Berneice who claims a bond with the piano and an unfortunate familiarity of loss.
It would be a disservice to refer to Edwin Lee Gibson, Monteze Freeland, Garbie Dukes and Brenda Marks as supporting players because all of their performances add the luster and shine of Wilson’s words and the performance. On the night of this review, Trysta Miri Lei Fields was on the money as Bernice’s young daughter (she share with role with Nia Woodson).
Weaving these elements together is director Mark Clayton Southers (whose last directing job was “Fences”), drawing on his extensive connection with Wilson and his work through script and life as a fellow Hill District native. Southers is uniquely able pull and illuminate subtle nuances in the play.
Kudos to the attention to detail in directing and setting light design by Bob Steineck; sound by Mark Whitehead, wardrobe and make-up by the incomparable Cheryl El Walker, who will work two shows simultaneously and not miss a beat.
The universality of the theme of reconciliation and the need for it certainly helped to deliver the Pulitzer Prize and Drama Desk Critics Award.
“The Piano Lesson” ran through Nov. 21 at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, located at 980 Liberty Ave., in the Cultural District.
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