The Piano Lesson

Tulis McCall
Tulis McCall

This is a production of substance and grace. It is stacked with relationships so layered and family history branches so deep and convoluted that you practically need hip boots to wade on in to this tale. And wade on in you will definitely want to do. No question about that.

It is 1936 Pittsburgh. Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden) and his friend Lymon (Jason Dirden) have driven up from Mississippi, and the trip has taken them two days on account of their truck breaking down more than once. They arrive in the way early morning at the home that Boy Willie's sister Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) shares with their uncle Doaker (James A. Williams). Brother and sister have not seen one another in over three years, not since Berniece's husband died. The two travellers have great plans for the sale of their watermelons, and once they have the cash in hand Boy Willie plans to take possession of the piano, a family heirloom that he and his sister co-own, and sell it. With his share of the money he can buy his final piece of land back in Mississippi. Boy Willie has a chance to make a dream come true, and he is depending on his family to help make it happen.

Berniece, however, has no intention of letting this piano get out of the family. It has history and it has lessons carved into it. Her great-grandmother and grandfather were traded for that piano. It was her great grandfather who carved the history of his family into it at the request of his master Sutter, whose wife Ophelia had grown to regret the trade and wanted her slaves back. The new owner would not sell them, so the carving brought them back as close as it could. Years later, Berniece and Boy Willie's father, Charles, stole the piano back into the family.

This piano is not going anywhere.

So there you have it. An immovable meets an irresistible force. And we get to see the two collide. These two siblings are more than estranged - and the fact that Berniece's husband died as a result of a caper he shared with Boy Willie and Lymon just adds gasoline to the fire. These two siblings are in different solar systems, and the characters that surround their connection to each other are satellites of equal strength and variety.

Each character in this story is imbued with specificity and vibrance, and under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson each is realized by a more than terrific cast. Brandon J. Dirden is a powerhouse as Boy Willie. Roslyn Ruff's Berniece is steady and made of steel she created herself in order to survive and pave a road for her daughter. Doaker lives a life of solitude and awareness, having lost his own marriage and watching humanity flow from point to point on the train where he works. James A. Williams provides gravitas and poignancy to Doaker. Chuck Cooper (Wining Boy - Doaker's brother) is expansive and generous in his portrayal of a man living day to day, with some serious consideration directed to his personal rear view mirror. Jason Dirden's Lymon possesses an innocence as well as a daring spirit. These are the Major Arcana of this Tarot deck.

The Piano Lesson is many lessons all packed into one collection of people, who, like all of us, possess magic and secrets, shining gifts and shameful memories, extraordinary moments and daily deeds. They are raw and ragged. They are wistful and practical. They scratch at the ties that bind them, and provide balm when the ties chaff to the point of drawing blood.

They are no more extraordinary than any one of us, except for the fact that they live on the page that August Wilson left for us as a bequest. That makes us kin.

(Tulis McCall)

"This immensely satisfying show, ..., brings a timely reminder of how consoling, how restorative, how emotionally sustaining great theater can be."
Charles Isherwood for New York Times

"This deeply moving work about the lingering scars of slavery on a 1930s Pittsburgh family is getting a sterling revival."
Frank Scheck for New York Post

"A powerful production that does justice to Wilson's profound writing and deserves a longer life on Broadway."
Clifford Lee Johnson III for Back Stage

"In all, the cast is superb."
David Cote for Time Out New York

"A magnificent revival.
Marilyn Stasio and Variety

External links to full reviews from popular press...

New York Times - New York Post - Back Stage - Time Out New York - Variety

Originally published on

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