All the celebrities that have starred in 'The Piano Lesson'
Lots of stars have flocked to August Wilson's Pulitzer-winning play on stage and screen.
In 1990, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson premiered on Broadway. It had an impressive cast: Charles S. Dutton (The Practice), S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order), and a young Samuel L. Jackson (Marvel’s The Avengers) in his Broadway debut as an understudy. Now, Jackson is leading the first Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson, directed by his wife, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, a Tony nominee for her performance in A Raisin in the Sun in 2014.
But those aren't the only celebrities in this production. The cast of this revival is as impressive as the premiere; it includes Danielle Brooks (Orange Is the New Black), John David Washington (Tenet), Ray Fisher (Justice League), and more.
That’s the right treatment for Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning work, one of 10 plays chronicling the history of Black life in the Pennsylvania city (collectively called The Pittsburgh Cycle). The Piano Lesson is set in 1936 during the Great Depression. The Black Charles family is debating whether to sell their heirloom piano, which displays the carved images of their enslaved ancestors.
Before seeing The Piano Lesson, now at the Barrymore Theatre through January, find out more about all the celebrities that have starred in The Piano Lesson on stage and screen.
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Samuel L. Jackson
In this Piano Lesson revival, Samuel L. Jackson plays Doaker Charles, the patriarch of the Charles family. He lives with his niece Berniece and is the keeper of the family’s history, including the history of the piano, which has been passed down by word of mouth.
Jackson has his own long history with The Piano Lesson. He began his professional stage career in 1990 as an understudy in the original Broadway production. Jackson was last seen on Broadway in 2012 playing Dr. Martin Luther King in The Mountaintop.
In film and television, Jackson has had a long career playing tough men with a soft spot, with notable roles in Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, and the Star Wars prequel. Marvel fans will know Jackson as the super-spy Nick Fury, a role he’s played in 11 Marvel films and will play again in the upcoming Disney+ series Secret Invasion. In 2022, Jackson was recognized for his contribution to film with an honorary award at the Oscars.
Brooks made a mainstream splash when she played the prison inmate Taystee in all six seasons of Orange Is the New Black on Netflix. She currently stars in Peacemaker on HBO as Leota Adebayo, a good friend of the titular antihero. But Brooks is as talented on stage as she is on screen, having received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Sofia in the 2015 Broadway revival of The Color Purple.
She handles Shakespeare as beautifully as she does musicals; her performance as Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing in Shakespeare in the Park in 2019 earned her critical acclaim (and you can watch the performance on PBS’s Great Performances).
In the revival of The Piano Lesson, Danielle Brooks plays Berniece, Doaker’s niece who wants to keep the family’s piano. It's a full-circle moment for Brooks, as she auditioned for — and got into — the prestigious Juilliard School with one of Berniece's monologues from The Piano Lesson.
John David Washington
Washington, mainly a screen actor, was last seen as the time-traveling Protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s film Tenet, and previously received a Golden Globe nomination for his performance in BlacKkKlansman. He's now making his Broadway debut in The Piano Lesson playing Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother who wants to sell the piano and buy the land where their ancestors were enslaved.
John David Washington's dad is Denzel Washington, who won a Tony for his own performance in a Wilson play (2016's Fences) and produced film adaptations of Fences and Ma Rainey's Black Bottom for Netflix. If John David Washington is anything like his father, The Piano Lesson may be his first Broadway show and first Wilson play, but it won't be his last.
Prior to acting, Washington was a pro football player for the Sacramento Mountain Lions.
Audiences know Fisher best as the tortured superhero Cyborg in the film Justice League. He also had a main role in the third season of the crime anthology series True Detective on HBO. Though The Piano Lesson is his Broadway debut, Fisher got his start in theatre, doing Shakespeare productions regionally. In 2012, he played Muhammad Ali in the 2013 off-Broadway production of the play Fetch Clay, Make Man at New York Theatre Workshop to critical acclaim. In this show, Fisher plays Lymon, a close friend of Boy Willie who has romantic feelings for Berniece.
Michael Potts plays Wining Boy in The Piano Lesson. He's the older brother of Jackson's Doaker Charles who can’t move on from the past. Potts himself has a past history with Wilson’s plays: He was in the 2020 Netflix adaptation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the 2017 Broadway revival of Jitney. On Broadway, Potts also starred in the original casts of The Book of Mormon and The Prom.
Potts is also a veteran screen actor, whom audiences may recognize from True Detective, The Wire, and Law & Order.
Charles S. Dutton
Charles S. Dutton played Boy Willie in the original Piano Lesson on Broadway and its pre-Broadway runs, earning a nomination for Best Actor in a Play at the Tony Awards. Dutton reprised his role for the 1995 television film adaptation of The Piano Lesson, this time getting nominated for a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award. Though he spent a long time with the role, he once told The New York Times he never tired of it.
"No matter how gregarious or buffoonish he can be when he talks about what he's going to do, there is an emotional being there who really has a drive," he said in the interview. "And there's the fact that he's a black farmer trying to obtain some land in the Depression, when even a white farmer couldn't get a piece of land. I think he speaks for lower and middle America across the board, black, white, green, orange, their aspirations, their dreams, their desire for just a little pinch of independence.''
As if that wasn't enough to prove that Dutton is an August Wilson expert, he also starred in Wilson’s play Ma Rainey's Black Bottom both times it was on Broadway, in 1984 and 2003. He played the tortured trumpeter Levee in both productions, earning a Tony nomination for the first run.
On screen, Dutton has also gotten Emmy nominations for Oz, The Practice, and Without a Trace.
S. Epatha Merkerson
Opposite Dutton in the original cast of The Piano Lesson on Broadway was S. Epatha Merkerson, who received a Best Featured Actress in a Play Tony nomination for her performance as Berniece. She first assumed the role in The Piano Lesson's pre-Broadway production in Chicago, and according to a Los Angeles Times article, her understudy only had to step in three times between then and the end of the Broadway run, which amounted to more than two years in total.
Merkerson is also an Emmy winner and Golden Globe winner for starring in the HBO television film Lackawanna Blues, based on Ruben Santiago-Hudson's play of the same name. She was also a longtime cast member of the procedural TV show Law & Order, appearing in 388 episodes from 1993 to 2010.
LisaGay Hamilton made her Broadway debut as Grace, Boy Willie’s girlfriend, in the original Broadway production of The Piano Lesson. Her character doesn't appear until the show's end, so she got to watch most of the show just as the audience did. She shared some of her favorite moments from the show in a Broadway.com interview: "I can see and hear all the men sitting at that small kitchen table singing ‘Oh Lord Berta Berta.’ [Rocky] Carroll’s (Lymon) hat, twirling and grasping in its own clear and distinctive language. [Charles S.] Dutton doing the jig with his heavy body and light feet."
The Piano Lesson wasn't her only Wilson gig, though — she also starred in his Gem of the Ocean on Broadway in 2004.
Beyond Broadway, Hamilton was a main cast member of the TV show The Practice from 1997 to 2003. She soon pivoted to behind-the-scenes work, winning a Peabody Award in 2005 for creating and directing the documentary film Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, about real-life Black actor Beah Richards.
Alfre Woodard played Berniece in the television film adaptation of The Piano Lesson in 1995, a performance that earned her a SAG Award and an Emmy Award nomination. The entire film also got a Peabody Award and an induction into the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Woodard got her start in the theatre where she starred in the original 1977 Off-Broadway production of Ntozake Shange's for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf. Since then, she’s earned a Golden Globe Award (for Miss Evers' Boys), four Emmy Awards, and an Academy Award nomination.
Courtney B. Vance
Courtney B. Vance played Lymon in the television film adaptation of The Piano Lesson in 1995, 10 years after kickstarting his career by performing in the original Broadway production of Wilson's Fences in 1985. He played opposite James Earl Jones, who won a Best Actor Tony for his performance, and Vance got a Best Featured Actor nomination of his own.
Vance later won his own Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for Nora Ephron's Lucky Guy in 2013. He’s also won two Emmy Awards, for Lovecraft Country and The People v. O.J. Simpson. Being an actor of both stage and screen, perhaps he'll blend his talents once more by appearing in another Wilson film adaptation someday.
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