Performing Arts: Theater
November 10, 2022
What price family heritage? For some,  ancestral knowledge is easily traceable. For others, it's a painful, tumultuous mystery.

Exhaltingly rooted in the Black experience, August Wilson's emotionally drenched "The Piano Lesson" at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre revolves around the complex lives of Black families. Uninhibitedly directed by LaTanya Richard Jackson and choreographed by the seasoned Otis Sallid, The Pinao Lesson exudes a physicality that speaks of the jazz music, ancestors and rich culture of Black America.

Committed to preserving her family's story, Bernice Charles (the compelling Danielle Brooks) safeguards the family heirloom, a majestic, upright piano carved by an elite wood carpenter and enslaved ancestor.Decorated with cascading wooden carvings of the family tree, Bernice's father died removing the piano from the slave owner's home. This visual record digs deep into Bernice's soul.  Landing on her doorstep unannounced, Willie Boy (a dynamic John David Washington) Bernice's brother, drives up North to sell a truckload of watermelon and seize the piano.

This conflict in choice--keep the family's only connection to its past or sell it to buy land once worked by enslaved family members--burns through the drama. Ghosts haunt Bernice and her daughter. Should they move forward and free themselves of the horrific past or preserve those blood memories?

Bernice's uncle Doaker Charles (an understated, wry Samuel L. Jackson) cooly listens to the disputes, at times offering sage advice or remaining silent while observing the damage carried inside so many bodies.

Doaker's pal, the nouveau-posh Wining Boy, is a frequent visitor always in need of a few bucks. A former club performer and piano player, Wining Boy (Michael Potts) no longer wishes to be associated with entertainment business and what it says about Blacks' limited capabilities.

Lymon (Ray Fisher), a guileless young country fellow, joins the street-smart Boy Willie to Bernice's place. The very country, Lyman becomes the Wining Boys' money target. In a great vaudeville-style scene, Wining Boy sells Lyman a totally ill-fitting suit guaranteed to be a babe-catcher.

Comically dressed, Lyman joins Willie Boy for a good-time out followed by a hot time on Bernice's couch resulting in a furious fight.  Contrary to Willie's brutish behavior, Lyman takes Bernice in his confidence, touching Bernice's heart with his tenderness and perceptiveness.

Written in 1987, and the fourth play in August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lesson received the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

Dense text detonated by a barrage of vaudevillian pranks, physical and psychological threats stir up a complicated history of enslavement from Africa to America, migration from South to North and an enduring desire to understand our past in order to cross over to the future.
EYE ON THE ARTS, NY -- Celia Ipiotis

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