- The Washington Times - Friday, April 8, 2005

With an August Wilson play, it is easy to become saturated in the playwright’s bluesy poetry and vivid characters and forget the rest. For “The Piano Lesson,” director Seret Scott heeds the smoky beauty of Mr. Wilson’s words but also brings out the fullness of the play’s humor and the emotional friction between the two central characters, a brother and sister fighting over an antique piano.

“The Piano Lesson” depicts a battle royal between Berniece (Harriett D. Foy), a proud and defensive woman trying to raise her daughter, Maretha (Simone Brown), on her wages as a maid, and Boy Willie (Jeorge Watson), who arrives in Pittsburgh from the South bringing heaps of noise and trouble.

Boy Willie wants to buy land from the white people who once enslaved his family. The first part of his plan involves selling a truckload of watermelons with his friend Lymon (Carl Cofield), a bumpkin who wipes his hands on his overalls. The second part involves selling the family piano, a squat treasure carved with the faces of their ancestors and other deeply gouged symbols of slavery.

Berniece refuses to budge, maintaining that the piano has been polished with the blood and tears of her people and that the musical instrument is haunted with the voices of the past. To sell it would be to sell the family’s history to white folks, and slavery already did that.

Your sympathies might naturally lie with Berniece, who holds such strong and painful ties to the piano that it is holding her back from living ripely in the present. A widow still in her prime, Berniece hedges in her relationship with the steady Avery (Cleo Reginald Pizana), an elevator operator and preacher. Her memories, embodied in that piano, keep her in a shadow world of drudgery.

Yet Miss Scott also allows equal time to Boy Willie’s argument. Boy Willie views the piano as the ultimate vindication, a way to get the white man’s land out from under him. The piano is a commodity and a big, heavy reminder of the past. To get rid of it is to start fresh.

The arrival of Boy Willie and Lymon brings sharp, bleeding light into Berniece’s lackluster 1930s parlor. Everything changes with these men in the house — ghosts from the South start appearing on the staircase, fights break out in Uncle Doaker’s (David Emerson Toney) usually peaceful kitchen, long-dormant feelings begin to stir in Berniece after an impromptu wooing in the moonlight by the woman-hungry Lymon. The longing and unexpected passion in this moment are enough to melt the piano keys.

In the end, it is the piano that decides its fate. Berniece faces her demons and sits at the piano, playing an old gospel song and calling on her ancestors to help her. History will always assert itself, and the voices from generations past will never be stilled by a mere commercial transaction.

Miss Foy is a powerhouse as the strong-willed Berniece. With a flick of her hip and the tilt of her hat, Berniece shows she has no patience for foolishness, but Miss Foy also reveals the vulnerable side of her character, the woman who loved strongly and completely in the past but now shies away from life’s intensities.

Her match in energy and verve is not Mr. Watson, who is combustible but too much a boy and not enough a man as Boy Willie. Instead, it’s Frederick Strother as Wining Boy, a relative. Mr. Strother is highly entertaining as an aging reprobate, skedaddling all over the stage with exuberance and style. The scene where he scams Lymon into buying a too-big silk suit and tight shoes is priceless, with the country boy playing right into his wily hands.

Some of the actors fumbled with the dialogue on opening night, compromising the play’s silken rhythm. Yet the music of Mr. Wilson’s play comes through loud and clear. Born of chain gangs, field hollers and slave songs, it’s a hard-won music etched with anguish.

***

WHAT: “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson

WHERE: Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW

WHEN: 7:30 Tuesdays and Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through May 15.

TICKETS: $45 to $59

PHONE: 202/488-3300

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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