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In August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize Winner, “The Piano Lesson,” Boy Willie and His Sister Berniece Argue Over the Fate of a Family Heirloom

Randi Martin Lee and Janelle Netterville – Photo by Jack Morton, Morton Photography

Raleigh Little Theatre will present The Piano Lesson, a prize-winning 1987 play by celebrated African-American playwright August Wilson (nee Frederick August Kittel, Jr., 1945-2005), on Oct. 8-10, 14-17, and 21-24 on its Cantey V. Sutton Main Stage. Long-time RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons will direct The Piano Lesson.

August Wilson twice won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, in 1987 for Fences and in 1990 for The Piano Lesson. Fences also won the 1987 Tony Award® for Best Play. The Piano Lesson, which was nominated for the 1990 Best Play Tony, won the 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the 1990 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. The 1995 CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie of The Piano Lesson won a Peabody Award for August Wilson.

“I guess I first heard of The Piano Lesson, and got a copy of it, when it won the Pulitzer Prize back in 1990,” recalls director Haskell Fitz-Simons. He adds, “It’s a wonderful story. It’s a domestic comedy, tragedy, and ghost story; all rolled into one; and we have a terrific ensemble to perform it at RLT.”

Fitz-Simons notes, “The Piano Lesson is also set in a period I like: 1936…. I like the 1930s, in general. It was a period where people were smack dab in the middle of the Depression that sort of annealed families and personalities and subjected them to a trial by fire.”

Also, Fitz-Simons says, “This play is very musical; it is ‘the piano lesson’ after all. [Frequent Raleigh Little Theatre musical director] Julie Florin helped us with the music, but I also worked on it myself. At various times during the play, people sit down and play the piano….

The Piano Lesson is one of Wilson’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle,” explains Fitz-Simons. “He wrote one play for each decade of the 1900s, although they weren’t necessarily written in order.

From left: Janelle Netterville as Maretha, Joseph Callender as Boy Willie, Randi Martin-Lee as Berniece, and Warren Keyes as Doaker (photo by Jack Morton)

From left: Janelle Netterville as Maretha, Joseph Callender as Boy Willie, Randi Martin-Lee as Berniece, and Warren Keyes as Doaker (photo by Jack Morton)

The Piano Lesson represents the 1930s,” says Fitz-Simons, “and it takes place during the great migration of African-American families from the Jim Crow South to cities in the North. That said, this play is about the Charles family, whose lineage is convoluted. The Piano Lesson is about a brother and sister. The brother is [a Mississippi sharecropper named] Boy Willie [played for RLT by Joseph Callender], and the sister is Berniece [Randi Martin-Lee].

“Berniece moved to Pittsburgh three years ago, after her husband was killed in a dustup with the law,” explains Fitz-Simons. “Boy Willie was also involved in that dustup, and she’s always blamed him for her husband’s death.”

Fitz-Simons adds, “Berniece took an old family heirloom with her when she moved to Pittsburgh; it is an old upright piano that dates from slavery times. This piano has an intrinsic value, because it is [decorated] with beautiful carvings. Indeed, it’s practically a family tree. So, the piano has two values: it has a monetary value, because of the beautiful carvings; but the carvings also tell the Charles family’s history, which is tragic, noble, and bloody.”

The conflict between brother and sister arises, Fitz-Simons says, because “Berniece wants to hold on to that family history, and Boy Willie wants to sell the piano and buy some land [back in Mississippi], which belongs to the Sutter family that used to own his family. So, that’s an extra twist.

“The last member of the Sutter family has just died, under suspicious circumstances, head down in a well,” reveals Haskell Fitz-Simons, “and his ghost has appeared at the Charles’ house in Pittsburgh. Over the course of the play, there’s an epic struggle between Boy Willie and Berniece about whether to sell the piano and move on; and there’s also a struggle over how to get rid of the ghost, who just died three weeks ago and somehow seems to be connected to the piano.”

Besides Joseph Callender as Boy Willie and Randi Martin-Lee as Berniece, the Raleigh Little Theatre cast for The Piano Lesson includes Warren Keyes as Boy Willie and Berniece’s uncle Doaker, John Rogers Harris as Doaker’s brother the former recording star Wining Boy, Jeremy V. Morris as Boy Willie’s old friend Lymon, Janelle Netterville as Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter Maretha, Phillip Bernard Smith as the preacher Avery Brown, and Kyma Lassiter as the young Pittsburgh gal Grace, whom Boy Willie and Lymon both try to romance.

In addition to director Haskell Fitz-Simons, who doubled as the show’s sound designer, Raleigh Little Theatre‘s creative team for The Piano Lesson includes assistant director Damien Jewan Lee, technical director and set designer Jim Zervas, lighting designer Joshua Reaves, costume designer Vicki Olson, properties managers Ann Marie Crosmun and Karen Monroe, sound engineer Todd Houseknecht, and stage manager Tim E. Locklear.

Fitz-Simons says the show is set in 1936 in the row house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, where playwright August Wilson was born and where his character Doaker Charles lives with his niece, Berniece.

“The set is the living room and kitchen of that house,” explains Fitz-Simons. He adds that the show’s lighting is appropriate for a ghost story. “We never see the ghost,” says Haskell Fitz-Simons, “but we feel the ghost … through the lighting.”

He adds that the cast wears “standard house clothes and work clothes of an urban blue-collar family in the mid-1930s. [Costume designer] Vicki [Olson] has had a fun time, pulling out all of her antique patterns,” Fitz-Simons chuckles.

Fitz-Simons says, “Acquiring the piano itself has been kind of a journey. We’ve had to devise a way to add carvings to a beautiful upright 19th century piano that we’ve owned for years, without destroying the piano.

“Also,” Fitz-Simons adds, “Mr. Wilson’s style includes writing long, beautiful monologues for his characters, so everybody has had to memorize three or four rather lengthy monologues for this play. So, there’s been some added pressure with this script.”

Director Haskell Fitz-Simons cautions potential ticket buyers, “There’s rather liberal use of the N-word in The Piano Lesson. I don’t think it’s offensive the way that it’s used, because it was part of the argot of that era.

“Wilson writes the play very true to life,” Fitz-Simons claims. “People might be offended, but I think not. But that’s not a word that I ever use, so it’s presented some problems for me when I’m giving notes to the cast.”

Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE PIANO LESSON at 8 p.m. Oct. 8 and 9, 3 p.m. Oct. 10, 8 p.m. Oct. 14-16 and 21-23, and 3 p.m. Oct. 17 and 24 in its Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, 301 Pogue St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27607.

TICKETS: $20 ($16 students and seniors 62+), except all seats $12 on Oct. 10th.

BOX OFFICE: 919/821-3111 or




NOTE: All shows are wheelchair accessible, and assistive listening devices are available for all shows.


The Play: (Internet Broadway Database), and (Internet Movie Database listing for the 1995 CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie).

The Playwright: (Internet Off-Broadway Database), (Internet Broadway Database), and (Internet Movie Database).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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