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“The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson Is a Juicy Slice of Life in a Black Community of Pittsburgh in 1936

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)

Raleigh Little Theatre’s entertaining but overlong presentation of The Piano Lesson, which debuted in 1987 and represents the 1930s in the 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle of the late African-American playwright August Wilson, is a juicy and flavorful slice of life in the black community in the Hill District of the Steel City, circa 1936. Moreover, it is chockfull of colorful characters (to mix metaphors). Indeed, the play won a passel of awards, including the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, and the 1990 New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. But the three-hour running time of RLT‘s meandering rendition of The Piano Lesson taxes audience patience and resurrects charges that August Wilson’s plays are just too talky.

Long-time Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons helps his cast create vivid characters, but the unseen ghost that haunts the Charles family — who ethereal presence is suggested by billowing curtains and an eerie glow in an overhead light fixture is only partially successful in injecting a scary supernatural element into this domestic drama.

Joseph Callender and spunky Randi Martin-Lee make admirable adversaries as jiving Mississippi sharecropper and ex-con Boy Willie Charles and his more respectable sister Berniece, who bicker bitterly over whether to sell a 137-year-old upright piano, a hand-carved family heirloom from slavery days. Boy Willie wants to make a quick buck, so that he can return to Mississippi and buy the land on which his and Berniece’s ancestors toiled as slaves; but Berniece vehemently objects.

Warren Keyes is a tower of strength as Boy Willie and Berniece’s Uncle Doaker, and John Rogers Harris provides considerable comic relief as Doaker’s ne’er-do-well brother, the down-on-his luck former recording star known as Wining Boy. Phillip Bernard Smith is a scene-stealer as fiery Pentecostal preacher Avery Brown, and he has those backwoods cadences and stomps just right.

Jeremy V. Morris is amusing as Boy Willie’s old friend Lymon, Kyma Lassiter adds a cute comic cameo as a young Pittsburgh gal named Grace, who dates both Boy Willie and Lymon; and Janelle Netterville is charming as Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter Maretha.

Set designer Jim Zervas gets kudos for an impressively detailed recreation of Doaker Charles’ front parlor, and costume designer Vicki Olson deserves bravos for her impressive recreation of period fashions from the work clothes of Boy Willie and Lymon to the garish “magic suit” that Wining Boy sells Lymon.

The Piano Lesson has plenty of rewards for patient viewers, but its lengthy and repetitive monologues will be a real turnoff for impatient Triangle theatergoers. Those who prefer their domestic dramas streamlined and preferably no more than two hours in length have plenty of other Triangle theatrical productions from which to choose.

SECOND OPINION: Oct. 14th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks:; and Oct. 13th Durham, NC Independent Weekly review by Byron Woods (who awarded the show 4 of 5 stars): (To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the Oct. 10th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click

Raleigh Little Theatre presents THE PIANO LESSON at 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+).

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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1 Response

  1. Thanks Robert for all your good work. I think my favorite parts of your reviews from TRIANGLE THEATER REVIEW are all the cool links you add at the bottom. Always a great source of info for anyone wanting to dig deeper into the subject. THANKS! – Scotty