“The Pittsburgh Cycle“, the best-known body of work of Pittsburgh, PA-born African-American August Wilson (1945-2005), consists of 10 plays which mostly take place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom takes place in Chicago in the 1920s.) Each play in the cycle represents a decade of the 20th century.
The Piano Lesson, which the William Peace Theatre presented on Feb. 5-9, takes place in 1936. The heart of the story is a piano that was purchased by selling mother and child slaves and was later stolen by the remaining family, and passed on to siblings Boy Willie and Berniece.
The supernatural was brought into last week’s collegiate production of The Piano Lesson off-handedly and as casually as everyday grocery shopping. The ghost of the white slave owner lurks on the second floor and other ghosts pass the house through readily. The ghost of slavery thus attaches itself to each succeeding generation as these Berniece and Boy Willie wrestle with their current circumstances and the need to progress into lives of freedom and choice.
For Boy Willie, it is the purchase of the land of his family’s former owner, now dead; and for Berniece, it is breaking away from the memory of her late husband and the psychological grip of her dead mother. Entwined in this are the oral histories told by one of their uncles, Doaker Charles, the comedy, music, and ability to communicate with the dead of the other, Wining Boy, as well the religiosity of Avery the preacher, and the seeking of the love-lorn Lymon.
Director Amy White kept the action smoothly moving, and barely overcame the inherent problem of this piece, which is that it is too long and doesn’t seem to really know where it wants to go. The characters are mostly symbolic (even the piano is a character), but White helped the performers bring out the central humanity of each of them. We also think it is a shame, for all the effort that went into this production, that it is only available to the public for four nights. It needs another weekend at least, and three weekends would be preferable.
Boy Willie was carefully portrayed by Jarrett Bennett, brash, confident, and aggressive, with a flair for life that is inexhaustible. Ebony Miles is touching and sincere as Berniece, although she sometimes upstages lines and is hard to understand.
Easygoing Doaker is played by Delphon L. Curtis, Jr., who gives us a feet-on-the-ground home-maker, whose good sense keeps the family in line. Wining Boy, as performed by Demetrius Jackson, is animated, funny, joyful, and heartwarming; and his musical talent is put to good use as he hammers out spirituals and blues, as befitting a formerly successful entertainer, matched by his excellent rendition of drunkenness.
Boy Willie’s friend Lymon is given to us by Joshua M. Walker, whose tender moment with Berniece was moving as we saw into his desperate need for a woman in his life. Christopher Haskins as Avery gave a quiet, understated performance that shows us the depth of the preacher’s religious feelings. Maya Bryant (Maretha) and Breanna Durham (Grace) rounded out the cast nicely.
The set was functional and cozy, with a big old sofa, a nice rug, dining table, and assorted kitchen utensils hanging around the walls. The special effects were impressive, and the costumes were appropriate for the period and circumstances. Let’s hope the next show from William Peace Theatre has a longer run.
SECOND OPINION: Feb. 7th Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Trey K. Morehouse: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7242.
THE PIANO LESSON (William Peace Theatre, Feb. 5-8 in Leggett Theatre in Main Building at William Peace University in Raleigh).
2014-15 SEASON: http://www.peace.edu/about_wpu/ae/2014-15-arts-and-events-schedule.
PRESENTER: http://www.peace.edu/about_wpu/ae/william-peace-theatre and https://www.facebook.com/williampeacetheatre.
The Piano Lesson (1987 Yale Repertory Theatre, 1990 Broadway, and 2012 Off-Broadway play): http://www.ibdb.com/show.php?ID=7078 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0114127/ (Internet Movie Database listing for the 1995 CBS “Hallmark Hall of Fame” TV movie), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Piano_Lesson (Wikipedia).
August Wilson (playwright and screenwriter, 1945-2005): http://www.augustwilson.net/ (AugustWilson.net), http://www.lortel.org/ (Internet Off-Broadway Database), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=4362 (Internet Broadway Database), http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0933025/ (Internet Movie Database), and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/August_Wilson (Wikipedia).
Amy White (director and William Peace University professor of Theatre/Musical Theatre): https://www.facebook.com/amy.white.927758 (Facebook page).
[RUN HAS CONCLUDED.]
Martha Keravuori is a life-long theater artist — an actress, director, and stage manager — in North Carolina, around the country, and overseas. She has a theater degree from UNC-Greensboro, and has been active in the arts in Raleigh for the past 40 years. Martha is the retired executive director of the North Carolina Theatre Conference. Chuck Galle returned to Raleigh last year after a 17-year absence. He was active in community theater for many years, and directed the troupe of maximum-security inmates at Raleigh’s Central Prison known as the Central Prison Players. In New England, he performed on stage, on TV, and in films. He is the author of Stories I Never Told My Daughter — An Odyssey, which can be ordered on his website: http://www.chuckgalle.com/. Chuck Galle and Martha Keravuori review theater for Boom! Magazine of Cary. Click here to read more of their reviews for Boom! Magazine and here to read more of their reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.