August Wilson

A Dream Deferred

Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.

For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry), Hedley (Andre De Shields), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Canewell (Wayne T. Carr)  (photo: Joan Marcus)

Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) (photo: Joan Marcus)

A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.

Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.

It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Hedley (Andre De Shields), Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

Canewell (Wayne T. Carr), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), Red Carter (Danny Johnson), Louise (Stephanie Berry) (photo: Joan Marcus)

The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.

Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.

Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.

 

August Wilson’s
Seven Guitars
Directed by Timothy Douglas

Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz Herrera; Production Dramaturg: Catherine María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller

Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie

Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016

A Haunting Heirloom

Review of The Piano Lesson, Hartford Stage

Of August Wilson’s ten-play American Century Cycle, tracing African-American life through each decade of the 20th century, The Piano Lesson, which won the Pulitzer in 1990, is one of the most popular, and in this very handsome and involving production at Hartford Stage, directed by Jade King Carroll, it’s easy to see why. The show has clear themes of haunting and legacy, boasts enthralling musical numbers that help create the sense of solidarity among characters with disparate intentions, and offers its actors lots of room to stretch out in, discovering nuances of character in dialogues that seem to move backward—into a past that hovers over everyone here—and forward—into a future still to be forged—simultaneously. It’s wonderfully rich writing, and Wilson is in no hurry to get the play where it’s going. These characters need to steep awhile before the tensions can get ironed out. The fact that most do helps as well.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) (photo: T.. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) shows up unexpectedly at the house his sister Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) shares with their uncle Doaker (Roscoe Orman) and her daughter Maretha (Elise Taylor) in the Hill Section of Pittsburgh. Accompanied by his friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Willie's intention is to sell a truckload of watermelons. Boy Willie’s secondary intention, he soon reveals to his uncle, is to sell an heirloom piano that sits in the parlor of the house. With the money from both sales, together with what he has saved, he plans to buy land that his family worked, first as slaves and then as share-croppers, back home in Mississippi.

Doaker, Berniece, and even Lymon have no interest in returning to the South, but Boy Willie’s dream of being a man of property in the town where his ancestors were treated as property is the main tension driving the play. But the piano has been decorated with the carved faces of ancestors—including Willie and Berniece’s grandmother and father, sold to pay for the piano—and polished with their blood. As such, the fate of the piano becomes an allegory about the relation of the present to the past and the question of what should constitute a basis for identity—historical, racial, familial.

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) and Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

To compare the production to the Yale Rep’s revival in 2011, directed by Liesl Tommy, the main difference, noticed at once, is how much better the Hartford Stage playing space delivers the feel of a real house, one that gives the audience very direct access to the action. Alexis Distler, who designed the Delaney sisters incredibly detailed home last season for Long Wharf’s Having Our Say (also directed by Jade King Carroll) has created a space for the Charles family that looks homey and accommodating and even features a glimpse of a neighboring house, styled after Wilson’s own family home on Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh. “The Hill” is home to most of the plays in Wilson’s cycle and the Hartford production maintains a sense of place that surrounds the action.

Key moments, like the four men—Willie, Lymon and Doaker are joined by the latter’s brother Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks)—bonding in a blues learned from doing hard labor at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, are placed front and center and are fully involving; the effects of the presence of Sutter’s ghost—the death, from falling down a well, that leaves the land free for Willie to buy—are subtle but strong in the final confrontation.

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson), Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The development of this production shows a distinctive grasp of each character’s trajectory: Berniece, harsh and unwelcoming, becomes a figure of strength and pathos as we realize all she has lost and all she wants to hold onto; Boy Willie, essentially a smooth-talker looking out for number one, gradually gains stature as he speaks of how he wants to turn the tables and overcome his family’s past; Doaker, with his speech recalling the piano’s history, is an older and wiser figure, removed from the fray, until his threat to protect the piano brings out an almost forgotten strength of will; Lymon, at first a laconic sidekick for Boy Willie, becomes capable of enough romantic eloquence to sway Berniece to tenderness; and Wining Boy, a piano player tired of being a piano player, commands a towering voice in his rendition of a song he wrote for his wife, now deceased (Baikida Carroll, composer).

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One of the most beguiling aspects of Wilson’s drama is how the characters interact with one another. Though at times at loggerheads, they still have a lot of shared experiences, assumptions, and expectations. They are mostly related, and the others they know all about—like Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), an elevator-operator who aspires to be a preacher and also aspires to be Berniece’s husband, whom Boy Willie remembers well and vice versa. Wilson’s deep sense of how these folk scrape along and make plans and entertain their dreams—such as Lymon’s hope, inspired by Wining Boy, that a silk suit and sharp shoes will immediately earn him respect and female interest—makes for many revealing moments of truth.

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Doaker (Roscoe Orman) (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Of special mention should be Orman’s Doaker, whose speech patterns and silent reactions conjure a character somewhat in hiding from his own past, and Kane’s Lymon, whose strong, silent-type manner makes him memorable as a figure key to Wilson’s intentions in the play: to depict the newcomer in the North, capturing the contrast between the more gentlemanly southerners and more callous northerners. There’s also the sense of a grand style fading as Wining Boy helps us imagine figures of the glamorous Twenties becoming has-beens in this post-Depression era world. As the spatting brother and sister, Clifton Duncan and Christina Acosta Robinson register well the deep familiarity and stubborn differences that make all the characters seem peripheral to the struggle of the family’s younger generation—now in its thirties—to cope with its past and find its future.

Through it all the star of the show is Wilson’s ear for the rhythms of speech, rendered well by this top-notch cast.

 

August Wilson’s
The Piano Lesson
Directed by Jade King Carroll

Scenic Design: Alexis Distler; Costume Design: Toni-Leslie James; Lighting Design: York Kennedy; Sound Design: Karin Graybash; Wig Design: Robert-Charles Vallace; Composer: Baikida Carroll; Music Director: Bill Sims, Jr.; Fight Director: Greg Webster; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Dramaturg: Fiona Kyle

Cast: Toccarra Cash, Cleavant Derricks, Clifton Duncan, Galen Ryan Kane, Roscoe Orman, Christina Acosta Robinson, Daniel Morgan Shelley, Elise Taylor

Hartford Stage
October 13-November 13, 2016

Death of a Garbageman

August Wilson’s Pulitzer-winning Fences, directed by Phylicia Rashad and playing at the Long Wharf Theatre, is a winner all the way. Wilson’s script has the resonance and depth one finds in great novels and in the landmark works of naturalist theater. Character-driven and language-based, it’s a play that is larger than life only in the sense that it might feel, while you’re watching it, more real than your own life. For this is slice-of-life drama with no expressionistic extremes of behavior, no tragic inflation or comic exaggeration. Wilson’s command of his characters and Rashad’s command of her actors combine to create great drama—involving, entertaining, full of wisdom and the true contradictions found in real life. Start with that set by John Iacovelli. Even before the play opens, we sit looking at the backyard of the home of Troy and Rose Maxson, located in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson hailed from, in the 1950s. It’s homey, inviting even. No, it’s not a grand structure, nor is it ramshackle. It’s not poor, nor is it middle-class. The house, the porch, the tree in the yard—it all feels lived in and unapologetic. Folks can drop in, no problem.

Troy, the master of this home, is a big man with well-defined, even classical features. He’s the kind of barely educated workingman who exudes amazing amounts of charisma. There’s nothing phoney about him in the least, no effort to be something he’s not. What he is is a good friend to his old army—and drinking—buddy, Jim Bono, and a doting husband to his wife, though his doting takes the form of the condescension to women common among breadwinning males in that day and age. He rules the roost, but generally strives to stay in her good graces. And, when we first meet them, Troy and Rose seem as happy as any two people married for over seventeen years could expect to be.

And yet. The dramatic conflicts in the play all come from Troy’s own nature. Wilson provides a character study that is relentless in revealing—simply through speech with others—everything we need to know about Troy Maxson; indeed we learn everything the man knows about himself. For Troy was a gifted baseball player before blacks were allowed in the professional leagues, and the chip he carries on his shoulder from that fact poisons his relation to Cory, the teenaged son he fathered with Rose. We also learn, from his attitude to Lyons, his elder son from a previous relationship, that his past is full of things he’d rather not be reminded of, but which he reveals to Lyons in a gripping speech about his life as a thief. Later, a larger confession materializes that serves to poison his relationship with his supportive wife. Along the way, we hear about how some decisions Troy made affect his brother Gabriel, a vet damaged by the war, whose relief money is the basis of Troy’s financial well-being.

In other words, Troy is nothing if not imperfect. He is so deeply flawed and yet so fully alive that we have no choice but to see his point of view, primarily because his failings are obvious to himself even if he tries to talk his way to justifications. We might say he’s “all talk,” except that Esau Pritchett gives Troy such earnest soul, and a presence of mind that refuses to be glib simply for its own sake. Even when he tells facetious tall tales about meeting Death or finding the Devil at his door, offering him credit terms, his way with a story—placing himself always as the hero tried by external forces—carries with it a convincing moral resonance. Even when he’s fooling around, he’s not just fooling around.

And when he’s in deadly earnest, he can be truly scary, a father whose sense of his obligations and of his manhood are utterly unselfconscious about how overbearing he is and how—in refusing to let Cory play football, in never going to hear Lyons play jazz, in not doing more for his brother, in having a mistress—often he is wrong. Much of the play’s power derives from showing this man as he is—without irony or ridicule or sentimentality. Troy is no Lear and his bad decisions don’t destroy a kingdom or anyone’s life, ultimately—though they do cause pain—but he is just as much a figure for the self-delusions and insecurities and abundance of what can justifiably be called “the masculine principle.”

One of the wonders of the play is its language—it’s a natural-sounding speech that is yet very musical, full of rhythms that sound “easy” but are actually hard to get right. The cast does a splendid job with the text and everyone deserves credit for their work. From little Taylor Dior, the child who plays Raynell with artless sincerity, to Chris Myers as Cory, who struggles with his father without sounding petulant and who acquits himself well in the emotionally charged singing of his grand-dad’s song about a dog called Blue late in the play, to Jared McNeill as Lyons, a nuanced performance that conveys effectively the note of a different kind of male—the hepcat or hipster of the fifties—who condescends to his father but also wants his respect, to Phil McGlaston as Jim Bono, the neighborly crony who registers both genial acceptance of Troy as well as a distance that comes later, to G. Alvarez Reid as Gabriel, Troy’s wounded brother who stirs guilt (watch Troy’s face whenever he shows up), remorse, and brings with him visions of St. Peter’s gate and hellhounds, to Portia as Rose, who delivers two quite affecting arias—the first, to Troy, is a rhapsody of betrayed love and deep accusation that Portia does full justice to; the other, to Cory, a proud defense of her deceased husband that feels only slightly more mannered than it might; to Esau Pritchett as Troy, a commanding performance that lets us feel the fearsome self-possession of a man who can’t ever admit he’s wrong.

And is he? One of the interesting aspects of Fences is that Troy does have a vision of life that he intends as the best for all. It’s self-serving, but that doesn’t mean it’s misguided. Would Corey’s football-playing plans have panned out? We don’t know. Is it wrong to have children with three different women? Wrong to the women, certainly, but wrong to the children? The final scene makes us feel the purpose of the father, even in his absence. All are indebted to him, at some level, simply by being there. And that’s because Wilson wants to respect men like Troy—denied the chance to be their best because of racism, and yet able to rise up from the lowest job to the job of driver, normally reserved for white men, without even having a driver’s license. Like Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, Troy is a man his sons find hard to love, but who is loved deeply by his author, flaws and all. Troy is the hero of his own life, and Wilson, in Rashad’s compassionate production, lets us see what a burden that can be.

This Fences is the real deal. Go!

August Wilson’s Fences Directed by Phylicia Rashad

Scenic Design: John Iacovelli; Costume Design: Esosa; Lighting Design: Xavier Pierce; Sound Design: John Gromada; Hair & Wig Design: J. Jared Janas & Rob Greene; Fight Diretor: Michael Rossmy; Production Stage Manager: David Blackwell; Assistant Stage Manager: Amy Patricia Stern; Casting by Calleri Casting; Photographs by T. Charles Erickson

Long Wharf Theatre November 27-December 22, 2013

Long Wharf's New Season Launched

Of course, the big news today is that we have a functioning federal government again . . . sorta, and government workers are returning to work. Whether your inclination is to cheer, jeer, or sneer at our political leadership, here’s news of another happy return taking place today: the Long Wharf Theatre is back. The first show of the new season, Steve Martin’s The Underpants, begins previews tonight, and opens next Wednesday. Derived from a German play of the Expressionist era by Carl Sternheim, Martin’s play is a irreverent farce about marriage, fidelity, temptation . . . and undergarments. When a young woman’s knickers drop to her ankles while she’s out in public—to watch the King on parade—she becomes a major provocation to young men on the prowl. Would-be suitors move into a room for rent in the house where Louise lives with her stuffy husband who is squeamish about sex—because children cost money!—and not at all ready to find himself married to “a sensation.” Directed by Gordon Edelstein, the play’s skewering of dull conformity in the name of racier considerations should make for a lively evening, and Martin’s sense of comic timing is legendary. October 16-November 10.

 

Next up is a Pulitzer-winning play by August Wilson: Fences, a play that won a Tony for its two lead roles both in its original production in 1987 and in its first Broadway revival in 2010, as well as Tony for Best Play (1987) and Best Revival (2010). Set in the 1950s, the story concerns Troy Maxson, a man who drives a garbage truck but who at one time was a baseball sensation in the Negro Leagues. Set in the time when the color barrier was being broached by black athletes, the play is a character study of a working-class black man struggling with his place in life—which includes a brother with a war injury, two sons, one from a previous marriage, the other from his current marriage to Rose, and a pregnant girlfriend. The Long Wharf’s revival will be directed by Phylicia Rashād, famous since the 1980s for her role as Clair Huxtable on The Cosby Show, and a Tony-Award-winning Actress in the revival of A Raisin in the Sun in 2004. November 27-December 22

The first play of the new year is the World Premiere of Heidi Schreck’s The Consultant, a workplace comedy set at the firm of Sutton, Feingold and McGrath, a pharmaceutical advertising company, where downsizing and getting ahead fuel anxieties, and office romance plays its part in the complex sense of “work” in our era of constant Bluetooth and Smartphone access. Long Wharf Artistic Director Gordon Edelstein calls the play “irreverent, a little kooky and very humane.” January 8-February 9, 2014

Associate Artistic Director Eric Ting helms celebrated newer playwright Amy Herzog’s touching family drama 4000 Miles, about the rapport between a twenty-one-year-old and his ninety-one-year-old grandmother, living together in Greenwich Village after Leo bikes across the continent from California. It’s an opportunity for the clash and the coming-to-terms of generations in this highly praised play called both “funny” and “moving” by The New York TimesFebruary 19-March 16

Tony Award-winning South African playwright Athol Fugard has not acted on stage since 1997. It’s exciting news to hear that he will be acting the main role in his new play The Shadow of the Hummingbird in its World Premiere, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Fugard plays a grandfather who unexpectedly plays host to his ten-year-old grandson, truant from school for the day. Following 4000 Miles at Long Wharf, we can say that the interplay between elders and juniors is a big theme in the second half of the 2013-14 Season. In Edelstein’s words, Fugard’s latest is “a great work by a master about living and dying, and how to live one’s life.” Stage II, March 26-April 27.

The final show of the season is the crowd-pleasing musical The Last Five Years, Book, Music, and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Gordon Edelstein. Playing on Broadway just now is Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, about a marriage and an infidelity, told backwards from the end of the affair to the night it began. Brown’s musical does something similar: Cathy, an actress, tells the story of her marriage to Jamie, a writer, from its end to its beginning; Jaimie tells of his relationship to Cathy from its romantic inception to its collapse. In the center of the play there is a shared song on the night they agree to marry. Using a clever device to explore the “his” and “hers” of stories about relationships, the play is poignant and engaging, with songs of wit and romance. May 7-June 1.

It would seem the Long Wharf has put together another winning season of new work, important revivals, and welcome encores of recent crowd-pleasing theater.  Over 30 Long Wharf productions have transferred to Broadway or Off-Broadway, most recently the highly acclaimed My Name is Asher Lev and the fascinating musical February House.

 

Plays are staged at the Claire Tow Stage in the C. Newton Schenck III Theatre, unless otherwise stated.

The Long Wharf Theatre Gordon Edelstein, Artistic Director; Joshua Bernstein, Managing Director

222 Sargent Drive New Haven, CT

203.787.4282 www.longwharf.org

Unfinished Business

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson has returned to The Yale Rep where it debuted in 1987.  The play is part of a cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century, that Wilson wrote to depict African American experience.  With that sense of epic reach in mind, one approaches The Piano Lesson a bit awestruck, ready to watch a master work through family history and racial history in telling ways, making his characters “representative” but also fully weighted with individuality.  The play, as written and as presented, stands upon venerable traditions of naturalistic theater, with a grasp of character dynamics that recall Chekhov and O’Neill, playwrights celebrated for their ability to make dramatic points arise out of what seem to be everyday conversations. But that may be a misleading claim, for the plot of The Piano Lesson hinges upon events unusual in themselves, beginning with Boy Willie’s bumptious visit to his sister Berniece, coming all the way from Mississippi to Pittsburgh in 1936 as a man with a mission.  But once he gets there, with his slow-spoken friend Lymon along, the first mission—to sell a truckload of watermelons—doesn’t seem too pressing, and the other mission—to convince Berniece to let him sell the family heirloom piano—becomes the occasion for all sorts of reminiscences, grandstanding, arguing, haranging, and hauntings.  And there the feel of how porous is the difference between the usual and the unusual, the natural and the unnatural, becomes more portentous, investing the Charles family heirloom with a fetishistic quality that partakes of different forms of magic, all tellingly presented in the play.

The house is haunted by the ghost of Sutter, grandson of the slave owner who sold off Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandmother and grandfather to buy the piano.  He has died recently, pushed down a well, and that means his land, which the Charles family worked as slaves, is now available for Boy Willie to purchase.  And that’s why he needs to sell the piano.  Though we never see the apparition, it appears to different members of the family, indicating to Berniece that her brother may have been responsible for Sutter’s death, but also seeming to indicate that, even beyond the grave, Sutter is concerned with what becomes of the piano, a piano that was stolen by Boy Charles, father of Boy Willie and Berniece, along with his two brothers, Wining Boy and Doaker, and brought to Pittsburgh.  Carved into the piano are images of the two who were sold as well as images of other notable moments in the Charles family history (all this history comes out in Scene II in a wonderful speech, delivered as collective memory,  by Uncle Doaker).

Giving an object such historical and familial meaning is significant enough, but Wilson goes further, letting us feel the appeal of music—the prison worksongs (another great moment is when Boy Willie, Lyman, Doaker, and Wining Boy all join together on the song “Berta Berta,” beating time on kitchen implements), the boogie-woogie tunes (Wining Boy is an aging former saloon singer and piano player), the hymns and ballads that the piano seems to incarnate.  Berniece’s most persistent suitor, Avery, is an elevator attendant who aspires to be a preacher and his attempt to exorcise Sutter by blessing the house brings into play the strong evangelical magic that speaks to these folks to varying degrees.  Then there is the magic attraction of the loose woman, Grace, that speaks to both Boy Willie and Lymon, to say nothing of the alleged magic of the silk suit and Florsheim shoes Wining Boy convinces Lyman to buy from him, "guaranteed" to get him a woman.

In other words, talismans abound, and cultural reference points, and songs, and fluent rhythms of speech, all coming together to form a vast expressive fabric.

The battle between brother and sister about how best to live up to what the burden of the past means is the heart of the piece, as everywhere there is unfinished business—between Willie Boy and Berniece (she blames him for her husband’s death), between the Charles family and the Sutter family—the slaves and the masters—and between the North and the South, the rural and the urban, as sites of African American identity.

The question of who carries the day and why is what we leave discussing.  If we’re meant to sympathize with Berniece and her intentions to retain the emblematic piano, the performance by Eisa Davis made that difficult.  Her Berniece sounded brittle and strident, only appearing warm and appealing in her touching quasi-courtship scene with Lyman (Charlie Hudson, III) where the latter’s easy-going nature brought her out of a settled irritability.  LeRoy McClain’s Boy Willie, while engaging, energetic and instantly likeable, appeared at times so wrong-headed and insistent we can’t completely sanction his claim nor entirely dismiss his intention to sell off the past to improve the present.

The siblings’ struggle was fleshed out entertainingly by Charles Weldon as Wining Boy, a pivotal figure every time he was on stage because his command of a repertoire of moves and voices made vivid a character of vast experience, and by Keith Randolph Smith’s Doaker, a stolid figure with an air of bedrock solidity.  We might feel at times a taint of cliché hanging about these characters: the plainspoken railroad man, the feckless entertainer, the prim widow, the naïve hayseed, the sexy city-woman, the knockabout with a plan, but that sense of the familiar only proved uninspired in one instance: as Avery, the upright worker turned preacher man, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson was neither comical nor wholly convincing, there being an earnest dullness in the character he couldn’t quite overcome.

At times, there were places where the play could move more quickly, but time seems to be part of the burden Wilson wants to present, and director Liesl Tommy gives us a play we have to settle into and learn how to live with, providing just enough jolts to keep us off-guard, but also giving us a lesson in naturalistic action and ensemble work.  The piano may be all too obvious as an emblem of slavery, song, and family, but the genius of the play is in making the past—like the uneasy revenant Sutter—a real presence.

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson; directed by Liesl Tommy

Original music by Eisa Davis; lyrics by August Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre, January 28 to February 19, 2011