“To understand that piano, you have to go back to the time of slavery...”
Having read and seen on stage several of the other plays in August Wilson’s cycle of scripts touching on each decade of the African-American experience in the 20th century, and knowing that “The Piano Lesson” netted Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize, I went to Penumbra Theatre’s production Thursday night expecting a powerful drama, but not entirely sure what else to expect. Not knowing anything other than the barest bones of the plot, I certainly didn’t expect it to be as funny as it was. Nor did I expect a ghost story. Oh there was drama, and lots of it. But I was reminded again by “The Piano Lesson” what a remarkable storyteller August Wilson was - and continues to be through the plays which outlive him. He uses all the storyteller’s tools - humor, music, romance, spirituality, the list goes on - and uses them all to great effect. Penumbra’s production of “The Piano Lesson” is a stellar showcase for a brilliant story.
In many ways, “The Piano Lesson” is the quintessential August Wilson play. It embodies nearly everything he was saying in all his other plays, all the key elements and subject matter - family and history both central among them. Here the story revolves around the conflict between a brother and sister who view the value of their family’s history very differently. In 1930s Pittsburgh, Berneice (Greta Oglesby) is raising her young daughter Maretha (Natalia Gaston) alone after the death of her husband, living under the same roof with her uncle Doaker (James Craven). Berneice’s brother Boy Willie (Ansa Akyea) returns home loudly at the crack of dawn one morning, after several years’ absence, with his friend Lymon (Thomas Ashford) in tow. Boy Willie has plans in motion to raise money so he can go back down south and buy land of his own to farm - land which used to belong to the family who held his ancestors as slaves. Central to these plans is selling off the family piano in the Pittsburgh house - a piano carved with faces and images from their family’s past. Long ago, the piano was first bought in exchange for two slaves, family members whose faces now adorn the front of the piano. Berneice has no intention of selling the piano, of which she owns half, and has no intention of allowing Boy Willie to sell his half either. The battle lines are drawn early, and brother and sister face off throughout the play. Guns, knives and even frying pans are raised on either side of the squabble. The fact that a gun never goes off is something of a miracle, and a source of constant tension.
But the piano is more than just a musical instrument, or a visual reminder of the family’s past as slaves. The piano is the focus of some potent supernatural energy, both positive and negative. A strange red light emanates from the piano, the regular lights flicker, and a low rumble shudders through the entire house in times of conflict centered around the instrument. It could just be the train going past on the tracks nearby, but nobody on or offstage fully believes that explanation. The silent prologue to the play, in which cast members take on the roles of a previous generation of the family, ends with the piano playing by itself. The mysterious death of one of the descendants of the slave owners, a death which paves the way for Boy Willie to buy their farm land, is blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog - another tragedy tied to this family, and slavery, and this piano. The spirit of the recently dead landowner makes appearances to several different family members. Berneice refuses to play the piano, even for church, because she doesn’t want to rouse dark spirits. The climax of the play involves an attempt to exorcise those spirits. Ultimately, to drive out the dark spirits, someone has to take a seat at the keyboard and invoke the help of some better angels.
For all the conflict and dark undercurrents of the past, Penumbra’s production of “The Piano Lesson” - under Lou Bellamy’s assured direction - is also full of hearty good humor. The laughs are plentiful, and based largely on the network of family, friendly, and romantic relations which tie all the characters together. These people know how to push one another’s buttons, and they do, with loving and jovial frequency. In addition to the brother-sister-uncle-best friend shenanigans, also drawn into the fray are Doaker’s traveling musician brother Wining Boy (Dennis W. Spears); Berneice’s persistent suitor, the newly minted reverend Avery (T. Mychael Rambo); and Grace (Lerea Carter), a local young woman who has caught the eye of both Boy Willie and Lynton, and who gets off one of the bigger laugh lines of the evening walking into the middle of the exorcism action and proclaiming that “something is wrong with this house” before making a hasty exit.
The music, in all its forms and colors, which peppers the telling of this family tale is fantastic. It opens up these sometimes quiet characters and reveals new depths. It demonstrates the strength of their relationships to one another, and uncovers the pain they can’t bring themselves to speak directly. The music, like the poetry of the language of the script throughout, doesn’t slow down or derail the story. It drives it more surely and quickly toward its goal. The music allows the story to make leaps it would not otherwise be able to do. It is part of the blood and bone and muscle of this family, and is a large part of what helps them survive, and rise above their past.
The cast is excellent without exception. Special attention must be paid to Ansa Akyea as Boy Willie. From the moment he bursts onstage until the final moments of the play, Akyea raises both the energy and the decibel level of the entire production tenfold. He is a force of nature. One can understand how he has managed to charm and cajole, and sometimes forcefully push, his way through life. Only someone with the determination of Greta Oglesby as Berneice could stare this Boy Willie down, and she does. Her quiet reserves of strength are always evident. She raises her voice when necessary, but she doesn’t need to do so to make you realize you had better not mess with this woman. I am quickly coming to the conclusion that I could watch James Craven (Doaker) in anything. His no-nonsense style was one of the main joys of Penumbra’s production of “Red Shirts” earlier this season, and his turn here as Berneice and Boy Willie’s reluctant referee (and protector) is full of the same dry wit, intelligence, and world-weary charm. Dennis W. Spears makes Wining Boy an endearing old rascal. T. Mychael Rambo makes Avery’s newfound religion seem not only entirely believable but fully human, and quite moving. Thomas Ashford’s character Lymon may not be too bright, but in Ashford’s hands, you can’t help liking the poor guy. He also makes an unexpectedly suitable suitor for Berneice (nice to see the woman has options). And though the role of Maretha may be small, the reality Natalia Gaston brings to her is key to making the overall dynamic of the family work. There is another generation already in place that needs to be planned for, and protected, and all the characters are aware of that because of Maretha.
The design work is impeccable. Ken Evans scenic design has maximized the Penumbra stage space so that you truly feel the house extends beyond the limits we see - upstairs, down the hall, outside both front and back. It’s a great piece of design work, well-excuted by the Penumbra team of scenic artists. Steven Horstmann’s work as properties master fills in all the necessary details around the edges, making the world of this family’s home seem truly lived in. The lighting (Michelle Habeck), costume (Edward Summers), and sound (Malo Adams) designs all do their part as well to create the feeling of stepping completely into another world, another time.
The ensemble of “The Piano Lesson” received a well-deserved standing ovation on opening night. Their work is powerful, funny, and extremely moving. If this is the way Penumbra kicks off their five-year project staging all ten plays in Wilson’s “20th Century Cycle,” I can’t wait to see what’s next. (We won’t have long to wait - “The Gem of the Ocean” takes the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the new Guthrie Theater complex starting April 22nd this year). But whatever you do, do not miss “The Piano Lesson.” It’s one of the best marriages of script and theater company that I’ve seen in a very long time.
Very Highly Recommended
“The Piano Lesson” runs through March 16, 2008 at Penumbra Theatre (270 North Kent Street in St. Paul). For tickets and more information, call 651-224-3180 or visit www.penumbratheatre.org
Cross posted to www.myspace.com/matthewaeverett and archived on my site www.matthewaeverett.com