August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
At The Hartford Stage
Through November 13, 2016
Reviewed By Edmond D. Smith
1916 saw the start of what has come to be called The Great Migration, the movement of millions of Southern African Americans to the North in the hopes of finding better lives than the South was affording them. Playwright August Wilson sets his famed ten play The American Century Cycle, of which the Pulitzer Prize winning The Piano Lesson is the fifth, in 1936 Pittsburgh where a large migrant population had taken root. Like all the plays of The American Cycle The Piano Lesson, currently at Hartford’ elegant Stage Theater, addresses aspects of how this dislocation impacted the African American experience.
The play revolves around the return of Boy Willie Charles, who has spent the last three years in Mississippi, some of the time in jail and all the time scheming how to gather the money to buy farmland in Mississippi that his family had once worked as slaves. He drives back to Pittsburgh with his friend Lymon in a truck that’s on its last legs filled with watermelons that he intends to sell to accumulate funds to help pay for the land. The last part of his plan is to sell a family heirloom, a 137 year old piano engraved with images that relate his family’s history in America currently in his sister Berniece’s possession. He returns to the bosom of a family that is unimpressed with his plans; Berniece being adamant that he will not sell what she sees as the family legacy. The stage is then literally set for a battle of how best to reconcile yesterday and today in a way that makes tomorrow worthwhile.
The Stage has gathered an exceptional ensemble of actors who through stories and song highlight those things that have held the African American community together in their struggle in America; religion and African spirituality among them. Clifton Duncan fully embodies both the charming and manipulative aspects of Boy Willie. Christina Acosta Robinson uses her slight, almost frail body to heighten the power of her inner resolve. Other standouts are Rosco Orman (who you may remember for playing Gordon Robinson for years on Sesame Street) as Uncle Doaker who brings an appropriate naturalness and reasonability to the role. Cleavant Derricks plays Doaker’s bombastic brother and nearly stops the show with his soulful, thunderous singing voice.
This terrific cast is able to express themselves to full advantage thanks to Jade King Carrol’s subtle direction which synergistically uses story, acting talent, lighting and stage design to create something greater than its already highly impressive parts. The lives of migrant African Americans in all their humor, love and desperation are sensitively evoked.
In our continuing era of racial strife, The Piano Lesson does us all a service by stripping away stereotypes to reveal the humanity common in us all. August Wilson was (he sadly passed away in 2005) not only a master of the lyricism of words but also of the human condition and brilliantly found the dignity of his characters in their everyday struggles.
With their current production, The Stage Theater burnishes their reputation of presenting important, quality theater to Connecticut. This is what theater is all about.
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