Story: Boy Willie Charles has lived his entire life as a sharecropper in Mississippi on the same land where his grandfather was a slave of a white man named Sutter. When Sutter’s last remaining descendant down South puts the land up for sale, Boy Willie is determined to buy it. The time is 1937, in the Great Depression, and Boy Willie journeys north to Pittsburgh to convince his sister Berniece to sell their family’s heirloom piano so that he can buy the land with his share.
Berniece and her daughter Maretha live with Berniece’s Uncle Doaker, a railroad man who moved north decades earlier, and the piano sits prominently in the living room. She has no intention of departing with the beloved object. To her it represents her family’s history, carved out of wood by their craftsman grandfather to honor his wife, children and other relatives. It’s something the young widow can cherish as much as her dream of Maretha becoming a teacher. Is it destined to remain there as a connection to the past or will it be transformed into a ticket to the future?
Highlights: Twenty years ago The Black Rep moved into its new performance home in the Grandel Theatre in the fledgling Grand Center of midtown St. Louis. Founder and artistic director Ron Himes mounted a production of The Piano Lesson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama by August Wilson, as the troupe’s initial project at the Grandel.
Now, The Black Rep opens its 36th season with a riveting and immensely satisfying rendition of Wilson’s towering tale of the conflicting dreams and memories of the Charles family. Every member of the cast is either a former member of The Black Rep’s professional intern program or has participated in its workshops and classes.
Other Info: The Black Rep last season began its second foray into Wilson’s acclaimed “Pittsburgh Cycle” of 10 plays depicting the African-American experience in 20th century America, one drama for each decade with a fabulous performance of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. This rendition of The Piano Lesson is given expert guidance by director Lorna Litteway, who maintains a compelling pace for this sprawling, three-hour saga, allowing Wilson’s masterful dialogue to move his masterpiece forward.
She also shrewdly utilizes the comfortable space available on the Grandel stage, where scenic designer Tim Case has crafted an impressive, two-story set that provides plenty of room for Doaker’s kitchen and living room, where all the action takes place, as well as a pivotal staircase that leads to upstairs bedrooms and three doors on the main floor, two to the outside and a middle one to an unseen back room.
One of Wilson’s signature marks in many of his plays is an interlude that bubbles magically to the surface and takes on a life of its own. Here, it’s an a cappella railroad song whimsically performed by Ronald Conner, Robert Mitchell, ChauncyThomas and Ethan Jones as, one by one, they join in on an impromptu song and dance that pays homage to the life and times of rail splitters, a spontaneous combustion of delight.
Props master Moses Weathers adds a striking touch with the heirloom piano and its signature artwork, and lighting designer Jim Burwinkel’s illumination of Doaker’s inside walls shows striking visages from the family’s past as well as the eerie appearances of Sutter’s ghost. Daryl Harris shows a distinctive flair with the colorful costumes, from the garish garb adorning Doaker’s perennial bankrupt brother Wining Boy to the utilitarian attire of Doaker and the grimy togs of Boy Willie and Lymon.
Conner is a force of nature as Boy Willie, erupting periodically throughout the two acts of Wilson’s fascinating story. He commands the stage with his fervor and determination, so much so that the tension of ensuing tragedy emanating from his singular focus is never far from the surface. It’s an astonishing performance.
Equally impressive are Mitchell as Doaker and Thomas as Lymon. Doaker is the bedrock of stability in the Charles family, a man who has devoted 27 years to the railroads and established life on his own terms. Mitchell smoothly depicts Doaker’s neutrality as well as his innate sense of justice, transfixing the audience when he tells Lymon the story behind the family piano.
Thomas is one of St. Louis’ premier performers, a chameleon who immerses himself in his characters seamlessly. Here he is ingratiating and appealing as the affable Lymon, Boy Willie’s pal whose good nature and easygoing personality contrast sharply with Boy Willie’s intensity. A scene between Thomas and Sharisa Whatley at the end of a long day is particularly sweet and affecting.
Whatley confidently shows the determination and resolute certainty of Berniece, a woman who doesn’t buy into the need to have a man in order to identify her own self-worth. She still mourns the death of her late husband, even while she’s courted, mostly unsuccessfully, by a young man named Avery who followed her to Pittsburgh in the hopes of marrying her and becoming a preacher. Robert Lee Davis III does well as the good-intentioned but somewhat hapless Avery.
Jones is grand as Doaker’s wastrel brother Wining Boy, a musician who has spent all his money on women and gambling through the years but who still maintains a cheerful outlook on life. Candice Jeanine nicely fills the bill in the bit role of Grace, a woman who strikes the fancy of both Boy Willie and Lymon, and Carli Officer does a fine job as young Maretha.
Wilson is one of the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. Even with a few glitches (some of the performances in lesser roles are less polished), this telling of The Piano Lesson is time well spent for any student of drama.
Play: The Piano Lesson
Group: The Black Rep
Venue: Grandel Theatre, 3610 Grandel Square
Dates: Thursdays through Sundays through February 2
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Stewart Goldstein