Review: 'The Piano Lesson' at Hartford Stage

Tara Kennedy

  • Connecticut Critic
  • Connecticut Critic's Circle

August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is part of his ten-play series, “The American Century Cycle” that represents African-American life throughout the decades of the twentieth century; this piece centers on the 1930s during the aftermath of the Great Depression in Pittsburgh. The play’s title comes from a Romare Bearden painting of the same name who - like Wilson in this instance - was inspired by the art of others. In this case, the painting was thought to be of jazz pianist, Mary Lou Williams. There is one woman seated at the piano with another figure looming over the seated player. There is an intimidation there, and the inspiration for Wilson’s work definitely can be seen in Bearden’s painting.

The play takes place in 1936 in Pittsburgh and follows the lives of the family of Doaker Charles (Roscoe Orman, who played Gordon on Sesame Street for almost as long as I’ve been alive). The piece focuses around the fate of a piano: Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) wants to sell the family heirloom in order to purchase land where his family worked as slaves. Berniece (Christina Acosta Robinson) wants to keep the piano, which displays the carved faces of their great grandfather’s wife and son when they were slaves, yet she refuses to play it.  Boy Willie comes up from Mississippi with his friend Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane) to take the piano and sell it.  Doaker’s ne’er-do-well musician brother, Wining Boy (Cleavant Derricks) shows up visiting from Kansas City. There is also an unrequited lover of Berniece, Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), who is hoping that Berniece will marry him as he tries to become a preacher while working as an elevator operator. 

This Pulitzer-Prize winning play had its debut with Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987, which in its 50th anniversary year, is producing “Seven Guitars” this coming November, so it’s quite a treat to be able to see two of Wilson’s plays in one season. Yale Repertory did a revival of “The Piano Lesson” in 2011; Frank Rizzo of the Hartford Courant stated in his “Twitter” version of his review that it was “a great rhapsody of the blues… played out with just the right notes of respect and re-imagination.” All musical references aside, there is no question that this is a great literary work; layers of symbolism, imagery, and allegory abound. This is one of those plays that I probably would enjoy reading more than watching. Unfortunately, this is the case with Hartford Stage’s production.

First, let me mention the fantastic performance of Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie. As soon as he came on stage, his energy was immediate: he plays Boy Willie with fire and intensity. I felt his drive to be “better”; to gain the advantages that he never had, including the land owned by the family that enslaved his father.  You knew what he wanted from the moment the play opened, and he never lost a beat through the three-hour show. He gives a provocative, outstanding performance. 

Mr. Derricks too was high energy throughout the production: he was engaging, funny, and lively with a touch of sadness. His rousing musical number at the piano in Act I (joined by Doakes, Boy Willie, and Lymon) was a highlight of the show. It is easy to see how he won the Tony for originating the role of James Thunder Early in “Dreamgirls.” I also enjoyed Kane’s portrayal of Lymon. He had a gentleness and innocence about him that I thought was a nice contrast to Duncan’s unrelenting Boy Willie. 

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the other central characters, as I am used to a certain caliber of performances at Hartford Stage. Ms. Robinson mostly projected resentment throughout the show, which made the resolution at the end of the play incredibly sudden and not believable. With all of the animosity she was radiating toward her brother, it did not seem reasonable that she would embrace him at the end. I would have liked to have seen the other dimensions of Berniece. Mr. Orman had trouble projecting and a lot of his words were lost; he also seemed to struggle with the text, which affected the pacing of some scenes in an already three-hour play. 

I am not placing the blame fully on the actors, as I believe some of the struggles were due to ineffectual directing choices by Jade King Carroll. There were scenes where the actors stood statically, creating a monotonous, uninteresting picture.  The minimalist approach would be applauded if only the actors had supported the dialogue with the same potency as found when simply reading the text. There were other blocking choices where crucial lines were lost upstage due to chaotic staging in the final climactic scene. Case in point: I had to read the script to find out what actually happened at the end of the play. 

Set design by Alexis Distler created an authentic-feeling 1930s home in a working-class neighborhood: a muted color palette with a fancy (but not too fancy) décor. I also enjoyed the musical numbers (composed by Baikida Carroll; musically directed by Bill Sims, Jr.), especially Wining Boy’s first number where the male characters sing and dance, and Wining Boy’s lamenting piece toward the end of the show of love lost. 

Overall, “The Piano Lesson” is a wonderful piece of literature that appears to not have reached its full potential in this production.

Photo: Clifton Duncan, left, as Boy Willie, Christina Acosta Robinson as Berniece, and Roscoe Orman as Doaker in August Wilson's drama “The Piano Lesson” at Hartford Stage. (T. Charles Erickson)