Tom, Ed, Richard, and I saw *The Piano Lesson* on Broadway on Nov 26, 2022. It's a play by August Wilson from 1987, set in Pittsburgh in 1936. It won Wilson the Pulitzer Prize for drama. This was my first time seeing a Wilson play onstage. My only previous experience with his work was the movies of *Fences* and *Ma Rainey's Black Bottom.* I will definitely be seeing more of his work onstage, the play blew me away.
Wilson is a master playwright on many levels. Often the characters are having an ordinary conversation but you have an unsettling feeling that something more is going on, something under the surface. This is exciting for an audience. He also writes about specific people and specific family relationships but you have the feeling that he's writing about an experience on a much grander scale.
Wilson writes powerful, rich roles for his actors and this production had three amazing actors in the leading roles. Samuel L. Jackson played the patriarch, Doaker. I've admired Jackson's work in movies for a long time and was eager to see him onstage, and he was extraordinary. The play had its premiere at the Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987 and Jackson played the central younger man's role so it was meaningful for him returning to the play in this role.
John David Washington played the nephew of Jackson's character, Boy Willie. Again, I was a fan of his movie work (*BlacKkKlansman* and *Amsterdam*) and was excited to see him onstage. I'm sure he's tired of people saying this, but he's the son of Denzel Washington. His voice sounds so much like his father's.
Danielle Brooks played the niece of Doaker and sister of Boy Willie, Berniece. She had done a few things onstage in recent years, which I hadn't seen, but I did see her TV movie about Mahalia Jackson, she was fantastic in that.
Berniece lives with her uncle, Doaker. She's raising her daughter in Pittsburgh, the three of them seem to have a good thing going here. Berniece's brother Boy Willie arrives unannounced from Mississippi - - he and a friend are in town selling watermelons. Boy Willie also tells them that he's going to take the piano, a family heirloom, sell it, and split the proceeds with Berniece. Doaker tells the story of the piano, which had been hand-carved by one of their ancestors, an enslaved person. The piano's history is much more complex, woven through many generations, right up to Boy Willie's and Berniece's parents.
Berniece tells Boy Willie that she won't allow him to sell the piano and Boy Willie insists that he will sell it. This is the central conflict of the play. Berniece has the attitude that they have to honor their ancestors by keeping the piano in the family. Boy Willie's point of view is that the suffering of their ancestors led to them having better lives and they should feel free to sell the piano to make their lives better still.
The play was expertly directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson. Again, knowledge of these relationships isn't essential knowledge, but I think it's helpful to know: she's the wife of Samuel L. Jackson. She had a marvelous sense of the large-scale dramatic arc of the play. She used the lighting in a fascinating and inventive way, to highlight the history of the piano. She took this element much further at the conclusion of the play, in both the lighting and set design - - I wasn't convinced it was the right choice but I understood what she was trying to do.
I saw online that Denzel Washington is in pre-production on a film adaptation starring this same cast, which he will direct. Bring it on!
Here's a CBS Sunday Morning feature about John David Washington in the show: