Winner, 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama
The Piano Lesson
by August Wilson
Directed by Claude Purdy
Produced by StageWalkers Productions
November 2-December 9, 2007
It is 1936 and Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh from the South in a battered truck loaded with watermelons to sell. He has an opportunity to buy some land down home, but he has to come up with the money right quick. He wants to sell an old piano that has been in his family for generations, but he shares ownership with his sister and it sits in her living room. She has already rejected several offers because the antique piano is covered with incredible carvings detailing the family's rise from slavery. Boy Willie tries to persuade his stubborn sister that the past is past, but she is more formidable than he anticipated.
2008 LA Ovation Nominations:
Best Featured Actor (Ben Guillory)
Best Costume Design(Naila Sanders)
Best Set Design (Joel Daavid)
Winner - Best Featured Actor (Ben Guillory)
Los Angeles Times
Theater Critic’s Choice: ‘The Piano Lesson’
August Wilson’s majestic ghost story, set in 1936 Pittsburgh, focuses on the battle between siblings Berniece (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who’s determined to remember the past, and Boy Willie (Russell Andrews), who’s itching to create a new future. They clash over the fate of an intricately carved piano with a disturbing history, dating back to slave days. Veteran Wilson director Claude Purdy’s staging is stocked with rich performances not only from the leads but also from Alex Morris and Ben Guillory as the siblings’ uncles, Roscoe C. Freeman as Boy Willie’s impressionable pal, Julius Tennon as Berniece’s starchy preacher and suitor, DaShawn R. Barnes as her gangly daughter and Tammi Mac as a woman on the town. If you don’t believe in the play’s ghosts, consider whether you believe in those who haunt Hamlet and Macbeth. – Don Shirley
At 5 a.m., Doaker (Alex Morris) is awakened by pounding on the door of his Philadelphia house. It’s his brother, Boy Willie (Russell Andrews), and his friend, Lymon (Roscoe C. Freeman), up from the South with a truck of watermelons they intend to sell. Boy Willie’s noisy entrance also wakes up Doaker’s sister Berniece (Vanessa Bell Calloway), who sees Boy Willie as trouble in the making. As soon as Berniece’s daughter, Maretha (DaShawn R. Barnes), leaves for school and Berniece for work, Boy Willie tries to enlist Doaker in his plan to sell the family heirloom: a piano hand-carved with the faces of relatives and African totems. Set during the Depression, August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is one of the most engaging in his ten-play cycle about African American life in the 20th century. Claude Purdy directs a uniformly strong cast, including Julius Tennon as a preacher and Diarra O. Kilpatrick (substituting for Tammi Mac) as a floozy. Joel Daavid’s production design lends itself to non-intrusive stage business on the well-thought-out set, which is, of course, dominated by the piano.
August Wilson revival lights up Hayworth Theater
Pauline Adamek, Studio City Sun
August Wilson is one of America’s greatest playwrights, and fortunately for us, his Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Piano Lesson, is currently being staged at the Hayworth Theatre by the StageWalkers troupe. Largely self-educated, Wilson is re-nowned for his literary legacy of ten plays, dubbed “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” two of which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Each is set during a different decade and depicts the comedy and tragedy of the African-American experience in the 20th century. The plays were forged when Wilson collaborated with actors, artists and writers while living in Pittsburgh, forming the Kuntu Writers Workshop and Repertory Theatre.
Experiencing an August Wilson play is like stepping through a time machine, in this instance back to depression-era Pittsburgh. The period detail of the set design (by Joel Daavid) and costume design (Naila Sanders) is impeccable. The rhythms and idiom of Wilson’s dialogue is evocative and authentic. It’s evident that the actors were having a lot of fun inhabiting these characters of yesteryear. Here is some of the finest acting you’ll see on a Los Angeles stage. Paired with the attentive direction from Claude Purdy, each one of these first-rate actors is a joy to watch. This volatile drama pits brother against sister in a battle to wills to decide the future of a treasured heirloom; a piano, carved with African-style portraits by their grandfather, an enslaved plantation carpenter. The brother wants to sell it to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists that the instrument carries too much family history to be sold.
Russell Andrews is arresting as the boisterous, feisty country fellow Willie Boy while Vanessa Bell Calloway holds her own as his determined sister Berniece. There’s a lot of talk of how the piano came to be in the family and the significance of the elaborate carvings on its surfaces, representing family members and scenes of violence. To Berniece, the piano has blood on it, both literally and figuratively, and it represents the struggles of her people. Boy Willie has scant regard for the past. He has a dream, to own some land and get out from under the oppressive yoke of forced labor for others. As the recriminations and old grudges rage back and forth, the specter of the piano’s previous owner begins to manifest itself.
An important feature of this production is the superb sound design and music composed by Michael Sena. The bluesy refrain on dobro (a resonating steel guitar) that bookends each scene sets a tangible mood, though it was often interrupted by the classical tinkling of the ghostly piano as a somewhat overused device. The spooky sounds when the piano refuses to budge invest it with a life of its own. A highlight of the evening is when the fellows are drinking whisky around the kitchen table and break into a rousing chain gang spiritual. Even the simple act of ironing a pair of pants turns into a rhythmic song.
My only misgiving is that this play is almost three hours long. During the play’s final argument between Boy Willie and Berniece, I was tired and easily distracted by her mesmerizing business with a hot comb and some hair grease as she tended to her little daughter’s hair that I forgot to pay attention to the dialogue. Director Claude Purdy apparently shared a shady past with Wilson and has privileged permission to stage his marvelous plays. Purdy does justice to the memory of Wilson, not so much with excessive reverence but with a diligence and accuracy that permits his wonderful actors to breathe new life into these old tales. In spite of an anti-climactic and far-fetched ending, The Piano Lesson is an important production and should not be missed.
Cast & Crew
Produced by StageWalkers Productions
Production Design by Joel Daavid
Sound Design by Michael Sena
Costume Design by Naila Sanders
Production Stage Manager by Jennifer Kimpfbeck
A. RUSSELL ANDREWS