Thursday, February 03, 2005

The Piano Lesson (Cleveland Play House)

'THE PIANO LESSON'--an examination of the African American adventure

Playwright August Wilson thinks that African Americans have not been fairly represented by White culture writers and historians. To counter this, Wilson has set out to create a series of works which examine the lives of Africans who were brought to this country, often against their will, and enslaved. He develops his messages by using cultural patterns such as story telling and music, with references to history, religion and superstition. ‘THE PIANO LESSON,’ now on stage at The Cleveland Play House, is the fourth in Wilson’s 20th century decade-by-decade chronicle.

The story centers around a piano that sits in the parlor of the Pittsburgh home of Doaker Charles and his niece, Berniece. The years is 1936, but the piano serves as a persistent reminder of the ancestral memory of the home’s inhabitants. Carved on the legs and front of the piano, as described in Wilson’s stage directions, are “mask-like figures resembling the manner of African sculpture...rendered with a grace and power of invention that lifts them out of realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.” These figures, created by Berniece’s great-grandfather, tell the history of the family through the long years from slavery to emancipation.

For Berniece, the piano evokes memories and emotions. Her mother used to make her play the piano every day, an obligation Berniece accepted because she was convinced its carved figures had the ability to come alive and walk around at night, to create ghosts and memories too fearful to confront. When her mother died, Berniece “shut the top of that piano...and ain’t never opened it again.” Out of respect for the generations of ancestors enshrined in its tableaux, she’d never dream of allowing the instrument to leave her parlor.

Berniece’s brother, Bob Willie, shares none of his sister’s attachment to the instrument. He views the piano as a commodity to be sold and the money used to purchase the land of the former owner of their slave ancestors. He believes that getting rid of the piano and claiming the land will purge the ghosts from the entire family.

Ghosts, both literally and figuratively, hover over the happenings. The works itself sits at the intersection of realism and metaphor. Are the ghosts real? Is the storm near the play’s conclusion the exorcism of the actual spirits or the end of the family’s obsession with the horrors of the past?

Is ‘THE PIANO LESSON’ a great script? In spite of its awards, reviewers generally agree that it is not a masterpiece. It is repetitious, imperfectly resolved, and as often is the case with Wilson, much too long. What it does have going for it are also Wilson’s trademarks: the rhythms of black speech, the essence of the culturally uprooted, the legacy of slavery, and the knowing message of what it is like to be at the bottom rung of the American way of life.

The CPH production, under the able direction of Chuck Patterson, develops Wilson’s intent. In spite of excellent performances, they cannot, however, completely overcome the excessive length, abstraction and talkiness of the script.

Wiley Moore (Doaker) stands proud as a Black man who has meet the system and taken it on as a hard working productive member of society. Moore adds just the right inner strength to the role. Albert Jones doesn’t consistently smolder as Boy Willie, though he has periods of brilliance. Marlon Morrison, as Willie’s naive country boy friend Lymon, is wonderful. He is simple, without being a simpleton. Linda Powell’s Berneice sometimes lacks the texturing necessary to make her character a totally real person. Sierra Heard as Berneice’s daughter, Kim Sullivan as the preacher, Doug Jewell as Doaker’s brother and Colleen Longshaw as the women who Boy Willie and Lymon hook up with, are all quite good in their performances.

Felix Cochren’s set is outstanding. It is not only era perfect and visually attractive, but gives the actors an efficient place in which to perform. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costume designs are wonderful. William H. Grant III adds much to the production through his lighting.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: August Wilson is an important African American playwright. ‘THE PIANO LESSON’ is another of his plays that helps give a picture of the African American experience. Though a flawed script, the CPH production is worth seeing for no other reason than it is an important piece in the puzzle of defining an important racial component of the American story.