By Tulis McCall
This entire rambling play is summed up by Doaker Charles, (Samuel L. Jackson in a sensitive performance.)
I’ll tell you something about the railroad. What I done learned after twenty-seven years. See, you got North. You got West. You look over here you got South. Over there you got East. Now, you can start from anywhere. Don’t care where you at. You got to go one of them four ways. And whichever way you decide to go they got a railroad that will take you there. Now, that’s something simple. You think anybody would be able to understand that. But you’d be surprised how many people trying to go North get on a train going West. They think the train’s supposed to go where they going rather than where it’s going.
That describes everyone in the Charles household – anyone under the same roof where Doaker, his niece, Berniece (Danielle Brooks) and her daughter (Nadia Daniel on the night I was there) live. No matter the length of their stay.
Everyone wants to go in a driections other than the onein which they are headed.
Maybe it’s spirits in the house. Maybe it’s the spirits in the piano.
It is 1936, Pittsburgh, and Boy Willie (John David Washington) Berniece’s brother, and his friend Lymon, (Ray Fisher) have driven up north to Pittsburgh with a truckload of watermelons to sell. They are on an unannounced adventure and no one is welcoming them on account of WHY they are there. Boy Willie has it in his mind to take the piano that belongs to him and Berniece and sell it. Period. The end. Half the money would go to Berniece and the other half would buy him the final third of a parcel of land.
Everyone disregards this quest because Boy Willis is not a man to be taken seriously. Everything he tries has failed, not to mention his involvement with the death of Berniece’s husband three years ago. He swears it was an ambush, but the tale has a sorry sound to it.
So. Man wants piano. Sister says no. Uncles say no. Not much of a plot to hang your hat on. Instead Wilson fills out the story by taking us round Robin Hood’s barn with reminiscences, old relatives returning up in the person of Winning Boy (a mercurial Michael Potts) and new possibilities emerging in the form of Reverend Avery (Trai Byers).
August Wilson is the king of subplots, and with so many stacked one upon another it is easy to topple the pile. There is plenty of that here – not that these detours are boring in any sense. They just pull us off the track.
There are also directorial choices that add to the confusion. Boy Willie arrives shouting, like a train at full throttle and never eases up. And we never learn why. Washington’s monologues are often set up against a bit of business that draws our attention away from him. Berniece snapping beans or fixing her child’s hair. As a rule, you don’t want actors competing for attention onstage. If someone is meant to be the center of attention either they grab it or they move over to where the center is (in this case Berniece) and move into that orbit. Sad to say I lost o lot of what Boy Willie was saying because I was focused on another character.
Jackson and Potts both bring a rich, wise, grace to their roles. Age has taught them a thing or to and they verbally wrestle with one another like old bears. Brooks finds nuances in Berniece’s sad life that literally light up the stage. On the whole the ensemble work is fine, but it would have been better if we could have seen the goings on up on the second floor. Beowulf Borritt’s detailed set left those of us in the orchestra seats wondering about the lives lived upstairs.
All in all this production didn’t add up for me. I remember seeing another production 10 years ago and left there feeling connected, like kin, to this family and its raw magic, shining graces and shameful memories. This cast gave it their best, but the sum was not as great as the parts.
One more thing – I hope that as the run goes on the cast will relax and remember to let their laugh lines have time. Right now they are stepping on them and snuffing the life out of many a great moment. The audience on the night I was there was having a grand old time and responding with no hesitation. There will be more coming ready to laugh and cry. People are eager for this story, no matter if it is not everything it could be.
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Directed by Latanya Richardson Jackson
Danielle Brooks , Trai Byers, Ray Fisher, Samuel L. Jackson, April Matthis , Michael Potts, John David Washington and Nadia Daniel and Jurnee Swan as Maretha at alternating performances.