Rollicking, driving and at times as plaintive as a blues song sung against a starless night, Olney’s production of The Piano Lesson by August Wilson plays a melody of feelings you can’t get out of your mind.
It’s the first time in Olney’s history they’ve done a Wilson play and director Jamil Jude’s deft touch with Wilson’s story-rich, rhythm-drenched dialogue suggests they’ve been missing out on a grand opportunity. The production is everything you would want in a staging of a Wilson play—atmosphere, fierce camaraderie between the actors, musical speeches and bewitching storytelling.
A musical instrument, a piano intricately carved by a slave depicting his family during slavery, is the centerpiece of Wilson’s play, the 1930s offering in his 10-play Century Cycle that chronicles 100 years of African-American life.
Set in 1936 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, The Piano Lesson shows the joys and pains of being chained to the past and also the tragedy of those who turn their backs on history to embrace a future they believe will be free.
Berniece (an on-fire Jessica Frances Dukes) is the current owner of the piano, where it proudly sits in the parlor of the house owned by her uncle Doaker (Jonathan Peck, solid and soulful), a railroad man of quiet dignity who clearly has been stooped by life but not bowed. Berniece doesn’t play the piano—too hurtful—but she does revere its power and sees it as the embodiment of her mother’s tears, her family’s blood and the sacrifice of too many of her people in the South.
Berniece, her child Maretha (the engaging Nicole Wildy) and Doaker escaped to the North where they are safe—but nowhere near free. What binds them comes roaring back in the form of Boy Willie (the incendiary Ronald Conner), Berniece’s freewheeling, schemes-filled brother and his downhome sidekick Lymon (Jon Hudson Odom, excellent as a countrified lothario).
Boy Willie arrives with a broken-down truck full of watermelons and a plan full of holes involving buying the land from the white people who once owned the family as slaves. He wants to sell the piano to get the rest of the down payment for the land.
The battle between brother and sister form the crux of The Piano Lesson. So many characters say “Berniece ain’t gonna sell that piano” it becomes a musical refrain running through the show. True to Wilson’s work, there is music in the wordplay throughout, riffs and solos, crescendos and counter-melodies. The only jarring note is the actor playing Doaker’s penchant for throwing lines, which upsets the percolating rhythm of the show.
With Berniece and Boy Willie as the lead vocalists, the rest of the characters gather around as a chorus representing either the old troubles or a new path. Young Maretha signifies the next generation, as does Avery (JaBen Early, ardently playing the still-vital embodiment of the American Dream of hard work and big plans), an up-and-coming preacher who pleads with Berniece to start over with him.
She cannot fully let go, and the strength of that tug toward unhealed wounds and the pain you know as well as the creases in your hands is palpable, especially when Doaker and his reprobate brother Wining Boy (Harold Surratt, smooth as cream playing an old school sporting man) start telling stories.
THE PIANO LESSON
Closes June 8, 2014
Olney Theatre Center
2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Rd.
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $53 – $63
Wednesdays thru Sundays
Details and Tickets
Wining Boy drops in from Kansas City, broke and ready to drink, play cards and shoot the breeze. The two talk about people and incidents from back home and their words are so vivid and haunting—and at times earthy and hilarious–the faces and images just curl around your imagination like aromatic smoke. No wonder Berniece can’t forget and Boy Willie can’t wait to get back.
The battle royale between the two is perfectly matched by Conner and Dukes, with Boy Willie all full of bluff and bluster. He fills the room with his high talk but his downfall is that he’s so intent on making his mark on the world—“Boy Willie was here!” is his battle cry—that he never listens. He’s exterior bombast to Duke’s inward Berniece, a woman who holds it all in, keeps it tight and close. Unlike her brother, Berniece does not want to leave any mark on the world—she wants to tread lightly and carefully, not cause trouble, be left at peace. But then there’s that tiny, fierce part of her that wants to be loved.
The production is so evenly performed you can see the validity of both Boy Willie and Berniece’s arguments. They play against each other like dueling riffs, each compelling in its own right.
But there has to be a way out, right? In that, the piano has the final say.
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson . Directed by Jamil Jude . Featuring Jessica Frances Dukes as Berniece, Ronald Conner, Lauren Du Pree, JaBen Early, Jon Hudson Odom, Jonathan Peck, Harold Surratt, and Nicole Wildy . Scenic Designer: Daniel Ettinger. Costume Designer: Reggie Ray.Lighting Designer: Xavier Pierce. Sound Designer: Elisheba Ittoop, and Fight Director Robb Hunter. Produced by Olney Theatre Center . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.