There is the very real presentiment of a ghost in The Piano Lesson, the 1990 Pulitzer Prize?winning drama by August Wilson, that is now having a stirring revival at the Signature Theater.
Carved out of sorrow by the great-grandfather whose wife and child were sold to another master in exchange for the piano, the piano has become a family symbol, forever rooted in the memories of separation, pain and even death.
Both family friends and others, including Berniece?s 11 year-old daughter Maretha (Alexis Holt), Wining Boy (Chuck Coooper) Doaker?s Sportin? Life-like brother, and Boy Willy and even Lymon?s trollop-for-a-night Grace (Mandi Masden), get a good tossing about thanks to Wilson?s intriguing, ghost-embedded plot. The rather hokey but theatrical exorcismic resolution is notably enhanced by lighting designer Rui Rita who dramatically casts his unsettling lights and shadows on lives once torn apart, now braced for a cataclysmic renewal. In THE PIANO LESSON, now receiving a masterfully powerful revival at The Signature Theatre, that ceremony is a blues seance determined to exercise the demons of slavery and family strife, ghosts that will not leave without great struggle.
THE PIANO LESSON belongs to Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” a career-spanning project in which he wrote one play to represent the African-American experience in each decade of the twentieth century.
Set in 1936, THE PIANO LESSON (which earned the playwright his second Pulitzer) occupies a heated liminal space between the reality of slavery and the struggles for independence. But Berniece has no intention of allowing the piano to be sold, and the rest of the family, Doaker and his brother Whining Boy (Chuck Cooper), aren’t too crazy about the prospect either. THE PIANO LESSON, then, is a deeply introspective examination of a family straddling a tumultuous line between the past and the future, quarrelling over whether to dwell with the ghosts of history or to exercise them as a means to a rising future. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has proven himself again and again to have a powerfully insightful eye and ear for the heart of August Wilson, and he conducts the seance of this PIANO LESSON with a nuanced balance of subtlety and vigor. This rhythm is most alive in the wonderful musical interludes, including Cooper’s two turns at the piano, but its apotheosis is when Doaker, Whining Boy, Lyman, and Boy Willie sing a four-part a capella blues number while pounding out a beat around the kitchen table.
Like its playwright, THE PIANO LESSON never shies from indulging the ghosts of history that demand reckoning, but neither does it give in to those ghosts. Patrick Maley is an Assistant Professor of English at Centenary College in Hackettstown NJ, where he teaches courses in Shakespeare, Drama, the Bible, and Classics. Download ALL Music Transcription We HAVEMost links are not working on this site because we haven't got time to fix them since the last hacker's attack.
Rashad Rayford and Tamiko Robinson star in The Piano Lesson—presented by Circle Players and playing at Lipscomb University’s Shamblin Theatre. Circle Players continues with August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson through Sun., Jan. His great-granddaughter, Berniece, insists on keeping the piano as a piece of art, a reminder of the family’s past and a testament of survival. The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s ‘Century Cycle’ about African American life in the 20th century. A Romare Bearden painting entitled ‘The Piano Lesson’ inspired Wilson to write a play featuring a strong female character to confront African American history, paralleling Troy in the playwright’s earlier Fences. As significant as is the chillingly spectral atmosphere that director Ruben Santiago-Hudson fearlessly attends, he has even more effectively addressed the emotionally visceral changes that take place in this Pittsburgh home in 1936 (a spectacular setting by designer Michael Carnahan in which a realistic interior is framed by an expressionistic exterior).
Accompanied by his fugitive friend Lyman (Jason Dirden, who is Brandon Dirden?s real-life brother), Boy Willie has arrived from the South with a truckload of ripe watermelons to sell — and a dream of finally buying his own farm with the accumulated proceeds that he hopes will include money from the sale of the piano.
Santiago-Hudson?s keenly focused direction is at its best when it strays either romantically or whimsically from its course.

Boy Willie may be a little more than a hurly-burly bag of wind, but Brandon makes us see him as poignantly heroic. Ruff, who appeared in Wilson?s Seven Guitars at the Signature, and so memorable for her performance in the film The Help, never misses a beat of Berniece?s haunted heart. If you can spare a minute, tell us how you came to CurtainUp and from what part of the country. Even when his characters are not singing, they are maneuvering their language through a free form prose poetry that blurs the distinction between word and song.
It is a remarkable and insightful project that traces a mostly arduous journey out of the shadows of slavery and into a fight to establish community, accountability, and the strength to stand upright and proud in harsh social terrain. Defined as they are by family and genealogy, the play and its characters—separated from slavery by only a generation or two—are in constant dialogue with the ghosts of slaves and their owners.
Williams) and his niece Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), the play opens as Berniece’s brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. For the piano used to belong to the Sutters, and its body was hand-carved by Boy Willie’s great grandfather as a kind of totem to tell the family’s history. The play and its long speeches are never rushed, as Santiago-Hudson allows his actors the space to dedicate themselves to storytelling (Williams’s Doaker shines particularly in this aspect), but the moments of high tension and conflict are equally as free to boil over.
This moment captures masterfully the blues’ engagement with and expression of pain and despair in search of a momentary release, an aesthetic so central to Wilson’s work.
It is a play that looks to the rituals of blues, family history, and personal ambition as a means to escape the oppressive shadow of slavery and its violent aftermath, suggesting ultimately that the only way to exercise the demons of the past might very well be to engage them directly. He holds a PhD in English and MAs in English and Classical Studies from Indiana University, Bloomington.
Her brother, Boy Willie, a sharecropper, wants to sell the piano to buy the land (Sutter’s land) that his ancestors had toiled on as slaves. It premiered in 1987 and opened on Broadway in 1990, winning numerous awards in addition to the Pulitzer. However, on finishing his play, Wilson found the ending to stray from the empowered female character as well as from the question regarding self-worth.
The main thrust of the action centers on an estranged brother and sister, the grandchildren of slaves.
The play?s central conflict arises when Doaker?s widowed niece Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) refuses to even consider selling the virtually un-played piano so that her brother Boy Willie (Brandon J. There are just enough bluesy musical interludes to off-set the play?s tendency toward narrative excess and its three-hour length. Jason?s performance as Lymon is graced by a disarming charm, especially in the light of his unfortunately misplaced romantic gestures toward the vulnerable Berniece. There are also fine performances by Eric Lenox Abrams, as Berniece?s preacher-suitor and Holt as Berniece?s daughter.
Dirden (Boy Willie), Jason Dirden (Lymon), Roslyn Ruff (Berniece), Alexis Holt (Maretha), Eric Lenox Abrams (Avery), Chuck Cooper (Wining Boy), Mandi Masden (Grace). The effect is to give the play a sense of ritual, moving its events out of their seemingly everyday context and into the space of ceremony.

As such, the play investigates the struggle of family and community to move forward while reconciling the horrors of the not-so-distant past. What’s more, the family owns it now only because Boy Willie’s father stole it out of the Sutter home, an offence for which he was hunted down and killed.
Boy Willie embodies this play’s conflict between history and the drive for the future most fully, a conflict that Dirden’s kinetically physical performance allows to enflame this character. He researches and writes widely on drama, theater, and critical theory, with a particular interest in modern and contemporary American and Irish drama, as well as tragedy of all ages. An African American family’s piano, in slave days, was once traded for the family’s patriarch. The humorously captivating performance of Cooper as the hustling piano-playing Wining Boy is no figment of the imagination. Nobody in this play had been born into slavery, but they bear its deep scars in the proximity of their family history, and they are attended constantly by its ghosts. The two have driven up from the south in the hopes of creating a financial windfall by selling a truckload of watermelons to rich northerners.
Berniece insists that the piano will not go anywhere because it is infused with the tears and blood of their family history, while Boy Willie sees the piano as a ticket to advancement in the world.
Dirden bounds around the stage with an energy that seems to scream for release, as his determined speeches seize upon Boy Willie’s obstinate insistence to move forward in his life.
His scholarship appears in academic journals such as Modern Drama, New Hibernia Review, and The Eugene O'Neill Review. Individual tickets will also be on sale at the box office at Shamblin Theatre one hour before each performance. Within the canon of Wilson?s plays that cover the African-American experience in the 20th century, and particularly those in which the natural world is invaded by the supernatural, the characters of The Piano Lesson (the 4th play in the cycle) perhaps strike the clearest and brightest notes.
The play stages a tenuous struggle to remember the pain of the past while moving beyond its immobilizing oppression. Boy Willie needs money because he has the opportunity to buy farm land that belonged to the recently deceased Sutter, whose grandfather owned the ancestors of Boy Willie and the rest of the play’s central family. The play traces the rising tension over the piano’s future as family allegiances begin to splinter. The character with a drive for more out of life than society will allow him is an important favorite of Wilson’s, and Dirden here captures that character’s yearning at its most robust and lively. The Piano Lesson is about a family learning to embrace change while still accepting and acknowledging their shared legacy.
Boy Willie figures that he has saved one part of the money to buy the farm, that he can make a second part on watermelon profits, and that the final part can come from selling the piano he and his sister inherited from their father.

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