Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe has produced August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson before, but its current production offers a more cohesive mix of comedy, drama, history and family strife than earlier attempts. In fact, it may be the best of any of WBTT’s stagings of Wilson’s plays (which include Jitney and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) thus far.
That’s due in part to the play itself, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990 and remains among the strongest of Wilson’s 10-play American Century Cycle. And it’s also due in part to the direction of Chuck Smith, who elicits nuanced, flavorful performances from his cast.
That cast includes some WBTT regulars as well as a newcomer or two. Together they work to convey the struggle of the Charles family, in Depression-era Pittsburgh, to come to terms with their legacy of slavery and bloodshed, symbolized in an heirloom piano that draws differing feelings from each.
For Boy Willie (Earley Dean) a boisterous Southern sharecropper eager to sell the piano to buy land, it represents an opportunity to improve his life. With the aid of his more easygoing, woman-hunting friend, Lymon (Michael Mendez), Boy Willie plans to sell enough watermelons up North to round up the rest of the price.
For his sister Berniece (Noelle Strong), who blames Boy Willie for the death of her husband three years earlier, the piano is not about money but about the sacrifices earlier generations made—or were forced to make. Their faces are carved into the piano, helping to make them a real presence for us. She can’t let go of the past enough to accept the marriage offer of Avery (Kenny Dozier), a good-hearted preacher, although her uncle, Doaker (Henri Watkins) can see the benefits for her and her young daughter (Jireh Pierre).
The arrivals of Boy Willie and, later, another uncle, the hard-drinking Wining Boy (Patric Robinson) disrupt the household, but there’s more than that afoot: There’s a supernatural element to the play, as the ghost of the white man whose family once owned the Charles family as slaves enters the home. Can ghosts of the past be exorcised to free Berniece and others to face the future?
The Piano Lesson features some vintage Wilson dialogue, especially among the men, as they sit in the kitchen drinking whiskey, stomping their feet and singing. The pacing of the play is sometimes leisurely (the production clocks in at three hours with intermission), but that’s Wilson’s way, to immerse us deeply into his characters’ lives, and there is certainly plenty of humor to leaven the darker sides of the tale.
As Boy Willie, Dean is convincing and sometimes genuinely irritating as a man who simply cannot be quiet; he is always on the move, always talking, always scheming. Mendez and Dozier are likable as Lymon and Avery, respectively; Watkins quietly effective as Doaker; and Robinson entertaining as Wining Boy.
On the female side of the cast, Emerald Rose Sullivan makes a brief but vivid appearance as Grace, the object of both Lymon and Boy Willie’s pursuit; Pierre is sweet but sometimes barely audible as the young Maretha; and Strong right on the money whether delivering withering comebacks to Boy Willie or, in more tender moments, baring some of her heart and soul to Lymon.
The production’s final seconds feel abrupt, after all the buildup that has come before, but for most of The Piano Lesson, WBTT does justice to Wilson’s work. The show’s run continues through Feb. 19; for tickets call 366-1505 or go to westcoastblacktheatre.org.