THE PIANO LESSON
by August Wilson
Directed by Natalie King
Stage Manager: Maria Leon Hickox
Assistant Stage Manager: Victoria Esquibell
Set & Lighting Designer: Bryan Stevenson
Sound Designer: Ryan Simon
Costume Designer: Diana Story
Assistant Costumer Designer: Janice Pennington
Prop Designer: Robin Dotson
Scenic Artist: Angie Glover
Doaker: Jerrold Trice
Boy Willie: Sean Massey
Lymon: Kevin Davis Jr.
Berniece: Shaundra Norwood
Maretha: Alyssa Melton
Avery: Sekou Calhoun
Wining Boy: David Wendell Boykins
Grace: Jayden Russell
Reviewed Performance: 5/6/2022
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and Drama Desk Award, Outstanding New Play. The setting is the Pittsburgh home of Doeker Charles (Jerrold Trice) in the year 1936.
The action kicks off with the boisterous entrance of Boy Willie (Sean Massey) and Lymon (Kevin Davis, Jr.), who have succeeded in driving an unreliable truck, loaded with watermelon, from Mississippi, to sell for a nice profit to the wealthy (i.e., white) denizens of the big city.
The prodigiously talented Sean Massey stars as Boy Willie, a complex character driven by ambition. One of the play’s mysteries is the limits that Boy Willie has and will go to accomplish his obsession, the acquisition of sufficient capital to buy the “Sutter land.” Boy Willie is loud, fast-talking, and magnetic. Massey infuses the character with a high-strung intensity that is tempered by a rich, rollicking laugh. Boy Willie projects a raucous cheer, but just below the surface, is cynicism and dissatisfaction. In response to Avery’s (Sekou Calhoun) aspirations to start his own church, Boy Willie goes straight to the matter. If he did so, he would enjoy having “everybody calling me Reverend Boy Willie.” Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece (Shaundra Norwood), describes him as incapable of listening to other people, a trait shared with their deceased father. But Boy Willie is not a fantasist. His plan to buy the Sutter land, to farm it as his own, sounds workable.
Berniece is also a layered and multi-faceted character. Her competing emotions are adroitly navigated in a compelling performance by Norwood. Bristling at Boy Willie’s arrival from the beginning, her first objection is fair enough. Uncle Doaker had already warned Boy Willi and Lymon that they were too loud and would wake up Berniece, who needed to get up early for work. The wise-cracking dialogue increasingly reveals that Berniece does not trust her brother and his pal. “Where’s he got that truck from?” she comically quips. When she gets pushed back on her accusatory questions, Berniece indignantly stands up for herself, stating, that he can “go back out there where nobody has to ask him nothing.” As the play unfolds, Berniece at one point voices her frustration that all the men in her life are the same, but along the way, we see that she is happy to make Uncle Wining Boy (David Wendell Boykins) pork chops and sweet on Lymon. Her mistrust and animosity focus on her brother, Boy Willie. He at one point says in his own defense, “I ain’t ever killed nobody.” Whether that is true is one of the play’s mysteries.
Jerrold Trice’s rich baritone voice is a pleasure. He plays Uncle Doaker with an effective, understated gravitas. Doaker’s normal personality is set on amiable, but when he needs to threaten bodily harm, he can and will. He is a decades-long railroad employee, proud of the line he laid in his younger years. He cheerfully calls the station stops while ironing his present-day chef’s uniform. Doaker’s lovely soliloquy on trains walks the line between profound and comically obvious, such as, “if the train stays on the tracks it will get to where it’s going.” But it may not be where you are going. Trice’s description of people going to where other people just came from is delightful. Doeker had a wife who ran off to New York. The text of the play (Doeker’s steadfast defense of Berniece; he cooks and does his own ironing), combined with Trice’s credible avuncular performance, strongly suggest it was her loss.
Not so with Uncle Doeker’s musician brother, Wining Boy (David Wendell Boykins). Money, property, hospitality, and familial duties are explored in this rich work. Wining Boy apparently takes more than he gives. He carries the letter in which he was told of his wife’s death. Boykins poignantly describes a deep and abiding love for the late wife whom he inconsistently abandoned. Consistent with the excellent cast, Boykins also hits the comic dialogue lines, throwing out a hilarious description of his sister-in-law, who was “not pretty but she had a way.” Boykins also does a great job describing the disappointment and emptiness of a once successful musical career. In the beginning years, Wining Boy explains, you can’t get tired of the whiskey and you won’t get tired of the women. Until you do and wonder what else you have. Ultimately, he questioned his identity, “Am I me or am I the piano player?”
Wining Boy also explains the difference between a white man and a Black man. The law is fixed in favor of white men. This is not a play about music lessons. The titular piano is the only tangible inheritance Berniece and Boy Willie received, and it was at the center of a horrific ordeal suffered by their ancestors, who were slaves owned by the evil Sutters. The institution of slavery in America was particularly barbaric (even in the annals of slave law, which is saying tons) because, among other horrors, enslaved humans did not have the right to their own children, and families were broken up. The piano at the heart of the family tragedy was intricately carved, then stolen at great cost, and then handed down to Berniece and Boy Willie, who spends the play squabbling over whether Boy Willie can force its sale. He believes he has this right because they jointly own it, and he plans to give half the proceeds to Berniece and use his share toward the purchase of a hundred acres of the Sutter family land.
The siblings’ property dispute and the tragic family backstory are interspersed with many comic moments bursting out when you least expect them. The audience also is treated to an easy, familiar dynamic among men who have known each other for a long time. They sneak whiskey and dollars. The men’s long-standing comradery is revealed in an utterly gorgeous acappella quartet performance. The other three men pause so that Doaker can say the line “railroad man” on his own. The song is a perfect, beautiful theatrical treat.
Boy Willie’s buddy and business partner, Lymon, is an immature ladies’ man, yet the adorable Davis portrays him as neither sleazy nor phony. Lymon is affable by nature, with a high tolerance for Boy Willie’s craziness. Davis has perfect comic timing and delivers the play’s funniest line—which says a lot in this frequently hilarious play.
Alyssa Melton strikes the right note as Berniece’s loved and protected eleven-year-old daughter, Maretha. Martha may not realize that her mother’s polestar is to protect her, and yet she has the sweet innocence of a protected child. Throughout the play, Berniece repeats that she has an eleven-year-old in the house, and she will not allow any bad influences. In a particularly poignant interaction, Berniece attends to Maretha’s hair.
An elevator operator and aspiring Reverend, Avery (Sekou Calhoun) unsuccessfully courts Berniece. Here, the absence of chemistry between Avery and Berniece is well played. Calhoun is able to perfectly mimic the over-the-top cadence of a Christian preacher. Calhoun’s recital of Avery’s come-to-Jesus dream is entertaining.
Also entertaining is Jayden Russell as Grace, a pretty party girl who manages to be the love interest of both Boy Willie and Avery.
There are several plot threads that are a mystery, including supernatural elements. If you stand on a spot where the railroad tracks cross and say the names of the ghosts, they will talk to you, or so the legend goes. These characters believe in God and ghosts, with Boy Willie as the Doubting Thomas holding out. One supernatural belief alluded to throughout the play is the “Ghosts of Yellow Dog.” In the spirit of the play, delicious “Yellow Dog” cocktails may be purchased in the newly renovated theater lobby.
The production features an authentic period set, including an outside door, an inside door, a window, and a staircase to the second story, the site of ghostly appearances. A stove pipe is visible in the much-used kitchen. The 1930’s era props are in abundant supply, including iron skillets, a copper tea kettle, and washbasin. The convincing period costumes are necessary to underscore the theme of the rural versus urban divide, and also provide a visual of Berniece and Uncle Doaker in and out of their work uniforms. Sound effects include the titular piano playing. At one pivotal plot point, the piano is shrouded in a menacing red glow; it is a fantastic, creepy lighting effect.
I highly recommend this performance for the great acting and fantastic playwrighting. Humor is intertwined with a murder mystery, ghost stories, social commentary, and a tortured family legacy.
May 6 – May 15, 2022
305 W. Main St., Arlington, TX 76010.
For information and Tickets call 817-275-7661 or go to https://theatrearlington.org/production/the-piano-lesson/