I’m sorry it took so long for me to get to LaTanya Richardson Jackson‘s “The Piano Lesson.” Now that I’ve seen her take on August Wilson and Lloyd Richards’ groundbreaking work, I have only three weeks to see it again.
That’s how mesmerizing and satisfying this first Broadway revival in 30 years is — when it ends, you want it start all over. And that’s a lot to say considering when it opened in 1990, “The Piano Lesson” starred S. Epatha Merkerson as Bernice, Rocky Carroll as Lymon, and Charles Dutton as Boy Willie. I wonder what happened to all of them?
Now the director’s husband, Samuel L. Jackson (about whom you have heard), is Uncle Doaker, in whose Pittsburgh house Berniece (the dazzling Danielle Brooks ) lives and holds forth with her young daughter Maretha after the death of her husband. Berniece is living with the ghosts of her parents and family, holding onto the past through a hand carved piano she inherited from them.
Into the mix comes Berniece’s shady brother, Boy Willie, now in the person of John David Washington, and his pal, Lyman (Ray Fisher) who’ve driven north to sell watermelons out of the back of a truck, then use the freed space to transport the piano and sell it so Boy Willie can buy some questionable farmland. If Boy Willie can’t convince Berniece to sell the piano, he says he’ll cut it in half.
August Wilson wrote ten plays in what he called “The Century Cycle,” each documenting a moment in his own Black history. They are the equivalent in our time to what Shakespeare did, and it’s amazing achievement. “Fences” and “Jitney” are among the others, all popular and well-studied, but “The Piano Lesson” is sort of the key to the whole set. This is where you start. And it’s held up perfectly since its debut.
This is a tug of war between history and the present, art and commerce. When Boy Willie says the land he wants will go away but anyone can buy a piano, you see Berniece nearly fall over. And that’s the essence of the argument. It’s one for the ages.
The excitement in the Barrymore Theater is that Samuel L. Jackson and Denzel Washington have worked together so much at the highest level, and now Jackson is acting with Denzel’s son John David, who — despite his recent movie roles — was not a totally proven entity. As Boy Willie, he levitates to Jackson’s level, and it’s thrilling. I loved his dogged determination to get that piano– he is relentlessly emphatic even though he knows he’s not going to get it. Berniece tells him so every five minutes, and you know she’s not playing around.
The rest of the cast is the best you can find anywhere. Danielle Brooks, who has so many theater credits, but this is her breakout moment. Berniece is the center of this family, and Brooks takes that position magnificently. Michael Potts, also a theater veteran, is the miserably charming family friend Wining Boy, a former small time recording artist who drifts to Berniece’s house when he’s need of extended family. Ray Fisher is perfectly hilarious as the goofy but smarter than you think Lymon. April Matthis is the very capable comic relief as Grace, an unwitting local girl who gets pulled into the family debate.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson is a well known actress who is making her Broadway debut as a director. She’s got a very famous choreographer for the wonderfully inventive music numbers she’s added in Otis Sallid, a legend who’s back on Broadway for the first time since 1995’s “Smokey Joe’s Cafe.” She’s got an assistant director, as well, in Evan Coles. But you can tell this is her project, a labor of love that she’s imagined fully. I wish this “Piano Lesson” could play all year. In June it will not be forgotten for Tony Awards, but I also hope they film it before the last performance on January 29th. This one is for the books.