A half-capacity house—a fairly rare experience at Raleigh Little Theatre—greeted a notable production of African-American playwright August Wilson's The Piano Lesson last Saturday night.
Wilson's drama won him his second Pulitzer Prize, in 1990, and is the fourth in his "Pittsburgh Cycle," a series of 10 plays devoted to the African-American experience during the 20th century.
It is 1936, and the Charles family has been split—in several ways—during the first Great Northern Migration. While Uncle Doaker and the widowed Berniece, his niece, live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Berniece's troublesome brother, Boy Willie, still lives as a sharecropper in Mississippi. Willie has a chance to buy the land his family labored on during slavery, but to raise the money he's convinced he has to sell the family's one connection to that past: an upright piano in his sister's possession—one with the faces of his and Berniece's ancestors carved into it.
If Wilson's script meanders a bit as it introduces the extended relatives of this one-family diaspora, sharp performances under the direction of Haskell Fitz-Simons keep things in focus. Comedian Joseph Callender's dramatic turn as Boy Willie is a sardonic, sarcastic pleasure, propelled at times by an effective collection of physical tics and gestures that nearly suggest what the dawn of popping and locking might have looked like. Phillip Bernard Smith's solo account of the character Avery's call to preach was a sanctified Act 1 showstopper, and John Rogers Harris' account of the life of saloon pianist Wining Boy and other scams was robust. Randi Martin-Lee was understated but authoritative as Berniece, and Warren Keyes gave a solid performance as Uncle Doaker.
Wilson's characters grapple—literally, at times—with the troubled legacy of their pasts in this compelling production. Recommended.