We’re all haunted by something: specters and ghosts and the memories of some lost time. The idea of being haunted (both literally and figuratively) is at the heart of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, performing at Peace University, with the greatest specter being the cultural memory and lasting ramifications of slavery on the black community. August Wilson is one of the great forefathers of the American Theatre. Along with other greats like Sam Sheppard, Edward Albee, and Tony Kushner, he helped shape the contemporary American stage. The Piano Lesson, as it turns out, is a great pick for Peace University’s theatre program, as it allows for ample “lessons” for both the actors in training and the mostly college audience. And the various moments of song and music allow for a showcasing of the school’s musical chops, as when the male characters break out into a moving rendition of the black work song “Berta, Berta.”
Boy Willie (Jarret Bennett) and his partner Lyman (Joshua M. Walker) appear like ghosts from the past to pay a visit to the home of Boy Willie’s sister Berniece (Eboni Miles) and uncle Doaker (Delphon Curtis). The play’s tensions revolve around the brother and sister’s conflict over the family piano. Willie wants to sell it to finally buy a patch of land, Berniece can’t bare the idea of parting with a piece of family history. The rest of the family gets caught in the crossfire. The “lesson” of the play’s title refers to what we learn and take from the past. What do we give up and what do we keep as we move forward? And how do we grow and learn if we continue to be followed by the ghosts that linger?
Wilson is a challenge for any actor and there were some inconsistencies in this production. However, the young actors were mostly able to hold their own here. Miles’s Berniece was fiery and fierce and struck a fine balance with the cool ease Delphon Curtis gave Doaker. Bennet had much stage charisma as Boy Willie, but while a joy to watch in Peace University’s Little Shop of Horrors, was a little stiff here and seemed to have trouble recognizing fully what was at stake for his character. Director Amy White led the cast through the difficult material with clear staging. Wilson’s often difficult monologues were directed to the audience, creating a nice level of theatricality. There was perhaps a bit too much stage business, however, as actors seemed to blindly sweep and wipe tables, distracting from dialogue. Steven Dupor’s subtle light changes helped show the play’s growing tensions and the set (set designer not listed) showed a simple, lived-in home in Pittsburg, complete with aged wallpaper.
What was perhaps most noteworthy was the fact that Peace decided to tackle August Wilson at all. The play shows an all-black cast dealing with the not-so-perfect history of the American experience. Few undergraduate departments are willing to couple tough subjects with difficult material. Raleigh should take notes and produce more works like The Piano Lesson, even if it doesn’t always make the grade.
The Piano Lesson continues through Sunday, February 8. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.