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Review: THE PIANO LESSON at Hartford Stage

When is a legacy worth preserving and when is it time to move forward with life? What cost can one pay to jump-start their future? These are some of the central questions tackled in August Wilson's THE PIANO LESSON, which is now playing at Hartford Stage. One of Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" plays (10 plays that shed light on African-American lives in each decade of the 20th century), THE PIANO LESSON - "a ghost story with traditional African-American songs" sits firmly in the 1930's, a time of struggle, change, and a time many African-Americans made the great migration north from the Jim Crow south, looking for a better life.

THE PIANO LESSON focuses on the Charles Family who, like many at the time, made the move from the south (in this case Mississippi) to Pittsburgh, PA looking for new opportunities. Siblings Berniece (played by Christina Acosta Robinson) and Boy Willie (Clifton Duncan) are at odds over what to do with the piano left to them by their mother (Boy Willie wants to sell it so he can buy some land back south, Berniece refuses to part with it.) But this is no ordinary piano - it holds, both physically and emotionally, their family's history and represents the hardships and triumphs overcome by their ancestors. And by the end of the evening, the audience also finds that even the dead have an opinion about the fate of this cherished musical instrument.

Berniece and Boy Willie's uncle and railroad man Doaker (played by Sesame Street veteran Roscoe Orman), the current patriarch of the family, provides the setting for this family conflict via his Pittsburgh home, and his brother Wining Boy (DREAMGIRLS' Cleavant Derricks), brings some much needed comic relief, and more importantly, music (more on that later.) Rounding out the cast of characters are Lymon (Galen Ryan Kane), Boy Willie's friend and confidant, Avery (Daniel Morgan Shelley), Berniece's wishful almost-fiancee, Maretha (Elisa Taylor), Berniece's young daughter, and Grace (Tocarra Cash) a love interest of both Boy Willie and Lymon.

The staging works exceptionally well (with only a few exceptions when dialogue was away from parts of the audience), with the living areas of Doaker's Pittsburgh home pulled right into the audience, who circle the stage. Alexis Distler's set is a beautiful snapshot of classic architecture, and including August Wilson's boyhood home in the background was an inspired choice.

Jade King Carroll, who directed this production, does an outstanding job pulling out authentic, and emotional performances from the actors and utilizes the space very well. And speaking of performances, those delivered by this cast were all top notch. In particular Mr. Duncan's Boy Willie and Ms. Robinson's Berniece were exceptional in delivering their unique but equally conflicted roles. Mr. Orman's Doaker was the perfect mix of father-figure and defender, and Mr. Derrick's Wining Boy brought a vibrancy to the stage, especially during the various musical moments.

The music, composed by Baikida Carroll was hauntingly beautiful and perfectly matched for their setting. Toni-Leslie James' costumes captured the 1930's to a T from Lymon's silk suit to the beautiful, yet simple dresses worn by Berniece. The lighting design by York Kennedy and sound design by Karin Graybash added a sense of realism to the setting, and in the surprising, yet exhilarating final moments, a sense of mystery.

In presenting this Pulitzer Prize winning play, Hartford Stage has brought a very important piece of theatre to life. By sharing the raw struggles facing this one family, it shines a light on the challenges each of us face in life (our purpose, our past, our future, and the legacy of those who came before us), and paints a vivid picture of African-American life during the 1930's. As a whole, Hartford Stage's production of THE PIANO LESSON is a lesson itself - one of history, strength, and perseverance, and a tale that provides insight into one family and their struggle with the past and the future.

THE PIANO LESSON runs at Hartford Stage in Hartford, CT through November 13th. Hartford Stage is located at 50 Church Street, Hartford, CT 06103. Performances are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. For more information call 860-527-5151 or visit

Top Photo: Clifton Duncan, Christina Acosta Robinson and Roscoe Orman

Middle Photo: Clifton Duncan and Elise Taylor

Bottom Photo: Christina Acosta Robinson and Cleavant Derricks

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