Review: THE PIANO LESSON at The Black Theatre Troupe

The production runs through February 18th at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix.

By: Feb. 13, 2024
Review: THE PIANO LESSON at The Black Theatre Troupe
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In February of last year, The Black Theatre Troupe was recognized for a milestone in the world of American theatre. The August Wilson House (the playwright’s childhood home and a living tribute to his legacy) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette acknowledged the company’s achievement in producing all ten plays of the American Century (or, Pittsburgh) Cycle. In the course of nearly three decades and under the visionary leadership of its Executive Director, David Hemphill, a Wilson play has been a seasonal highlight, originating in 1996 with THE PIANO LESSON and returning now to BTT’s stage through February 14th.

THE PIANO LESSON is emblematic of Wilson’s mastery in conveying the challenges of the African-American experience through words and richly drawn characters. Patdro Harris directs the production with a keen eye to honoring these essential elements of Wilson’s artistry and with an ensemble that is nothing less than inspired and dynamic.

The canvas is the modest and neatly appointed home (credit to scenic designer Sarah Harris) of Doaker Charles (Ken Love), a railroadman with a steady work ethic and a balanced temperament. It is within these walls that a struggle of wills unfolds between his niece, Berniece (Dzifa E. Kwawu) and nephew Boy Willie (Rapheal J. Hamilton)…and where, lo and behold, magical spirits hold their own domain.

Boy Willie has traveled from Mississippi to Pittsburgh with a dream, a buddy (John Pene), and a truckful of watermelons. His aim is to lay claim to the family piano so that he can sell it and, with the proceeds, purchase the land on which his slave ancestors tilled and toiled. As tenacious as he is about breaking free from the cycle of poverty and oppression that has defined his family's history, Berniece is equally adamant about holding on to the piano, intricately decorated with carvings and ancestral face masks, as a sacred remembrance of the past.

Kwawu and Hamilton hold center stage with captivating performances as equally strong-willed agents of their shared legacy. Their energy is amplified by the accompaniment not only of solid supporting performances by Trevell Chapell as Doaker’s brother, Winning Boy, an affable out-of-luck singer, and Eric Banks as preacher Avery, who aspires to marry Berniece, but also by music.

Music! And magic, too! While the piano, immovable and keyed up with symbolic significance, has a central role to play, so too does the music of a people. When Winning Boy leads his fellow men in a pulsating rendition of the prison work song, Berta 'Berta, we are drawn not only into its rhythms but also into its reminders of a damaging legacy with which we, like Wilson’s characters, have need to reconcile.   

THE PIANO LESSON ~ winner of the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award. For Best Play ~ runs through February 18th at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center in Phoenix.

The Black Theatre Troupe ~ ~ Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center ~ 1333 E. Washington St., Phoenix, AZ ~ Box Office 602-258-8128

Graphic credit to The Black Theatre Troupe