Hartford Stage, Hartford, CT
through November 13, 2016
by Bernadette Johnson
“The Piano Lesson,” Hartford Stage’s latest production, is a Pulitzer-Prize winning play set in the 1930s, the fourth in American playwright August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” in which he chronicles the poverty and struggles of his people and the emergence of Black culture in each decade of the 20th century.
The title itself is misleading, in that the play is not about a piano lesson, but rather about the hard-learned lesson the drama’s principal characters eventually grasp — the importance of history and the legacy of the past. The upright piano itself, though set off to the side, merits the designation “main character,” being as it is, by its very presence, central to the drama. Simply stated, the play focuses on the disagreement between a brother and sister (Boy Willie and Berniece) as to whether the family heirloom, intricately carved by their great-grandfather, “a legacy of all that bloodshed (slavery, thieving and killing),” is to be treasured or sold.
Boy Willie, forcefully played by Clifton Duncan, storms onto the scene excited over the prospect of purchasing land back in the south. His scheming includes the sale of the piano, bequeathed equally to him and his sister, who vehemently opposes the sale.
This seems a simple plot, that is, until you add in a few subplots, including hauntings by a few ghosts connected with the history of the piano. It’s all very confusing, and by the end of Act I, the audience is left still trying to figure out who or what is the “ghost of Yellow Dog,” who Sutter is/was, and why his ghost is haunting the home.
Sesame Street veteran Roscoe Orman, as Doaker, the home’s owner, charged with recounting the piano’s (and family’s) history, seems somewhat tired in the telling, and it’s easy to get lost in the dialogue. There are long conversations among the characters, refreshingly accented, however, by the foot-stomping rendition of an old Negro field song, led by Duncan, along with Orman, Cleavant Derricks as Wining Boy and Galen Ryan Kane as Lymon.
Duncan is, by far, the drama’s driving force, and Christina Acosta Robinson, as Berniece, is a balancing, stable presence to his live-wire outbursts and ramblings.