‘The Piano Lesson’ at Olney Theatre Center

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The legacy of the past collides into the hopes and dreams of a new beginning.

It’s a new day.

Marking the first time in 76 years, Olney Theatre (in the intimate Mulitz -Gudelsky Theatre Lab) presents the great American playwright August Wilson, and his 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama winning play, The Piano Lesson.

Jessica Francis Dukes (Berniece) and JaBen Early (Avery). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jessica Francis Dukes (Berniece) and JaBen Early (Avery). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Piano Lesson is not just an African-American story – it’s an American story.

Inspired by a Romare Bearden painting entitled Piano Lesson, The Piano Lesson is the fourth play in August Wilson’s ten ‘Century Cycle’ plays (the Pittsburgh Cycle) chronicling each decade of the black experience in 20th-century America. A story of the Great Migration, The Piano Lesson confronts the issue of slavery and the burden it casts on black Americans striving for social and economic equality. It’s also a ghost story of sorts about lingering spirits of the storied cultural bindings of the past.

The Piano Lesson’s genius is August Wilson’s ability to weave an intensely personal story that is relatable in some way to most everyone. One of the masterworks of American Theatre, The Piano Lesson is a play that everyone should see at least once in their lifetime, and this sublime Olney Theatre production sails to new heights with its informed vision and the familial authenticity of the cast.

Themes of legacy, violence, and the supernatural haunt the characters in this production and are brought to life with fine precision and the taut direction of Jamil Jude. Jude has a palatable understanding of the material and a lyrical sensitivity to the musicality of Wilson’s writing and the poetic rhythmic dialogue of the characters.

There’s a saying, ‘You can’t know where you are going until you know where you have been.’ The Piano Lesson raises the ante and personalizes that truism with the realism of one family’s tangle with their tortured past and destiny. The Charles’ family is in an ugly dispute. A brother (Boy Willie) and a sister (Bernice) in conflict over a beloved family heirloom questions, can you deny the past and still move forward?

Holding on to the anchors of perceived loyalty to departed family members and the inability to move on from what has happened, the Charles’ family is stuck in a battle between the past, the present, and the future.

Bernice (Jessica Frances Dukes) carries the haunted past and its brutal traumas with her. Jessica Frances Dukes has dug deep, effectively using the pain of her character as the guardian of her family’s past to reflect the steadfast defiance and the internal struggle of a woman trying to do right.

She and others show fear or trepidation about moving onto a fruitful future – even at the expense of their heart. Avery, a man of character and strong faith wants to marry Berniece and often offers her advice to help her let go of the fears and the lingering mourning of her husband. Yet, three years after her husband’s untimely death Berniece is not ready to let go and her heart is still closed.

JaBen Early is stellar in his soulful composition of a growing man of God, confident in his purpose. So good in fact, one could wish that August Wilson had written more scenes with his character. The DC Theatre scene deserves to see Early’s talent on stage more consistently.

 Ronald Conner (Boy Willie) in 'THE PIANO LESSON.'(Photo by Stan Barouh.

Ronald Conner (Boy Willie). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Then there is Boy Willie (Ronald Conner), a man despite his meager upbringing in Mississippi, is full of bravado and fiery self-determination. Boy Willie sees the white man as his equal, and refuses to accept the racial situation that he believes others accommodate themselves. He’s a dreamer, but his dreams aren’t necessarily distant, unrealistic visions. Intent on leaving his mark on the world, he insists that he lives at the “top” rather than the “bottom” of life. The brash, and fast talking Boy Willie is a man of action who believes – if he can conceive it, he can achieve it. And, nothing is going to stop him.

Passionate and electrifying as Boy Willie, Ronald Conner radiates with an energy that is so magnetic, his presence is felt even when he’s not on the stage. This Chicago actor was a late addition to the cast but his adamant performance defines the production.

The country is struggling through The Great Depression, and the year is 1936. The setting of The Piano Lesson takes place in the Pittsburgh home of Doaker Charles (Jonathan Peck) whom he shares with his deceased’s brother’s daughter, Berniece, along with her eleven year old daughter, Maretha (the delightful Nicole Wildy.) Doaker is a dignified, hard working and respectable man. Tall and thin with a slight hunch, Doaker has spent his life working on the railroad and represents a historical portrait of the black experience in the 1930’s. The textured performance by Jonathan Peck is equally grounded in its excellence and his characterization elevates the play.

Harold Surratt leaves a memorable impression as Wining Boy – Doaker’s other brother, who visits him in Pittsburgh when he’s running short on money. Full of heart, and a whisky drinking washed up piano-playing bluesman, Suratt injects humor, genuine believability, and great chemistry with the cast bringing levity and a real down home grit to the production.

The play opens with Boy Willie and his friend Lymon (played with wide-eyed subtlety and controlled restraint by Jon Hudson Odom) arriving in Pittsburgh with a truck full of watermelons to sell to make some money. But Boy Willie has even bigger plans. He wants to sell the old inherited family piano to buy some farmland. With the death of James Sutter – the family who once owned his ancestors – the land is now available, and Boy Willie intends to purchase it.

“Money can’t buy what that piano cost,” says his sister Bernice as they argue over the sale of the family piano. Berniece refuses to consider the proposition, steadfast in her own determination not to let the legacy of suffering enshrined by their great grandfather’s hand sculpted carvings in the piano to be sold off. “You can’t sell your soul for money,” she tells her brother in a terse, heated exchange.

But for Willie Boy, the piano is a useless object that is holding him back from his destiny, and he wants to liquidate it into dollars.  He’s tired of working on the land of others, and he dreams of owning his own crops.

The piano is symbolic as an archive of the Charles family history, and the storied legacy of the treasured keepsake. No amount of money will ever be worth the love it represents and the sacrifice and blood that was shed to obtain it. For Berniece this family heirloom is priceless.

The Charles family’s ancestors were slaves that had been owned by Robert Sutter. Early in Act one, Berniece claims Sutter’s ghost has followed Boy Willie to Pittsburgh and into her home. The piano was first purchased by the original Sutter plantation owner as an anniversary present for his wife, Ophelia. Sutter didn’t have the money to pay for it so he broke up and swapped a family of slaves to own it. The price was one and a half slaves, meaning one adult and one child – Boy Willie’s and Berniece’s great grandmother and her young son.

Jon Hudson Odom (Lymon), Harold Surratt (Wining Boy) and Jonathan Peck (Doaker). Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jon Hudson Odom (Lymon), Harold Surratt (Wining Boy), and Jonathan Peck (Doaker). Photo by Stan Barouh.

The Charles’ eventually gained their freedom, and the possession representing their family history, but Berniece and Willie Boy lost their father in order to obtain it. It is Berniece’s fear of waking the spirits that keeps her from wanting to touch the piano now. The family is forced to deal with that has happened in the past, and has to how to learn to move on.

As in other August Wilson plays, the world of the Supernatural is referenced and explored.  In The Piano Lesson, the Mississippi ghosts of the Yellow Dog Railway linger. In this emotional drama of ancestral and historic intimacies, the ominous twists and turns that occur when Berniece and others observe Sutter’s ghost are life-changing. Revealed are devastating truths and the questionable hope for a different future.

I would like to believe that Berniece and Boy Willie have come to a mutual understanding and a united outlook, but it is rare for a sibling rivalry – especially among adults – to completely end.  The more experience you have with adversity and survival, the stronger we become. With these two strong personalities and a fresh acceptance, the evolving journey of how they will be and what will ultimately happen is purposely ambiguous. One’s opinion of the play’s ending comes down to personal taste and your imagination.

The lessons the audience takes away in The Piano Lesson are long and far-reaching. This rich, affecting play is one where I actually walked away with more questions than easy answers. Deeply satisfied, I am reminded that it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.

A new journey has begun.

Running Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.

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The Piano Lesson plays through June 1, 2014 in the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab at Olney Theatre Center—2001 Olney-Sandy Spring Road, in Olney, MD. For tickets, call (301) 924-3400, or purchase them online.

Amanda Gunther on The Piano Lesson.

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