Friday, January 23, 2015

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson at the Seattle Rep

(l to r) Stephen Tyrone Williams, Derrick Lee Weeden, Yaegel T. Welch and G. Valmont Thomas in The Piano Lesson.
Photo: Michael Davis, Syracuse Stage.
The Seattle Repertory Theatre has enjoyed a long relationship with playwright August Wilson, working closely with him during the productions of his plays before his death and continuing to produce his works since his death. Because the Rep had such opportunities to work closely with this master playwright they have a unique grasp of Wilson’s intents and ideas.
The Rep is the only theatre in the world to have produced all of Wilson's work, including every play in his Century Cycle, as well as his one-man show How I Learned What I Learned.
The Pulitzer Prize winning The Piano Lesson, which opened Jan. 21 at the Rep, is the fourth work in the cycle. This is the Rep’s second time to produce it. It was last seen there in 1993.
The Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburg Cycle, is a group of 10 plays written and produced out of chronological order, which examine African-American life in the ten decades of the 20th century.
Stephen Tyrone Williams and Erika LaVonn in The Piano Lesson.
Photo: Michael Davis, Syracuse Stage.
Set in the late 1930s, The Piano Lesson is the story of the Charles family and friends from Mississippi. Berniece (Erika LaVonn) and her daughter, Maretha (Shiann Welch) live with their uncle Doaker (Derrick Lee Weeden) in Pittsburg. Berniece’s good-for-nothing brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his buddy Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) show up in the middle of the night in a broken-down truck loaded with watermelons they intend to sell. They have recently been released from the Parchman prison farm in the Mississippi Delta. Boy Willie also intends to sell the piano that he and Berniece jointly own, but she adamantly refuses to let him sell it because the piano has a family history carved on it in the form of bas relief images going back to slavery days. Berniece believes a ghost has haunted the piano, but Boy Willie says that’s dumb superstition. He insists on selling it and threatens to saw it in half and sell his half if she doesn’t come to her senses.
Fighting over the piano opens up old family wounds and occasions the dredging up of old tales and new suspicions of murders. It also provides openings for some great blues music with Boy Willie playing boogie woogie and his uncle Wining Boy (G. Valmont Thomas) playing and singing the blues. There is one fabulous scene in which all of the men join in singing an old chain gang song while providing percussion by slapping a table, clicking on a whiskey bottle and stomping their feet in a complex rhythm. This scene alone is worth the price of admission.
The entire cast is outstanding. Their authentic and slightly exaggerated gestures and speech patterns fill the Rep and grab the audience. I grew up in Mississippi not far from where the family is from, and the speech patterns and gestures brought me home.
Ken Robinson as Avery the preacher, who is in love with Berniece, poetically captures the rhythmic speech of revivalist preachers. Boy Willie’s moves might have combined into a racially demeaning picture if Williams hadn’t imbued him with so much dignity and authenticity. His performance is amazing to watch. Welch plays Boy Willie’s sidekick, Lymon, with sweetness and class.
Set designer William Bloodgood has created a home that feels right for the time and place. Helen Q. Huang costumes go a long way toward establishing personalities, from Boy Willie’s coveralls and crushed hat, to Berniece and Maretha’s sensible dresses, to the wild green silk suit Wining Boy sells to Lymon. And Geoff Korf’s lighting is dramatically effective, especially in the ghostly scenes.
It is a complex story filled with good humor and high drama. It’s only weakness may be in the final scene, which I felt was too melodramatic and less than satisfying.
The Seattle Repertory Theater, 155 Mercer St., Seattle, through Feb. 8


Yellow Dog - The Yellow Dog and Southern are legendary railroads referred to in songs by bluesman Robert Johnson. In Wilson’s play the Yellow Dog was a railroad company whose car was set on fire because of the theft of the piano and the men in that car died, but their ghost was said to have come back.
On a personal note, when I was a child I heard this story about my uncle:
            In World War II he was in a trench somewhere in Germany and he shouted out, “Where does the Southern cross the Yellow Dog?” Another soldier in another trench shouted back, “Yazoo City, Mississippi.” He never knew who the other soldier was but assumed he was a fellow Mississippian. (The actual location of the crossing is in Moorehead, Mississippi near Yazoo City.

Shoutout for Shiann Welch – Tacoma area readers may recognize the name of the actor who plays Maretha. She is a student at Truman Middle School in Tacoma. When she was 8 years old she appeared in Wilson’s Fences at the Rep, and she has performed in many community productions with the DASH Center.
Also see info on community events in conjunction with The Piano Lesson. 


LaFleur2009 said...

If I go to Seattle, I definitely want to see this. Are they planning to tour?

Alec Clayton said...

To my knowledge there are no plans to tour, Claudia.