Crystian Wiltshire, Keith McGill, Clyde Tyrone, Byron Coolie, Sidney Edwards (back)
Tyler Madden, Candice Handy, & Demi Handley in The Piano Lesson.
Photo courtesy Baron Kelly
The Piano Lesson
By August Wilson
Directed by Baron Kelly
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
It wasn’t that long ago that I was bemoaning the fact that the only August Wilson plays I has seen produced in Louisville in the last 10 years were Actors Theatre productions cast out of Chicago. Excellent as they both were, I wondered if a purely local production was possible.
As if to answer the challenge, Baron Kelly’s production of Wilson’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Piano Lesson at the University of Louisville has arrived. Of course, the importance of bringing Wilson’s work to the stage is obvious, for he is not simply the most important African American playwright in American theatre, he is one of the best modern American playwrights – period. The insidious qualifier is wholly unnecessary, except that his Pittsburgh Cycle is perhaps the most crucial theatrical expression of the Black experience in 20th century America.
The story is of siblings Berniece (Candice Handy) and Boy Willie (Tyler Madden) and the deep conflict over a piano that is perhaps the single most important family heirloom. It is no ordinary piano, but a piece inextricably tied to family history and just might be haunted. Willie wants to sell the ornate, hand-carved piece to raise cash for property he wants to buy down south. As do all the plays in Wilson’s cycle, the setting is Pittsburgh, this time in 1937. Berniece is a widow who lives with her daughter, Maretha (Demi Handley) in the house of her uncle Doaker (Clyde Tyrone). Boy Willie is a larger-than-life character, full of braggadocio, arriving with his buddy Lymon (Byron Coolie), a truck full of watermelons to sell, and his eye on that piano.
The conflict is deceptively simple, but Wilson surrounds that struggle with a well-articulated shared history among these people, and a sure knowledge of what fears they confront. Berniece’s attachment to the piano, which she hasn’t played in years, shows she is stuck in the past. She is being courted by a kind man, Avery (Crystian Wiltshire), whose ambition to be a preacher with his own church is about to be realized, but she shies away from his marriage proposal. Her brother is far more pragmatic and lives so entirely in the moment; driven by passion and instinct, unafraid to take what he feels is rightfully his with little regard for the consequences.
Things come to an elemental and supernatural confrontation that is feverish in its intensity, and there is an overwrought note in the key performance of Tyler Madden as Boy Willie as well. This is certainly a role designed to dominate, and I have no doubt that Samuel L. Jackson and Charles S. Dutton were anything but shrinking violets in the role, but while Mr. Madden’s ferocious attack on the character is impressive for its energy and commitment, hitting the stage full steam leaves the character with nowhere to develop, and the loudmouth Boy Willie became grating.
Candice Handy, in her thesis role for U of L, does more subtle work with the wary Berniece, and the contrast to Mr. Madden is effective in reinforcing the separation between the two. Byron Coolie is also fairly beguiling as Lymon, adopting a more laid-back presence as Boy Willie’s partner. He delivered small punctuating moments early on, when Lymon is pure support and handles himself very well when the character is given the focus in unexpected ways. Crystian Wiltshire does not let Avery pass unnoticed, investing the earnest minister with the building passion and callback cadence required without ever overdoing it. Demi Handley is charming but never precocious as Maretha, and Sidney Edwards provides a funny turn as Boy Willie’s attempted one-night stand.
This is a production of the African American Theatre Program, and cast mostly with students, but director Baron Kelly has recruited two savvy veterans in Clyde Tyrone as Doaker and Keith McGill as Wining Boy, his brother and a troubled soul who drinks and gambles too much. Both are solid and authoritative presences who do meticulous character work, and it is a credit to the production that the whole enterprise plays as a worthwhile production that does full justice to an important play and never an academic exercise. There is blood pumping through Wilson’s dialogue, and The Piano Lesson is here brought to life with skill and intelligence.
The Piano Lesson
November, 18-22 @ 8:00pm
November 21 @ 2:00pm
Tickets are $15 for general admission, $12 for faculty, alumni, seniors and non-UofL students and $8 for UofL students. Season tickets are $60. To order tickets or for more information, call the box office at (502) 852-6814 or visit www.louisville.edu/theatrearts.
African American Theatre Program
University of Louisville Theatre Arts
U of L Playhouse
1911 South Third Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40217
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.