The Pershing Square Signature Center
The Irene Diamond Stage
480 West 42nd St. between Tenth & Eleventh Aves.
Extended through January 13, $75
Inspired by a 1983 painting by Romare Bearden, August Wilson brought the canvas to life in his masterful 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, The Piano Lesson, currently in the midst of a sparkling revival at the Signature Theatre through December 23. After three years away, Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden) returns to the home of his uncle, Doaker Charles (James A. Williams), and sister, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1936, bringing with him his best friend and cohort, Lymon (Jason Dirden), a flatbed loaded with watermelons, and a plan to buy back ancestral land by selling a treasured family piano. But the piano is more than just a valuable musical instrument; it represents the history of the Charles clan, in both how it came to be in their possession and the intricate carvings of their forebears that line the front and side. The already taut drama then kicks into high gear as generations and siblings clash, a ghost does or does not appear, and brash, fast-talking Boy Willie faces down hard-won traditions.
The fourth play in Wilson’s ten-part Pittsburgh Cycle that features one work set in each decade of the twentieth century (and also includes Fences, Two Trains Running, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Seven Guitars), The Piano Lesson is stunning in its language, every line like an expertly crafted piece of music, the tempo rising and falling and rising again, a talking blues that examines the black experience in America in captivating ways. Brandon J. Dirden, taking on the iconic role previously performed by Samuel L. Jackson and, most famously, by a Tony-nominated Charles S. Dutton, is a whirlwind as Boy Willie, an explosive character unable to say or do anything in a small way, charging across the stage like a train speeding through a station, on an unstoppable path to somewhere better. His brother Jason is endearing as the much simpler Lymon, who seems happy enough with a cheap suit and night on the town. Williams, who earlier this year played Mr. M in the Signature revival of Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa!, provides the voice of reason as Doaker, along with Eric Lenox Abrams as Avery, a minister who would like to settle down with Berniece. Chuck Cooper adds plenty of humor as the big and blustery Wining Boy, an engaging gambler and bluesman who shows just what the piano can do. The story takes place in set designer Michael Carnahan’s tear-away house, which looks like a tornado tore through it, ripping it in half, like the lives of the characters, each of whom is searching for their own personal completeness. Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who has both acted in and directed other works by Wilson, winning a Tony in 1996 as Canewell in Seven Guitars, clearly understands the playwright’s brilliant skill, balancing the action and words with a steady hand. One of the best production of the year on or off Broadway, The Piano Lesson is a magical night of unforgettable theater by one of America’s true masters.