August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” resonates anew
Playwright August Wilson’s legacy in the advancement of African American theater lives on through a new generation of actors in the Broadway revival of “The Piano Lesson” opening next week.
Starring the award-winning Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks and John David Washington, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama will be staged on Broadway for the first time since the initial New York production closed in 1991.
Constanza Wilson, wife of the late playwright, said the enduring vitality of the play stems from the emblematic family portrait it presents.
“‘The Piano Lesson’ has to do with legacy,” she said at a Manhattan press conference featuring cast members and director LaTanya Richardson Jackson last week. “And what do you do with your legacy?”
The cast and crew keeping Wilson’s vision alive are also moving their own theatrical legacies forward with this production.
Making her Broadway directorial debut, Richardson Jackson—the first woman to lead the staging of a Wilson play on Broadway—described the experience as “a life dream.”
Samuel L. Jackson, her husband, plays family patriarch Doaker Charles. Jackson originated the role of Doaker’s nephew Boy Willie in the 1987 production of the play at the Yale Repertory Theater.
“It’s kind of interesting to come back in this way,” Jackson said. “And to be Doaker, and listen to John David recreate Boy Willie. And find my way into that particular character, my character now in terms of who I am, how I have matured as an actor.”
Washington has his own family link to the Wilson catalog. His father, Denzel Washington, helped raise funds to restore the playwright’s childhood home in Pittsburgh and has starred in, directed and produced film adaptations of his works.
History on stage
Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, “The Piano Lesson” follows Boy Willie and Berniece—played by Brooks—arguing over the fate of an irreplaceable family piano that is adorned with carvings that depict faces of their enslaved ancestors.
The embellishments “make this piano very precious and very, very valuable,” Wilson said, by “combining the Western tradition and the African tradition.”
“I think that, at least for myself, that tradition that one piano symbolizes [is] us—Americans,” she said. “You know, we can’t extricate the African history from our own history in this country.”
Explorations of tradition and the Black American experience, pivotal themes in August Wilson’s works, reverberate with audiences and actors in the present day. “The Piano Lesson”—which opens Monday at the Ethel Barrymore Theater—is one of the 10 plays in his American Century Cycle, a collection depicting Black life in each decade of the 20th century.
In the role of Wining Boy, Doaker Charles’ witty older brother, Michael Potts will be performing in his second Wilson production on Broadway.
“You don’t say no to doing August Wilson,” Potts said. “The Piano Lesson” will mark his first appearance on Broadway since 2019.
Wining Boy shares stories of his travels as the family considers the value of their heirloom and the history it represents.
“I think in this particular story, he’s the philosopher because he’s the one who’s traveled the most in the entire family,” Potts said. “He’s seen more of the world and has a greater breadth of experience of what it’s like out there for Black men in the world.”
The Emmy-wining actor said his character voices Wilson’s evergreen messages about inequality and injustice in the U.S.
“I think he has seen evidence of how the law works in favor of white men, not necessarily in favor of Black men,” Potts said. “And I think we see that in the present day.”
Citing the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in 2022 and the mission of the Black Lives Matter movement, Potts said that the themes of the play “unfortunately, still have the same resonance” almost 90 years after the story takes place.
Responsibility to the present
April Matthis and Trai Byers—best known as a co-star of Fox Television’s “Empire“—play Grace and Avery, the love interests of Boy Willie and Berniece.
Ray Fisher makes his Broadway debut as Lymon, Boy Willie’s quiet and ambitious friend. He described his experience working with his veteran castmates as “a masterclass.” A bartender at the Barrymore Theater more than 10 years ago, Fisher called his return to this venue as an actor as “a full-circle moment.”
As they prepare for the planned 17-week run, the director joined cast members in saying she feels a strong sense of responsibility in carrying out Wilson’s story of family, heritage and paying homage to history.
“We’re there to service August’s work,” Richardson Jackson said. “I’m a servant here to lift what August has given us—this great gift.”