By Carol Davis
San Diego, California—I love a play that surprises you when you least expect it. This happens at the Cygnet Theatre’s production of August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize winning “The Piano Lesson” directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg and meticulously designed by her husband Jerry Sonnenberg with excellent Eric Lotze lighting effects.
August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is set in 1936. It is the fourth of his 10-play cycle – a decade-by-decade history of the Black Experience starting with his first, “Gem Of The Ocean” that takes place in 1904 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania following the migration of an African-American freed slave Citizen Barlow, from south to north after the Civil War. Wilson’s Cycle of plays are called the Century Cycle since they cover the last century through from 1900 to 2005.
While Wilson’s plays are epic in nature, they all manage to zero in on a specific time frame in the Black History experience giving us a birds eye view of the mind set, culture, struggles and turmoil’s each particular generation find themselves in.
Take for example that old upright piano that dominates Doaker’s (Antonio “TJ” Johnson) parlor. It occupies a place of honor, but no one plays it. Don’t be misled, though. This particular piano has a story all of its own to tell, and the splendid cast of the “Piano Lesson” at The Cygnet Theatre tells it carefully and dynamically yet with patience, passion and humor.
But when a surprise breakout of the foot stomping, hand clapping chant of the old prison work song “O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ha, O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal gets under way, the rhythm of the story takes on new meaning and lifts the action to new heights.
It is a wake up moment as we learn that there is more to this tale than meets the eye. The story of the piano that is woven into the Charles family history and goes all the way back to slavery is now incumbent on its heirs to share.
Doaker and his niece Berniece (Monique Gaffney) and Berniece’s daughter Maretha (Madeline Hornbuckle) live together in Doakers house. The family piano, a prized possession has not been played in years by Berniece or anyone else for that matter, but she holds fast the idea that it belongs there.
When her brother Boy Willie (Mark Christopher Lawrence) comes bursting into the house in the wee hours of the morning with his friend Lymon (Laurence Brown), just up from Mississippi after serving a three year sentence on the Parchman Prison Farm, with a truck load of watermelons to sell, all the ghosts of the past come out of the woodwork and Wilson’s story begins. You see Boy Willie has plans to take the piano and sell it as well in order to become a landowner rather than a sharecropper.
Over the course of the evening the two siblings struggle in a push me, pull you tug of war for possession of their beloved legacy; one that Boy Willie thinks will set him free on the one hand and one that Berniece believes should be kept as the family heirloom; a legacy to their historical past, on the other.
Lawrence is amazingly strong as he relentlessly harps on his sister to give up the piano for his future. He makes several attempts, along with Lymon to remove it from the house, but is foiled each time. That doesn’t stop him from mentioning it to everyone who will listen, over the course of the evening.
Gaffney’s Berniece is without humor as she pushes back, not letting any of Boy Willies pleas make a dent in her thinking. She’s tough and shows it. Even as preacher Avery (Keith Jefferson) woos her, she maintains her edge. Berniece’s widowhood is a sore spot between the siblings; she blaming him for her husband’s death and it appears from her actions she is still in mourning.
The story continues to emerge about the history of the piano as told by Doaker, and his brother, the gambling song and dance man Wining Boy (Grandison G. Phelps III), who has had it up to here playing the piano, to a wide eyed Lymon who tries to take in all the accounts. He is especially taken aback when the ghosts of the past make an unexpected visit to the house forcing everyone but Boy Willie to take another look. Boy Willie is determined to sell that piano and move on with his life.
What makes this piano so special, they relate, are the beautiful and intricate carvings on it of their ancestors, a wife and son (Doakers grandmother and his father’s images) prominently facing the keyboards. Along the sides their history is recorded as a reminder of their days in slavery. It’s a present from their ancestors who wanted them to know what life was like in those days.
It all came about after their owner; Robert Sutter traded the piano for two of his slaves, Doaker’s grandmother and her son. During a time when Sutter’s wife’s health was failing, she wanted the slaves back. When that didn’t happen she had Doaker’s grandfather, Willie Boy “a worker of wood” carve the images of the two into the piano so she could look at them all the time. He also carved scenes from their family history into the sides and legs of the piano.
Both Berniece and Boy Willie inherited the piano after it was stolen back by Doaker and his late brother Boy Charles many years earlier after emancipation. Now it sits in Doaker’s house as a reminder of the grief and pain from whence it came and the animosity it still continues to cause. That, however, doesn’t stop the ghost of old man Sutter from coming back and haunting Doaker’s house and those in it, though.
Two years ago Cygnet Theatre in Rolando mounted Wilson’s “Fences” to critical acclaim. Ms. Sonnenberg has a winning way with his plays. With the success of “Fences” and many of the same cast members embracing this play on the Old Town stage and with an ensemble that speaks Wilson’s language, “The Piano Lesson” is a must see show.
Johnson is just so at ease as Doaker, the railroad cook ambling in his own inimitable and calming way, he proves to be the link between the old and new generations. His casualness is such a strong feature of his acting (in most everything I’ve seen of his) that it looks seamless. Johnson, who played the lead in “Fences”, is as effective here as he was in his award winning performance in “Fences”. He is just a natural spreading his calm and often subtle, yet expressive ways that make you want to pay attention to what he has to say.
Brown’s Lyman, Boy Willie’s long time friend adds some light hearted relief as he listens to both sides of the story but is always there to give Boy Willie any help he needs. In an out of the blue minute he even manages to break down Berniece’s resistance to show a softer side in a romantic embrace that she surprisingly welcomes.
Keith Jefferson’s preacher and Berniece’s long time suitor Avery, Tanya Johnson-Herron’s Martha the shared girlfriend of Boy Willie and Lymon and Madeline Hornbuckle’s Maretha, round out a terrific ensemble that is not to be missed.
In the end though, it’s the conflict and resolve between Berniece and Boy Willie that proves to be the high point in this production. Neither Gaffney nor Lawrence can stop the train from crashing, but in a moment of high drama it comes to an abrupt stop and we are left exhausted and heartened by what the future may hold for these siblings.
It is definitely worth a trip to Old Town.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Jan 21st -28th
Wednesday – Thursday 7:30pm
Saturday 2pm & 8pm
Sunday 2pm & 7pm
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: (619) 337-1525
Production Type: Drama
Where: Theatre in Old Town, 4040 Twiggs St., San Diego, Ca. 92110
Ticket Prices: $28.00- 42.00
Venue: Cygnet Theatre