Review: Court Theatre’s “The Piano Lesson”

Blossoming with music, Court’s ‘Piano Lesson’ mixes family tensions and struggles with a dash of the paranormal.

Chicago's Court Theatre produces August Wilson's masterpiece "The Piano Lesson" 

The Piano Lesson 
Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Watching Court Theatre’s production of “The Piano Lesson,” by August Wilson, I couldn’t help comparing it to “The Cherry Orchard.”, by Anton Chekov. Although the play is distinctively American, elements in the Pulitzer Prize-winner are very similar to Anton Chekhov’s masterpiece. Set in 1936, characters descended from slaves attempt to move up in the world as the sons of plantation owners join the ranks of the rural poor; Wilson’s Boy Willie is sort of a black Lopakhin. Directed by Wilson veteran Ron OJ Parson, the Court’s “Piano Lesson” is a very effective snapshot of the American experience, with a tantalizing ghost story weaved in.

_msb1226__large Along with “Wait Until Dark,” this is the second production in the Court’s season that has features of a thriller flick. The fourth entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” but the fifth to be written, “The Piano Lesson” records family tension and the African-American struggle in the 20th Century with a dash of the paranormal.

Like most of the cycle, the central conflict pits progressing in the modern world against reverence for the past. This conflict is symbolized by a beautiful piano that has a haunting presence around it. The piano is inherited to siblings Boy Willie (the lively Ronald L. Conner) and Berneice (Tyla Abercrumbie), with the former wishing to sell it to buy land and the latter fighting to keep the ancestral instrument. It is slowly revealed that piano has cost a lot of blood over its lifetime, and a few of the deceased may have followed the piano to Berneice’s home in Pittsburgh.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Although no one actually teaches a piano lesson, the production blossoms with music. Mournful jazz numbers are played by musician Wining Boy (Alfred H. Wilson), and Boy Willie lays down a short dancehall tune. One of the best scenes of the play is when nearly all of the male characters join together in a powerful, rhythmic work song. Just like the piano, the music is a child of the characters’ heritage, offering them (and the audience) an escape, a celebration, and a shared experience. The songs are brilliantly scripted and nailed by this talented cast, tapping deep into the underlying themes.

The cast shines with many experienced August Wilson actors, many of whom have been in productions of “Piano Lesson” across the country. Conner is an energetic and stubborn Boy Willie, bristling with youthful drive. He’s grounded by his friend Lymon, played by a charismatic Brian Weddington. The older generation in the play, Alfred H. Wilson’s funny Wining Boy and A.C. Smith as the peacekeeping Doaker, add a deeper level of humanity to the play and present a welcome break from Boy Willie’s and Berneice’s constant bickering.

PianoLesson-hairThe fighting between the siblings is where the production falters. The battle quickly stalemates and the repeated arguments loose focus. Abercrumbie’s cold portrayal of Berneice doesn’t help, either. It seems like the production wants the play to be Berneice’s story, but Conner’s Boy Willie is much more interesting and sympathetic. Another stumbling block for the play is the character of Grace (Alexis J. Rogers), Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s 10-second love interest that doesn’t seem to have much of a point for the story.

Parson’s interpretation of the script, though, is layered and gives credence to both sides of the conflict. The realistic heart of the play, the music, and the campfire ghost story aspects are all well-realized. Keith Pitts’ set is intricate and allows for plenty of play for the actors. The physical presence of the paranormal is fascinatingly done, and the titular piano is elaborately detailed. The ghosts are far from a hokey gimmick. The invisible characters that encroach on the family’s struggle illuminate Wilson’s themes of family, tradition, and connection to the past.

Rating: «««

Other reviews of The Piano Lesson:  TimeOut Chicago, SteadStyle Chicago

 

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Cast List and Creative Team – after the fold…

Cast

 

Photo of Tyla AbercrumbieTYLA ABERCRUMBIE (Berniece) made her

Court Theatre debut in Flyin’ West. Regional credits include: Magnolia at Goodman Theatre, Radio Golf at Pittsburgh Public Theatre, Short Shakespeare! Romeo & Juliet at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, The Piano Lesson at Portland Stage Company, Intimate Apparel at Milwaukee Repertory, Ariadne’s Thread at Victory Garden Theatre, A Raisin in the Sun at Studio Arena, Jitney at St. Louis Black Repertory and Four Queen No Trump at Onxy Theatre Company. Television Credits: The Beast, Family Practice,The Tracy Morgan Show, Bette, Cupid, and Turks. Film Credits: Poker House, Time Served, Mary & Jo. Ms. Abercrumbie is also a published author and Spoken Word performance artist. She holds a BA in Theatre from Columbia College.

Photo of Ronald ConnerRONALD L. CONNER (Boy Willie) is made his Court Theatre debut in The First Breeze of Summer. Other Chicago credits include Short Shakespeare! Romeo & Juliet and Short Shakespeare! The Taming of the Shrew (Chicago Shakespeare Theater), The African Company Presents Richard III and Deep Azure (Congo Square Theatre), The Oresteia (Greasy Joan & Co.), Black Caesar and 2005 Young Playwrights Festival (Pegasus Players), and Short Eyes (Urban Theatre Co.). Regional credits include The Piano Lesson (Portland Stage), Macbeth, The River Niger, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (St. Louis Black Repertory Company). He is an ensemble member at Congo Square Theatre Company.

Photo of Allen D. EdgeALLEN D. EDGE (Avery) has worked with the Goodman Theatre, e.t.a. Theatre, Victory Gardens Theatre, the Black Ensemble Theatre Company, Portland Stage Company, First Stage Children’s Theater, and Steppenwolf Theatre Company.  He has performed stand-up comedy at Zanies Chicago, Comedy Central’s “Comic Justice,” the Comedy Café, and Jokes & Notes.  He was also featured in Barber Shop 2 and Tyler Perry’s “Meet the Browns.” Allen has a B.A. in Theatre from Columbia College Chicago.

Photo of Alexis J. RogersALEXIS J. ROGERS (Grace) is proud and honored to make her Court Theatre debut working with the revered Ron O.J. Parson.  She recently closed the world premiere of Brian Tucker’s St. James Infirmary with Congo Square Theatre Company, of which she is an ensemble member.  Other credits include Black Nativity, Ragtime (Sarah), Don’t Make Me Over (Dionne Warwick), and Seven Guitars (Ruby), to name a few.  Alexis received her formal training at Howard University.

Photo of A.C. SmithA.C. SMITH has appeared at Court Theatre in The First Breeze of Summer and Fences. He is always happy to return to a company that allows an actor to grow and be challenged at the same time. His portrayal of Troy Maxon in August Wilson’s Fences (Court) earned him the prestigious Jeff Award for lead actor in a drama. Other Chicago credits include work at Victory Gardens Theatre, where he has been a part of many productions over the past twenty years. He has appeared at the Timeline Theatre, Steppenwolf Theatre, Goodman Theatre, The Chicago Center for the Performing Arts, Illinois Theatre Center, Second City, and Chicago Shakespeare Theatre to name a few. He was last seen in Gem of the Ocean at the Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati. Mr. Smith can also be seen performing at his second home, The St. Louis Black Repertory, where he has been an active member for more than fourteen years and won nine Woody King Jr. awards. He played Boy Willie in the National Broadway Tour of The Piano Lesson, as well as the title role in the New Federal Theatre production of Jelly Belly off Broadway, which earned him an Audelco Award nomination. A.C. has appeared in many independent and feature films, radio, voice overs, television, and commercials, and has done print work for Ebony and Jet magazines. He has a B.F.A in theatre from Columbia College in Chicago. “May God Bless.”

Photo of Brian WeddingtonBRIAN WEDDINGTON (Lymon) is thankful to return to Court Theatre this season.  He appeared last season in the role of Nate in The First Breeze of Summer.  He is an instructor of theatre at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where he also received his B.A. in theater.  Continuing his studies at Rutgers University earned him an M.F.A in acting.  His professional acting career is extensive and varied with theatrical, film, and television work throughout the United States and abroad.  Some of his creative works include the hit movie Barber Shop 2, ABC’s One Life to Live, The People Who Could Fly (National Black Arts Theater Festival), The Darker Face of the Earth and Thieves Carnival (Kennedy Center), the latter of which was performed in Moscow.  He has instructed at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Chicago Public Schools Advanced Arts Education Program at Gallery 37, After School Matters, Upward Bound, Project CHANCE, and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.  He is the Principal Director and Co-Founder of the HHW School for the Performing Arts, and is presently writing a book of monologues for youth and a book of scenes and monologues from the Christian experience.  He thanks God for allowing him the opportunity to share his gift.

Photo of Alfred H. WilsonALFRED H. WILSON (Wining Boy) is happy to be returning to Court Theatre.  Recent credits include August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf (Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati), and Radio Golf (Pittsburgh Public Theatre).  Chicago credits include Bourbon at the Border (Eclipse Theatre), Panther Burn (MMPAACT), Jitney and Two Trains Running (Pegasus Players), where he was awarded a Jeff Citation as best actor.  He has also worked at the Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens Theatre, and is a co-founder of Onyx Theatre Ensemble.

 

 

ARTISTIC TEAM

AUGUST WILSON (Playwright, 1945-2005) was an American playwright. His literary legacy is the ten play series, The Century Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes. It consists of ten plays, nine of which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an African-American neighborhood that takes on a mythic literary significance like Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, or Irish playwright Brian Friel’s Ballybeg. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.  His best known plays are Fences (1985) (which won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award), The Piano Lesson (1990) (a Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award), Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

Director - Ron OJ ParsonRON OJ PARSON is in his fourth season at Court where he has directed The First Breeze of Summer, Flyin’ West and the highly acclaimed, Jeff Award-winning production of Fences. He is the co-founder and former Artistic Director of The Onyx Theatre Ensemble of Chicago. He hails from Buffalo, New York and is a graduate of the University of Michigan’s Professional Theatre Program. In Chicago he has directed shows at The Goodman (Let Me Live), Steppenwolf (Wedding Band, a co-production with Congo Square Theatre, Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train, and The Horn, a co-production with City Lit Theatre), Victory Gardens (Hambone), Congo Square (The Piano Lesson and co-directed and acted in Ali), and Urban Theatre Company (Short Eyes). He has also worked with Black Ensemble Theatre and eta Creative Arts Foundation, most recently directing Robert Johnson: Trick the Devil. For Onyx, he directed East Texas Hot Links, Sty of the Blind Pig, and Flyin’ West, among many other shows. Regionally he has directed at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Palmer Park), the St. Louis Black Repertory, (Jitney), Portland Stage Company (Fences, The Piano Lesson), Virginia Stage Company (Yellowman), Studio Arena Theatre (A Raisin in the Sun), Village Theatre in Issaqua, Washington (One Red Flower), Madison Repertory Theatre (Topdog/Underdog), Actors Theatre of Louisville (Gem of the Ocean), and Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati (Radio Golf). Also an accomplished actor, Parson has worked at various theatres in and out of the U.S. Some TV and film credits include E.R., Early Edition, Turks, Primal Fear, Ali, Barbershop 2, and Drop Squad.

 

KEITH PITTS is pleased to be designing at Court.  Professional Theatre credits include shows at Milwaukee Rep;  Steppenwolf; Writers Theatre;  Victory Gardens; American Theatre Company; Northlight Theatre; Timeline Theatre; A Red Orchid Theatre; Next Theatre; Peninsula Players Theatre; and Chambers Theatre.  Film: Static with Galatrax Pictures.    Current Shows: Hedwig and The Angry Inch at American Theatre Company; Curtains at Drury Lane Oakbrook.  Upcoming shows:  Around the World in 80 Days at Chamber Theatre; Wait Until Dark at Peninsula Players; and Annihalation Day (Independent Feature Film) with Galatrax Pictures.

RICHARD NORWOOD‘s recent designs include Bus Stop for Madison Repertory Theatre, Beethoven As I Knew Him at The Geffen (L.A.) and The Old Globe Theatre (San Diego), starring Hershey Felder and directed by Joel Zwick. Other recent designs include Stupid Kids for About Face Theatre, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story for Drury Lane WaterTower, The Voysey Inheritance for Remy Bumppo, and Horses at the Window for Trap Door Theatre. Richard is the Performance Coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art.

NICK KEENAN is delighted to design for Court Theatre for the first time.  Designs include Goodman Theatre (Strange Interlude, assistant for Mirror), Dog & Pony, BackStage, Collaboraction, Rivendell, Raven, Apple Tree, A Red Orchid, the Neo-Futurists, the side project, and New Leaf Theatre, where he is a company member.  Nick operates sound at Goodman, teaches at Northwestern’s Cherub program, and authors a blog (theaterforthefuture.com) discussing arts sustainability and technology in theater.

CHRISTINE PASCUAL is delighted to be working at Court Theatre and with Ron once again. Previous Court Theatre shows: The First Breeze of Summer, Flyin’ West. Recent credits include: The St. James Infirmary at Congo Square, Four Scenes in Three Acts at Roosevelt University, True West and Topdog/Underdog at American Theater Company with Congo Square, Our Lady of the Underpass at Teatro Vista, Capriccio Barocco for the Yale Baroque Opera Project, Jarred for Teatro Luna at Chicago Dramatists, Ten Cent Night at Chicago Dramatists, The People’s Temple at American Theatre Company, and Fast Forward at About Face Theater.  Other companies she has designed for: Defiant Theatre, Remy Bumppo, Centerstage Baltimore, Apple Tree Theater, Infusion Theater,Silk Road Theatre Project, Steppenwolf, Goodman, Infusion Theater, Pegasus Players. Upcoming productions include: Sanctified at Congo Square Theatre and Blackbird at Victory Gardens Theater.  Christine is an Artistic Associate of Teatro Vista and member of the United Scenic Artists Local 829. For examples of her work, visit www.ChristinePascual.com. She wishes to thank her family for their unwavering support.

KATE BREDESON is Resident Dramaturg at Court Theatre and Lecturer in the Theatre and Performance Studies Program at the University of Chicago. She comes to Chicago after working as Assistant Professor of Theatre at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and living in Paris for several years before that. She has earned awards including a Fulbright, a residency at the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France, and fellowships from the Killam Foundation, Mellon Foundation and the Institut Français de Washington. She is currently working on a book about theatre and performance surrounding the May 1968 events in France. Kate holds an MFA and a doctorate in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism from the Yale School of Drama, regularly presents at international conferences, and has published articles in Theater, Theatre Symposium, Modern and Contemporary France, The Tennessee Williams Literary Journal, and Time Out Paris. As a dramaturg, she has worked at theatres such as the Guthrie and the Yale Repertory Theatre, and with the Ensemble Company of Performing Arts.

4 Responses

  1. This show was so talky. There were so many pointless conversations. I agree with Mr. Eitel: I don’t think the production knew who it was backing. Overall it was a good production but not totally concise.

  2. A.C. Smith is the man.

  3. great stuff. well done.

  4. “Thanks for the post!

    I would surely love to learn more. According to me music is one thing which requires more of practice than theory lessons. One should keep practicing to master the art.”

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