A 'Lesson' imparted solidly by historic African American theater company

NORTH MIAMI -- What does someone do with an old piano he or she never uses, all the while it's sitting there collecting dust?

If the person in question is living during the Great Depression and is lucky enough that an eager buyer has come with money, the answer seems obvious: Get your hands on the dough any legal way you can during an extremely poor economic time.

But the instrument in August Wilson's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning play "The Piano Lesson" is hardly just another piano and the lesson the play imparts has nothing to do with learning keys, chords and songs. It's a lesson about legacy, what it means to different people and, in Wilson's words, "What you do with your legacy and how do you best put it to use."

"The Piano Lesson," is on stage through Sunday in a sometimes powerful but uneven production by The M Ensemble Company Inc., Florida's "oldest surviving Black Theatre group," according to its website.

More than once during the reviewed production, lights flickered on and off, as though there were a problem with the power. That wouldn't be a good thing in just about any production of any play. But if it wasn't by design and a power problem existed, it actually worked to the play's and production's advantage. Ghosts haunt this Wilson tale about a brother and sister living in 1936 Pittsburgh and fighting over how best to use a piece of their family's history -- a 137-year-old, upright piano, carved with images of the siblings' African ancestors and made by their enslaved grandfather.

To the sister, Berniece, it's a sentimental piece to preserve the family's past.

To her brother, Boy Willie, it's a piece that holds the ticket for his future happiness. He's dead set on buying land his ancestors worked on as slaves. He sees the chance to sell the piano as an opportunity to make his mark on the world...to stand up tall and proud to white folks and show them he's every bit their equal-- and therefore is no less entitled to make the most of his life. By owning the land his ancestors once slaved on, Boy Willie is, in essence, showing them they didn't win.

At the play's very beginning, by barging into his sister's home and announcing his plans, Boy Willie sets up the central conflict: using one's legacy for sentimental purposes vs practical purposes. Put another way, Wilson pits keeping the past alive against progress and moving forward.

"The Piano Lesson" is part of a collection of Wilson's work called the "Pittsburgh Cycle," or "Century Cycle," a series of 10 plays examining the African American experience through each decade of the 20th century, starting with "Gem of the Ocean," set during 1904 and ending with "Radio Golf," set in the 1990s, coming full circle.

Some of the plays contain more ritualistic elements and the presence of ghosts than others. "The Piano Lesson" mixes realism with the a ghost story involving the siblings' ancestors without creating a jumble. What's not missing is Wilson's lyricism with which he sensitively, with a keen ear for dialect and dialogue, depicts the struggles and hopes of African Americans, making the Pittsburgh Cycle one of the theater's greatest accomplishments.

The play might be set in 1936, and its relevance to the period is undeniable (see the above about the need to acquire money when given the rare chance, especially during the Great Depression and for African American communities suffering severely from economic problems after migrating north). But Wilson could've set "The Piano Lesson" during any era; people of all races and ethnicities have always grappled with the issue of how best to use heirlooms left behind by loved ones.

There's also a moment in the play that, while minor, reminded me of the tensions, worries and concerns facing African Americans today.

That moment in the play comes when Berniece sends her young daughter, Maretha (a composed, thoroughly in-character Danielle-Rae Lockhart) outside to buy something. Somehow, I couldn't help but think about King Carter, the local 6-year-old boy killed recently in the Miami area by a stray bullet on his way to buy candy. Amid the central conflict, you might find yourself praying that little Maretha will return home safely.

The production has its strong points, particularly the palpable tension between Berniece and Boy Willie.

The performances aren't uniformly strong.

Ethan Henry's Boy Willie is a man with fierce, dogged determination, shaking his fists with conviction as he talks about what the land will mean to his life and pounding his chest to reinforce his strong will to succeed.

"I got a heart that beats here and it beats just as loud as the next fellow’s," Boy Willie boasts. "Don’t care if he black or white. Sometime it beats louder. When it beats louder, than everybody can hear it. Some people get scared of that. Like Berniece. Some people get scared to hear a n----'s heart beating. They think you ought to lay low with that heart. Make it beat quiet and go along with everything the way it is. But my mama ain’t birthed me for nothing. So what I got to do? I got to mark my passing on the road. […] That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano. Trying to put my mark on the road. Like my daddy done."

Henry, who disappears into the part, imbues Boy Willie with a strong will and fight, but he also brings to the role a vivacious, charming, boyish, impulsive and loud presence.

This Boy Willie is, excuse the cliche, an "Energizer Bunny" with perhaps way too much sugar in his system. Speaking of sweetness, he's energetic and tender with his niece, Maretha. The problem is the volume of Henry's voice. This production is performed in a three-row theater, with the bottom row patrons seated within touching distance of the actors. Sure, Boy Willie is loud and brash, but Henry overdoes it; his bellowing at the top of his lungs actually makes it difficult to understand him at times.

Conversely, Lowell Williams as Doaker, Berniece and Boy Willie's uncle whose home serves as the play's setting (designed with period detail and grace by Rachel Finley), speaks too softly at times. That's particularly true when he relates the history of the piano and how it came to be decorated with carvings. It's difficult to hear him at these and other times, which is unfortunate since the playing space at North Miami High School is such an intimate theater. On the positive side, Doaker offers a natural, convincing performance, caputring the older man's quiet pride, vigilence and weariness, no doubt from living during the Great Depression.

Makeba Pace has a somber countenance as Berniece, a woman who blames her brother for killing her husband during a robbery gone bad. Pace's Berniece also shoots bitter glances at her brother for his behavior and matches Boy Willie's intensity in her unyielding stance that the piano sit, untouched, as a reminder.

One of the production's stars is Chat Atkins as Wining Boy. This lovable, sweet, humorous elderly man is a former recording star and drifter who comes and goes like the wind. His function is primarily as a storyteller, telling anecdotes about his journeys, his glory days and the family history.

Atkins, hunched a bit as the comedic character, emits a high-pitched, hearty laugh every once in a while, serving as comic relief from the play's tense moments.

Atkins' Wining Boy is as talkative as Boy Willie, but not nearly as loud. Picture an old-time barbershop regular who casually and cheerfully relates anecdotes and the news of the day. There's a scene during which Wining Boy is drunk, and Atkins makes his character's body stumble without it appearing forced.

Scott Wesley as Boy Willie's buddy, Lymon, nails the character's straightforward manner and shows a tender side when Lymon tries to bring Berniece out of her mourning. Most importantly, Wesley acts convincingly as part of the ensemble, really listening as the other characters speak.

A powerful, if implausible, moment in the play comes when Boy Willie and Berniece "confront" the ghost of the family's former master. It's the spirit Berniece sees at different points during the play. At the end, it causes Boy Willie to go into some sort of trance, suddenly changing his mind about the piano. The change seems too abrupt, especially for a man who's not superstitious or religious and is as strong willed as Boy Willie's been throughout the play. Still, the scene is strong, with a devout, prayerful Berniece and a preacher, Avery (a polished, modest, and then thundering-voiced Ray Lockhart) blessing the house to exorcise Sutter's ghost.

Lighting designer Travis Neff could create stronger otherworldly effects during the ghost sequences, although the automatic opening and slamming of doors works, as does the ghostly sound.

Neff's lighting is particularly bright when Boy Willie enters the house, reinforcing his strong presence. But "The Piano Lesson" is also a play in which memory plays a prominent role, and Neff's lighting is suitably darker during appropriate times to communicate that. Of course, the piano is the central figure, so even when the lighting is darker, a light shines on the piano to make it stand out.

Lyman and Boy Willie are loose in demeanor, so their untucked shirts appropriately match that aspect of their personality. With Berniece in mourning, one wonders why costume designer Shirley Richardson didn't dress her in all black, but that color is appropriate for the suit the preacher Avery dons. Wining Boy's stripped, jazzy shirt and hat also match his colorful personality.

M Ensemble's "The Piano Lesson" isn't a masterpiece a la Ludwig van Beethoven, but, led by the smart staging and detailed direction by Andre L. Gainey, it makes the 'lesson' for the evening front and center.

 

IF YOU GO

WHAT: "The Piano Lesson" by August Wilson.

WHEN: 8 p.m. today and Saturday as well as 4 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: North Miami Senior High School, 13110 NE 8th Ave., North Miami

HOW MUCH: $20 for general admission, $15 for students and seniors. Group rates are available. Call (305) 893-3551 or visit www.themensemble.com.