Ebony and Ivories

August Wilson's The Piano Lesson is among the most stirring dramas written this century. The critically acclaimed play, about a black American family's struggle to come to terms with its legacy of slavery, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990. It is Wilson's intention to write a play depicting black America in each decade of the 20th century; The Piano Lesson, set in the Thirties, is the fourth in his cycle.

This important play is winding up a three-week run at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts. The Black Theatre Troupe production features some excellent performances by a small group of actors who clearly care about the material. More important, the cast is providing an opportunity to witness great playwriting and to hear prose that sounds like poetry.

Wilson's art is always functional. This time out, the playwright is remarking on the representation of blacks in history, the integration of tradition and contemporary culture and the bond between the living and the dead. The Piano Lesson piles on allusions in an African-American historiography lesson that's lucid and surprisingly entertaining.

It's too bad that the play's all-important climax is so badly bungled in its local production. Wilson's dramatic conclusion blends high drama with obscure allusions to the afterlife and the hold the dead have on our lives. But, as re-created by director Charles St. Clair, the final minutes play like a tour of a Junior League house of horrors.

But before we arrive at that anticlimax, we're treated to some fine acting: Without exception, the cast of experienced local actors turns out skillful performances. Mike Traylor is particularly engaging as Boy Willie, an animated young black man who dreams of buying up the land where his family once worked as slaves. Traylor tromps up and down the stage in noisy workboots, collecting laughs and solemnly recounting black history as one of Wilson's "men of memory."

St. Clair maintains the rhythm and diction of Wilson's writing and adds interesting bits of business that help animate the playwright's minisermons and song breaks. But he falls flat in those crucial last moments, when the Charles family is visited by the ghost of its forebear's owner. As written by Wilson, the fisticuffs between Boy Willie and Sutter's ghost take place offstage. Here, to show us the fight, St. Clair clumsily projects shadows of Willie and the ghost onto a center-stage scrim. Worse, the walls of the set shake and ugly green lights flash in a cheesy visitation that's straight out of a Halloween "haunted house." At the matinee I attended, the audience was hooting during the last moments, which are meant to build to a tension that's finally broken by Willie's comic exit line.

Nonetheless, the unfortunate finish neither eclipses Wilson's message nor plunders his powerful prose. Any opportunity to see meaningful theatre--even when it's been mucked up with hokey effects--is an opportunity worth taking. Go see The Piano Lesson. As Wilson himself writes, "Man, this piano is heavy."

Black Theatre Troupe's production of The Piano Lesson continues through Sunday, November 10, at Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela