Piano, playing a discordant tune

Portland Playhouse's volatile and rhythmic 'Piano Lesson' continues the city's potent string of August Wilson revivals

Boy Willie is a motormouth. Words flow out in torrents from actor Bryant Bentley in The Piano Lesson, a high-octane flood of language and braggadocio that fills the little Portland Playhouse stage and rebounds around the room.

His sister Bernice bites her tongue. There’s a torrent inside her, all right, but in Chantal DeGroat’s fine performance, she’s all dammed up and about to explode. When Bernice does talk it’s in a clipped sharp staccato, an exasperated seething, a denial that is also, in August Wilson’s brilliant theatrical universe, an affirmation of something that’s left mostly unspoken but is the most important thing in the room: the vital role of tradition – personal, cultural, and political – to a sense of self-identity and self-worth.

In the cards: from left, Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, "ranney"

From left: Seth Rue, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, Bryant Bentley, “ranney.” Photo: Brud Giles

Directed with a pulsating sense of the play’s rhythmic structure by the talented Kevin Jones, the Playhouse’s new Piano Lesson continues a deep and satisfying run of Wilson revivals in Portland in recent seasons. It won’t be long before Wilson’s entire ten-play cycle of African-American life in the 20th century will have been performed in town (the Playhouse itself has produced six), and that amounts to a gift to the city. Wilson was the last of the century’s great traditional American playwrights – Edward Albee, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill – and the only one to approach the subject of America from the perspective of its black history and culture. That makes him fundamentally, radically different from the others.

Like so many of Wilson’s plays, The Piano Lesson – which debuted in 1990 and is set in the Pittsburgh of 1936 – is steeped in music, in this case the blues and stomps and hollers of the agricultural South. Like almost all of Wilson’s plays it revels in a meandering, storytelling narrative style, getting at things allusively and stating themes and variations like a musical composition. And like Gem of the Ocean and others, it has a vivid supernatural streak, the past gathering itself like a reanimated character given the breath of life: In The Piano Lesson, a ghost shakes the house.

One of the deep pleasures of Wilson’s plays is the sense of community, of intensely close family whether squabbling or not, that he sets up. Characters have long and winding interconnections; mutual histories; habits and rituals and transgressions that make up the atmosphere of the tales. Watching a Wilson play is like dropping in on a microculture and slowly figuring out how the whole thing works. The fissures in the plays’ structures may drive the characters, but the characters drive the action, and that makes casting crucial.

Jones has done the job well. Bentley is a barely containable effusion of energy as Boy Willie, who’s come north to Pittsburgh determined to sell the family piano so he can buy a plot of land on the old plantation where the family once were slaves. He’s as stubborn as a mule with twice the kick, but maybe not as much as DeGroat’s Bernice, who’s determined to keep the piano, even though she refuses to play it anymore, because it represents the family’s history and soul. Around these two swirl a vibrant supporting cast that includes Mujahid Abdul-Rashid as Doaker, the even-tempered uncle who has a solid job with the railroad and owns the house where Bernice lives; Mila Faer as Bernice’s young daughter; Seth Rue as easygoing Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick who arrives with him in a broken-down truck loaded with watermelons to sell in the city; Ronald Scott as Avery, a minister who is patiently courting the reluctant Bernice; a big-spirited actor called “ranney” as Wining Boy, Doaker’s older brother and a onetime pianist who bounces around the country in faded finery, entertaining friends and family and softly sponging as he spins yarns of yesterday; and Carmen Brantley-Payne as Grace, an outsider who catches the eye of Boy Willie and Lyman alike. Plus, of course, the invisible but very present ghost of Sutter, heir to the old family slave owner, who has recently taken a mysterious and fatal tumble down a well. All in all, it’s a fascinating group to spend an evening with, volatile and balanced in texture and timbre, like a good blues band.

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

Family spat: Bryant Bentley and Chantal DeGroat. Photo: Brud Giles

The piano is the play’s bone of contention, and yes, it’s a Metaphor, with a capital “M”: materialism versus spirituality. Carved with the faces of ancestors, imbued with the history of the family and its slavery past, it’s an emblem of the bloodline and the culture. Doaker and Bernice, like so many others, have abandoned the South and moved north in search of better lives, but she’s kept the piano with her as a reminder of what was, a repository of cultural memory. Boy Willie has stayed country and is determined to farm the land as a free man that his family once farmed as slaves. The way to do that, he’s decided, is to sell the piano and use the money to buy the land: in essence, trade in tradition to build a new, better, tradition. He makes his utilitarian case well, with a persuasive pragmatism, and yet the air’s heavy with the nagging suspicion that somehow he’s wrong.

The disagreement is about much more than a piano, of course, although Wilson’s choice of a musical instrument as a stand-in for African-American collective memory seems apt. The tale has similarities to the Biblical story of Esau, the hairy hunter who sold his birthright to his brother Jacob for a mess of pottage: It seems foolish in hindsight, but Esau was a practical man, and he was famished, and on a purely physical level, buying a meal was the practical thing to do. These are the questions, it seems, that The Piano Lesson poses. How do African Americans (or anyone, for that matter) move forward without also holding onto their past? Without their shared culture, how can they know who they are? Of what use is the past? If we don’t use it, what have we lost? What tradeoffs are necessary or inevitable to move ahead?

In The Piano Lesson, the answers blow through the house like a stalking ghost. And the wonder is, it provides a rollicking good time.


It’s a good season for black theater in Portland. Portland Center Stage is basking in the glow of a fine production of the musical Dreamgirls, which has some intriguing parallels to The Piano Lesson: did the Supremes and their Motown sound sacrifice too much of traditional black music in their reach for crossover success? Staged! musical theater’s Parade, set in Atlanta during the early 1900s, addresses the cultural and political corruptions of the slowly emerging South and, although it has Jewish protagonists, it includes four good African American roles. Roberta Hunte and Bonnie Ratner’s My Walk Has Never Been Average, about black women working in the construction trades, keeps popping up. And Artists Rep has rolled into the new season with Lynne Nottage’s fine and probing Intimate Apparel. If this is Portland’s new normal, three cheers.


The Piano Lesson plays through Nov. 2 at Portland Playhouse, 602 N.E. Prescott Street. Schedule and ticket information is here.

Note: This review was made possible in part thanks to support from our partners at Artslandia!


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