NYC Review: 'The Piano Lesson'


This January, members of the Green Room Reviews staff traveled to New York City for a week-long immersion program as part of their studies in the Goldring Arts Journalism Master's Program at Syracuse University. Throughout the trip, they attended a variety of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows. Here is one of the Arts Journalists' thoughts on a show that caught their eye in the Big Apple.

NYC Review by Xiaoran Ding 

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, The Piano Lesson, at the Signature Theatre is dramatic and ambitious. Still, the production, directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, lacks delicacy.

Set in Pittsburg during 1936, The Piano Lesson explores the discord between two siblings, Boy Willie and Berniece, over an old and ornate piano. Boy Willie wants to sell it to buy land—Berniece feels differently.

This play is part of Wilsons “Century Cycle” works, consisting of 10 plays throughout ten decades. Wilson’s plays are known for their elements of African American history, which is powerfully seen in this piece.

Impulsive and loud, Brandon Dirden did a solid job in his interpretation of Boy Willie. Yet, there is a vast gap between the salesman Boy Willie and the piano-loving Boy Willie. It’s hard to imagine the man who values the piano—enough to sing and dance around the instrument—wants to sell.

Matching Willie is the firm and independent Berniece, played by a powerful Roslyn Ruff. She shines in dramatic scenes, presenting a familiar heroine of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved.” But, Ruff seems too ready for any emotional breakdown, so much so that even when Berniece is walking down her stairs, she appears that she might plunge herself into a fight over the piano.

Wining Boy, played by Chuck Cooper, balances the heavy weight of the play. Cooper gallantly fits his role: his golden jacket, his talented singing and piano playing, his inappropriate humor and his large figure; all these details speak to a washed-up, old-time musician.

In this almost three-hour show, the dialogue tends to meander; family history overflows and the conversations can wane. Although when conversation lacked, songs immediately brightened up the pace. Cooper leads these songs with his rich, experienced voice and appealing charisma.

As the show ends, it’s hard not to appreciate the varied lighting that magically transfers time and mood so easily and thoroughly. Designed by Rui Rita, the lighting quietly swifts along with the feelings—a slight touch of a growing early morning, the erotic night and the haunting ghosts.

* The Piano Lesson closed Off-Broadway on Jan. 20, 2013.