“The Piano Lesson” isn’t the first installment in the late August Wilson’s legendary 10-play chronicle of African-American life in the 20th century, but it sets the stage, as it were, as well as any. A black family has inherited a piano with a history entwined with slavery; one member wants to sell it to finance his dreams, the other wouldn’t dream of it.
Wilson was a master of the old school, investing his–and the audience’s–energy in the power of words rather than actions: people sitting around talking is one way to describe it, with characters moving pretty much only to leave or enter the set. Another is that all the talking, Tennessee Williams style, pulls you into another world the way a novel does–sit back and enjoy the soliloquies that roll off these actors’ tongues with quicksilver virtuosity and the weight of the entire African-American experience.
Ansa Akyea, as Boy Willie, doesn’t stop talking from the minute he shows up and by the end of the show I saw he was almost hoarse. I suspect at least one of the glasses of “whiskey” he was given by another character wasn’t scripted. He’s countered by James Craven as Doaker–says only what he needs to, when he wants to, and with a maturity that makes Boy Willie literally appear to be running in circles by contrast. Craven, then, steals the show without saying half of what Boy Willie does. And that’s no mean feat: Akyea, especially considering what he all has to put over, gives a herculean performance. Craven has simply embodied Doaker and gives him such strength of character that it makes you think of all the roles in all the plays and movies you’ve ever seen in which Craven would have aced whoever actually played them. This man is among the treasures of the local stage.
The ending isn’t necessarily what you’d expect, and seemed tied off all too easily for me, but that’s Wilson’s doing, not Penumbra’s and in a way is more satisfying than where it seemed to be headed. Considering all that comes before, this is undoubtedly the most satisfying show of the moment, and fosters excitement for everything to come in Penumbra’s pledged cycle through Wilson’s works.