Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

The Piano Lesson
The Black Theatre Troupe
Review by Gil Benbrook

Also see Gil's reviews of Real Women Have Curves, The Lehman Trilogy, Jagged Little Pill

Rapheal J. Hamilton, Dzifa E. Kwawu, and Ken Love
Photo by Laura Durant
The Black Theatre Troupe, which has previously produced all 10 plays in August Wilson's acclaimed "Century Cycle," is currently presenting a wonderful production of one of the two plays in the cycle that won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Piano Lesson. Set in 1936 Pittsburgh and focusing on two siblings feuding over a family heirloom, it features a wonderful cast including a phenomenal performance by Rapheal J. Hamilton.

The ten plays in Wilson's cycle focus on African American life, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th century; nine of the plays take place in Wilson's home town of Pittsburgh. The Piano Lesson is the fourth (in chronological order by setting period) play in the series, representing the 1930s.

The plot centers on the Charles family, whose lineage is intricately tied to a piano that carries the scars of the family's painful history of slavery due to the carvings on the piano of their ancestors depicting their suffering. Siblings Berniece and Boy Willie differ on what they think they should do with the piano. Berniece refuses to sell it and says there is blood of her ancestors on the piano, especially that of their mother who polished it by rubbing on it for hours until her hands bled, and that the wood carvings tell their family story. Boy Willie says that's all in the past. He wants to sell it in order to buy the land of Sutter, their family's slaveowner who recently died, but Berniece states, "Money can't buy what that piano cost." But did Sutter die naturally or was he murdered? And if he was murdered, did Boy Willie have anything to do with it? When Berniece, her uncle Doaker, and her daughter Maretha all claim to have seen the ghost of Sutter in the house, it sets in motion a series of steps to free themselves of their past, reconcile with history, and move forward.

Wilson's dialogue and characters, like those in his other plays, are sharp, intriguing, and constantly interesting. While the plot and pacing of The Piano Lesson may be a bit less intricate, slower, and occasionally repetitive when compared to some of the other plays in the cycle, it is still a rich drama that focuses on the choices we make and the legacies we inherit, while also grappling with, both literally and figuratively, the ghosts of our past.

As Boy Willie, Rapheal J. Hamilton is delivering a sensational performance infused with non-stop energy, impulsiveness, and the constantly nagging desire to prove that Willie is just as good as the white man and that instead of working on someone else's land, he'll sell the piano to have land of his own. Hamilton's stage presence is like a firecracker that is constantly giving off sparks; you can't take your eyes off of him as he darts around the stage unable to sit still for more than a second. You truly understand from Hamilton's fully fleshed-out portrayal that Boy Willie is a man who has a mission and will do anything he can to sell that piano as a symbol of his freedom.

As Berniece, and in direct counterpart to Hamilton's energetic Boy Willie, Dzifa E. Kwawu's facial expressions, body language and silent gestures say just as much as Hamilton's larger than life antics. It is a portrayal with a perfect balance of strength and vulnerability that beautifully shows this woman who is still mourning her late husband and feels like she needs to hold on to the piano as a way to protect the legacy of their family. The many confrontations that Kwawu and Hamilton have are realistic, tense, emotional, and expertly acted and staged.

In the supporting cast, Ken Love is excellent as their uncle Doaker, the voice of reason who is continually finding himself as the intermediary between the siblings. Eric Banks is bright and eager as Avery, the preacher who is courting Berniece while also trying to help her find a way to let go of her fears. As Lymon, Boy Willie's friend, John Pene is warm and charming as a young man who wants to stay north where he sees a better future for himself. Trevell McElwee Chappell adds a dose of comedy to the production as Wining Boy, Doaker's older brother, and Jessica Ortiz Sanroman and Aubrianna Carter round out the cast with winning performances of Grace, a woman Boy Willie and Lymon meet, and Maretha, Bernice's daughter, respectively.

Each actor, under Patdro Harris' direction, brings depth and authenticity to their roles. The chemistry among the cast members is realistic, which helps to create a familial bond that resonates with organic interactions. Sarah Harris' set design represents the living room and kitchen of the Charles family home, with period furniture, varied flooring and wallpaper, and the piano embellished with intricate carvings the central focal point. The lighting by Stacey Walston enhances the emotion of the story, with appropriately cool, dark colors for the nighttime scenes and a heightened, vibrancy, combined with Ben Cain's atmospheric sound design, for the supernatural moments. Joshua Walker's hair and costumes are excellent period and character appropriate designs.

The beauty of Wilson's prose, an excellent cast, and sharp creative elements create an emotionally charged production that serves as a poignant exploration of family dynamics and also a celebration of a family's legacy, woven together with humor, tragedy, the power of music, and the always present echoes of ghosts of the past.

The Piano Lesson runs through February 18, 2024, at The Black Theatre Troupe, Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street, Phoenix AZ. For tickets and information, please visit or call 602-258-8129

Directed by Patdro Harris
Scenic Design: Sarah Harris
Lighting Design: Stacey Walston
Costume, Hair, and Makeup Design: Joshua Walker
Sound Design: Ben Cain
Original Compositions and Music Supervision: Deryk George
Production Manager: Frederick Alphonso
Stage Manager: Andrea Small

Doaker: Ken Love
Berniece: Dzifa E. Kwawu
Boy Willie: Rapheal J. Hamilton
Grace: Jessica Ortiz Sanroman
Wining Boy: Trevell McElwee Chappell
Avery: Eric Banks
Lymon: John Pene
Maretha: Aubrianna Carter