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[whitespace] 'The Piano Lesson'
A Moving Experience: Boy Willie (Kenny Leon) and Lymon (Erik LaRay Harvey) get a supernatural warning when they try to take the family piano out of the house.

Keys to the Past

The weight of injustice still burdens the Charles family in 'The Piano Lesson'

By Heather Zimmerman

THE SAN JOSÉ Repertory Theatre ably--if unintentionally--demonstrated a theme of the play it's currently staging, August Wilson's The Piano Lesson: This insightful production of the Pulitzer-winning play faced down some hardships head-on, most notably the loss of leading man Donald Griffin, who had to leave for an emergency just prior to opening--that, plus a few minor curve balls thrown by an unpredictable light-board operator.

Director Kenny Leon, in town from Atlanta's Alliance Theatre Company to helm the production, not only capably fills Griffin's role as protagonist Boy Willie, he positively shines, imbuing the character with contagious charm and energy--all that and more, due to the haste of his takeover, with a script in his hand. And as for the lights--well, apparently they had rolling blackouts in 1936 Pittsburgh, too. That's more or less how the cast played it off, and quite smoothly, too.

An ornate piano, carved with the likenesses of slave ancestors, sparks conflict in the African American Charles family, between brother and sister Boy Willie (Leon) and Berniece (Rosalyn Coleman). Taken back at the cost of their father's life from Old Man Sutter, the white man who owned their ancestors, the piano represents the literal blood, sweat and tears of the Charles family, which, Berniece contends, makes the piano a priceless heirloom that should be kept. However, if sold, the valuable antique piano could offer a chance for Boy Willie to raise money to buy the property of the now-deceased Sutter back down South, thereby reclaiming the land that generations of Charleses had worked under enslavement.

Reminiscent of similar themes in Toni Morrison's Beloved, the crushingly powerful weight of slavery on the spirit still looms, especially over Berniece, so much so that it ripples into the supernatural, with apparitions of Old Man Sutter paying frequent visits to her home--and his old piano. Berniece truly is haunted by her family's past. She won't lay a finger on the piano, because of the grief and loss it symbolizes, yet Coleman shows us the character's unerring strength as much as her fear. The supporting cast offers up equally nuanced, natural performances, with Thomas Jefferson Byrd, in particular, giving a deceptively low-key portrayal of Boy Willie and Berniece's uncle, Doaker.

Seemingly at odds with the otherworldliness of Sutter's haunting, the production is hyperreal: Marjorie Bradley Kellogg's impressively detailed set looks as if she had airlifted the living room and kitchen of a 1930s Northeastern home right to the Rep's stage. Also, director Leon has seen to it that no action is "staged" or mimed: for example, Doaker really cooks up French toast and Berniece straightens her daughter's hair. But the effect of such minute realism helps drive home the implications of the enduring devastation wrought by slavery, bringing it into the "real world," in part the audience's world. This production does not shrink from exploring that darkness, nor does it falter in its portrayals of the endless courage needed to fight against it.

The Piano Lesson plays Tuesday-Friday at 8pm, Saturday at 3pm and 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm and 7pm through April 22 at the San José Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. Tickets are $17-$37. (408.367.7255)

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From the April 5-11, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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