“The Piano Lesson” At The Black Rep Brings Memorable Cast Together

Bob Mitchell, Ronal L. Conner, Ethan H. Jones and Chauncy Thomas break into an impromptu number in the Black Rep's "The Piano Lesson." Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Bob Mitchell, Ronald L. Conner, Ethan H. Jones and Chauncy Thomas break into an impromptu number in the Black Rep’s “The Piano Lesson.” Photo: Stewart Goldstein

To show you what a great training program the Black Rep has had over the 35 years of their existence, their current production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” brings actors from previous classroom experiences and former interns to the stage in a dynamic production of this classic play. Continuing the “second time around” for the August Wilson series of plays about the Black experience in America, “The Piano Lesson” centers on the Charles family in 1937 Pittsburgh and how family disputes need a little help from the ancestors.

Berniece and her daughter Maretha live with Berniece’s  Uncle Doaker having left Mississippi after the tragic killing of her husband. On this summer night (actually early morning), her brother Boy Willie bangs on the door waking up the whole family announcing he and his friend Lymon have arrived from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to sell. Suspicious of where they got the truck and the watermelons, Berniece isn’t happy about this 5 AM “wake-up” call. Besides, she’s always suspected her brother had some involvement in her husband’s death. What Boy Willie doesn’t divulge right away is his plan to sell the beloved, hand-carved piano that belonged to their mother in order to complete his plan (along with the sale of the watermelons) to buy the property in Mississippi where their family were once slaves.

Bob Mitchell tries to hold back Sharisa Whatley from attacking Ronald L. Conner in "The Piano Lesson" at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Bob Mitchell tries to hold back Sharisa Whatley from attacking Ronald L. Conner in “The Piano Lesson” at the Black Rep. Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Avery, a suitor to Berniece’s favors, has become a preacher and is seeking a loan to start his own ministry. And Doaker’s older brother, Wining Boy, has escaped the ravages of Mississippi as well to become a gambler/piano player who always seems to show up when his “bag of money” runs low. Add to the mix a “friendly” lady that Boy Willie and Lymon run into at the local tavern, and you’ve got a lively cast of characters. The off-an-on relationships of this family are mostly centered on the big argument about the piano which Berniece sees as an heirloom linking them to the past while Boy Willie just sees it as his chance to get his “piece of the pie.” Other-earthly interventions shake up this constant bickering and quite a few surprises and unexpected alliances make for an entertaining look at how disputes can break a family apart and just as quickly bring them together.

Ronald L. Conner is outstanding as Boy Willie. His tenacious grip on his plans and how to carry them out blind him to everything else in his life. Equally entertaining is Chauncy Thomas as his buddy, Lymon. His drunken encounter with Berniece is both touching and downright hilarious. Sharisa Whatley shines as the determined Berniece who doesn’t want her daughters’ or her life shattered by the unrealistic dreams of her brother.

Bob Mitchell is the voice of reason as Doaker. Continually trying to keep the peace, he doesn’t want to see his life disrupted either. Ethan H. Jones is delightful as the free and easy Wining Boy. He’s always looking for a way to make a buck or two and doesn’t seem to mind who he takes advantage of along the way. Robert Lee Davis, III is properly pompous as the newly ordained minister. He shows his true colors when he attempts to “exorcise” the demons in the Charles home. Rounding out the cast are the lovely Carli Officer as Maretha and Candice Jeanine with a wonderful turn as the “lady of the evening” who shows equal attention to Boy Willie and the later when she hooks up with Lymon.

Ronald L. Conner and Sharisa Whatley confront each other early in the Black Rep's production of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson." Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Ronald L. Conner and Sharisa Whatley confront each other early in the Black Rep’s production of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson.” Photo: Stewart Goldstein

Director Lorna Littleway has brought every nuance of this great August Wilson play to the stage. The characters are vivid and full of life and the unexpected a cappella version of “Alberta” with the four men at the end of the first act- complete with foot stomping bass- is a highlight in a play that truly delivers the goods. The Tim Case set design is perfect and Jim Burwinkel’s lights add to the atmosphere while Daryl Harris’ costumes fit the bill as well. It’s a total production and a good sign that this- the 36th season of the Black Rep- could be a banner year.

Call the box office at 314-534-3810 or go online at http://www.theblackrep.org for tickets or more information.

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