The plays of August Wilson lend themselves to two kinds of productions. There's rich August Wilson, and then there's long August Wilson. Over the years we've seen both treatments at the Black Rep. Eight months ago the company triumphed with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. But the current staging of Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson feels very long indeed. Although the production clocks in at nearly three hours, I'm not talking about time-long. Rather, I refer to an aimless long that ensues when a play's nuances remain so untapped that there's no reason for a viewer to become involved.
First staged in 1987 and then developed at various regional theaters during the next two years, The Piano Lesson is an ambitious and challenging work set in the 1930s, as America was shifting from an agrarian to an urban society. The plot focuses on a family rooted in slavery. Three generations earlier, members of Boy Willie's family were traded away from a Mississippi plantation in return for a piano. Now the sale of that piano, which was stolen from the plantation and taken to Pittsburgh, can allow Boy Willie (Ronald L. Conner) to purchase the same soil upon which his slave forebears once toiled.
But there's a problem. The piano resides in the home of Boy Willie's estranged sister, Berniece (Sharisa Whatley). For Berniece to part with that piano would be to sever the connection to her family heritage. Ugly though that heritage may have been, this piano is not for sale. So ensues an epic clash of wills between siblings, a debate over past versus future. Not that the narrative begins and ends with brother and sister. Other characters personify various degrees of ambition, idealism, pragmatism and fatalism. Nearly everyone in The Piano Lesson (indeed, nearly everyone in all of August Wilson's plays) is a loquacious storyteller.
Alas, little of the script's complex and subtle values are fleshed out in this current staging. Countless words get spoken to little effect. At the Black Rep, The Piano Lesson is not merely discursive; it is static. At times the evening feels more like a staged reading than a full production. There's a sense here that the actors did not receive ample rehearsal time, because nearly everyone (some more effectively than others) is operating on a surface level. Act Two builds to an exorcism of sorts. In his script, Wilson describes this climactic sequence as "a life-and-death struggle fraught with perils and faultless terror." The Black Rep staging of that scene is woefully short of Wilson's intentions. But how could it be otherwise when nothing earlier in the evening has prepared the way for this explosion of emotion?
So opening night was not a rewarding experience. From the moment when founder and producing director Ron Himes appeared onstage to welcome the audience to this first performance of the Black Rep's 36th season — and stood talking in the dark until he finally had to ask someone to turn a light on him — and continuing till play's end, when the stage lights went down on Act Two and took so long to be restored for the curtain call that the audience had ceased to applaud, the evening did not jell.
Perhaps the Grandel Theater light board is hopelessly outdated, or perhaps that board is beyond the capacity of those who are charged with running it. But the problems don't stop with lights. There are concerns here — concerns that extend well beyond a single production — that need to be addressed. The playbill, as usual, contains unnecessary confusions (names, for instance, that receive different spellings on different pages). In this same playbill, the Black Rep proclaims itself as "one of the nation's leading professional theater companies." The time for a clear definition of the adjective professional is long overdue. One can only turn a blind eye for so long.