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The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson

by Cammy Paglia 

Tony Award nominee Latanya Richardson Jackson makes her directorial debut in the Broadway revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Piano Lesson, a masterpiece that not only tugs on your soul, it forces the mind to venture into the ugly truth which underlies the story of America’s shameful past. The play transports you through time and location spreading nuggets of ancestral history along the way. It is complex but there is nothing more complex than the legacy of slavery. 


The star-studded cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Brooks, will leave you questioning and wondering about this story, reverberating for years to come. This extraordinary mix of talent brings forth an explosive production of genius. 


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Danielle Brooks. Photo by Julieta Cervantes


The Piano Lesson tells the tale of a railroad company, a preacher, and a ghost. The play centers around an ornately carved heirloom piano dating back to the family’s ties to slavery, and pits brother and sister against each other in a power struggle between two family members with strong feelings about the best way to make use of this majestic instrument. 


The piano is stolen by Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson) with help. Doaker is the uncle of Boy Willie (John David Washington) and Berniece (Danielle Brooks). Doaker and Berneice live together with Berniece’s young daughter, Maretha (Nadia Daniel) in Pittsburgh, where the piano resides. Boy Willie lives down south but arrives in Pittsburgh with Lymon (Ray Fisher), a friend, with designs to sell the piano so he can buy the land where his family was enslaved. 

Beatrice is dead set against selling the piano because of its historical significance and its powerful legacy. Willie Boy, their ancestor, was ordered to carve the magnificent instrument by his slaveowner, Sutter, and does so by including the faces of his wife and child who were traded for the piano. The piano itself is now much more than a mere device for entertainment but rather stands as a legacy to the Charles’ family history. Samuel L. Jackson as Doaker is the calming force in the middle of the controversy. His performance is sublime. John David Washington’s Boy Willie is charismatic and powerful.


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Samuel L. Jackson and Ray Fisher. Photo by Julieta Cervantes


To make an inanimate object the focal point of the The Piano Lesson requires inimitable artistic gifts. August Wilson’s play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh but spans over decades, dating back to when the members of the African American Charles family was enslaved in rural Mississippi. The intricacies of the family dynamics between Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie unfold in the form of their tempestuous war.  The fate of the exquisite piano carved by their enslaved great grandfather, Willie Boy, hangs in the balance. 


Scenic Design is credited to Beowulf Boritt. It is striking. Costume Design is by Toni-Leslie James.  Japhy Weideman’s Lighting Design is masterful. It is showcased so skillfully in the scenes involving the ghost of Sutter, the slave owner who was possibly a victim of murder in order to steal his piano. Scott Lehrer leaves one thunderstruck with his compelling Sound Design, which comes into play most effectively around the appearance of Sutter’s ghost.


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The cast of The Piano Lesson. Photo by Julieta Cervantes


The Piano Lesson is a journey through time but be prepared to fasten your seatbelts and hold on tight. The ride is nothing short of electrifying.

The Piano Lesson
Ethel Barrymore Theater
Runs Until January 29, 2023 
Tickets $74-288

For Tickets Call:
212 239 6200 or