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Time Out Review: "The Piano Lesson"

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August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning play "The Piano Lesson" returns to the New York boards, courtesy of off-Broadway's Signature Center. Time Out New York's David Cote filed the following report for NY1.

August Wilson’s 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson is something of a ghost story. There’s an actual ghost knocking around the house, terrifying the characters. However, you could say that many of Wilson’s plays in his 10-piece Century Cycle are ghost stories, haunted by the specter of slavery and its aftermath.

That tragic legacy is embodied in the upright piano, which forms the dramatic crux of the play. Originally bought by Southern slaveholders, who owned the main characters' forebears, it is carved with figures representing those slaves.

The instrument is jointly owned by Berniece, played by Roslyn Ruff, and her brother Boy Willie, played by Brandon J. Dirden. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano so he can buy land down south, and Berniece refuses.

This battle of wills plays out against a backdrop of bloody family history and the slowly emerging social mobility of African-Americans in 1936, the year the play is set. Berniece tells her impatient brother he cannot convert a family heirloom into cash. Boy Willie wants to secure a future.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson intimately knows the rhythms of Wilson’s dramatic voice - musical, polyphonic and dense as a novel - and he commands an impeccable ensemble. Ruff is a stern but loving force of nature. Dirden is a whirl of pent-up ambition. As Wining Boy, a bluesman turned moocher and dandy, the magisterial Chuck Cooper lets his deep, rich voice roll all over Wilson’s poetry. In all, the cast is superb.

Like other Wilson plays, The Piano Lesson has its overwritten stretches, as Wilson stuffs his plays with almost too much memory, storytelling and detail. However, there’s plenty of lovely, haunting music here, played by an exquisite ensemble.

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