In the first act of “The Piano Lesson,” the main character Doaker gives an extended monologue detailing the history of the ornately carved piano sitting in his living room. It dates back to the days when his father and mother were enslaved by white Southerners.
“It was the story of our whole family, and as long as Sutter had it … he had us. Say we was still in slavery,” Doaker says in the show.
The monologue embodies the reverential attitude playwright August Wilson had towards personal and cultural history, an attitude the Yale Repertory Theatre shares toward its own storied past with Wilson.
On Thursday night, a revival of “The Piano Lesson” opened at the Yale Repertory Theatre, where the show was originally produced 24 years ago as one of ten plays Wilson wrote chronicling the African-American experience throughout each decade of the 20th century. The show marks the first time the theater has revived one of the six Wilson plays it originally produced, a decision that artistic director James Bundy said was made to celebrate the legacy of Wilson’s partnership with the Rep and to allow new artists to discover the work of the celebrated playwright.
“There’s a real joyous sense of homecoming on campus,” press director Steven Padla said. “There’s a deep love and respect for the history of August’s work at our theater.”
Wilson found a home at the Yale Rep in the 1980s under then-artistic director Lloyd Richards. A poem he wrote for the Rep in 1985 titled “Home” is included in program notes for “The Piano Lesson.”
The last time a Wilson play was performed at the Rep was in April 2005 when “Radio Golf” had its debut, just six months before the playwright’s death. This play, which takes place in the 1990s, completed his “Century Cycle.”
“Coming back to New Haven [for “Radio Golf”] fits in perfectly,” Wilson said in The New York Times at the time. “There’s something poetic about it. It feels right.”
Bundy said the theater was particularly excited about the opportunity the production presents to “bridge the generations” of artists who have experience working with Wilson’s plays and those who are new to them.
Within the eight-member cast, three actors have performed in previous productions of “The Piano Lesson,” including Keith Randolph Smith, who was an understudy and a standby in the original Broadway production in 1987. For others, like Eisa Davis, who plays Bernice, this show is their first chance to do a play by Wilson.
Davis said that as an actor she appreciates the depth of Wilson’s characters.
“He’s got characters that are fleshed out completely through passionate words and a story that makes everyone jump,” Davis said. “He [has] both documented and imagined voices that are exceptional.”
THE MODERN “PIANO LESSON”
The cast has benefited from the perspective and stories of actors like Smith who have worked on Wilson’s shows in the past, she said.
Smith not only was a part of the original Broadway run of “The Piano Lesson,” but he was also a standby for the Broadway production of Wilson’s “Fences” starring Denzel Washington last spring, and he has appeared in several other Wilson plays. He said he admires the way Wilson’s work celebrates and explores African-American culture not in comparison to others but on its own.
Despite his experience with Wilson’s plays, Smith said he has learned from his director Liesl Tommy as well as his fellow actors during this process.
“I’m a student and I’ll be a student until the end,” Smith said. “If you’re not open to learning new things about your art, then you’re going to be stuck with something that maybe worked 30 years ago, but might not work today.”
The production is the first time that Tommy herself has a directed a play by Wilson. Nonetheless, she has made the piece her own.
Tommy has emphasized making the show an ensemble piece where no one character or voice “trumpets” over the other, Davis said. She has also chosen to use music outside of the play’s time period for transition music.
“She is directing the play in a contemporary context, so when people hear music that isn’t exactly smack-dab from the 1930s in the production, they may get hints of other periods in contemporary history that relate to the play and the time of its composition,” Bundy said. “I think Liesl is very sensitive to the notion that there will be people in the audience who have seen the play before and also people in the audience who have not seen the play before, and there will be elements of the production that appeal to both of those groups”
“The Piano Lesson” runs at the Yale Repertory Theatre through February 19.