Monday, October 6, 2014

The Piano Lesson—Portland Playhouse—NE Portland

Haunted Lives

This award-winning play by August Wilson is part of his 10-decade cycle of stories about Afro-Americans.  It is directed by Kevin Jones and is playing at their site at 602 NE Prescott St. through November 2nd.  Artists Rep, and OSF in Ashland, have also done shows of the cycle by this author.  For more information, go to their site at

The Portland Playhouse is now, has been, and probably always will be one of the best interpreters of Wilson’s works.  There is unquestionably the talent here and they seem to have the passion for this brilliant writer that is unmatched.  The place is the Charles’s home in Pittsburg in the mid-1930’s.   Like in many of his stories, there is always the prodigal son or outsider that enters the picture and stirs things up.  And, as always, there are the ghosts from the past that will intrude upon the living.

Boy Willie (Bryant Bentley) comes home after a long time on the road.  He has arrived with his childhood friend, Lymon (Seth Rue), in a broken-down truck and a parcel of watermelons to sell.  The home is owned by his uncle, Doaker (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid) and the most prized possession in it is the old piano, moved up here from the South and a product of their heritage, as it is carved with the faces of their family, slaves in a disgraceful time in our country’s history.

His sister, Bernice (Chantal DeGroat), lives there, too, with her daughter, 12-year old, Maretha (Seraiah Hardy), the doorway into future generations.  Other visitors to this bridge between Past and Present are Wining Boy (“Ranney”), Doaker’s best friend, a man always out of money and looking for the next hustle.  There is the Preacher, Avery (Ronald Scott), Bernice’s beau, looking to build a church for all lost souls.  And Grace (Carmen Brantley-Payne), a gal just out for a good time.
And they all have their stories, either about them or some influential event in their life that molds and shapes them as to who they are today.  A common device in Wilson’s plays.

But the conflict of the tale is an age-old one.  The struggle of living and honoring one’s Past, one’s heritage, the Piano, built with blood, sweat and tears, or moving forward into the Present, by selling it to ensure future dreams, in this case, to buy land.  Family dynamics are never easy to deal with and can be explosive, as is the case with this brood.  It’s really not a question of who’s right or who’s wrong but how to do both.  When your memories tug at you from behind and your dreams entice you forward, what is the solution?

In this case, it is taken out of their hands, as the Ghosts from the Yellow Dogs come calling.  Like forlorn whistles in the night, warning of dire consequences if ignored or forgotten, the battle is brought to an explosive conclusion by the end of the story.  We are who we are because of our heritage, not in spite of it.  And, as has been said, if we cannot solve the mistakes from the Past, then we are bound to repeat them.  So blindly forging ahead is not the answer.  Instead we must hold out our hands to our ancestors and walk slowly forward with them to, hopefully, a better tomorrow.

Jones has done an excellent job of casting and presenting this story.  You feel as if you’re really there, shamefully spying into a neighbor’s yard, painfully aware that rhythm of their songs may march in cadence with your own.  He has woven a rich tapestry of human foibles and fears, never making judgments but allowing us to witness lives in constant motion.

And it is certainly one of the best ensemble casts I have seen.  It is as if you want to reach out your hand, help the little girl up the stairs and guard her from the dark at the top of them.  They are all so real and touchable that you feel that you might make a difference if you could just walk into their world.  And, just maybe, that is part of the point of the play.

I highly recommend this play.  If you do choose to see it, please tell them that Dennis sent you.

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