“You can’t sell your soul for money,” Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) tells Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden) in August Wilson’s grand drama The Piano Lesson. Berniece wants to convince her impatient brother that he cannot convert a family heirloom—an upright piano engraved with portraits of slave forebears—into mere cash. Boy Willie says he doesn’t want to sell his soul; he just wants to turn a pile of wood into money to buy land. We understand both siblings’ points, but don’t expect an easy resolution. The battle between the past-erasing pragmatist and the legacy-protecting idealist is one that runs all through Wilson’s ten-play Century Cycle, and it reaches operatic intensity in this ghost-filled, blues-drenched 1990 masterpiece.
Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson intimately knows the rhythms and timbre of Wilson’s polyphonic, novelistic voice, having acted in and staged several of his works. And he has an impeccable ensemble. Ruff is a forbidding force of nature, Dirden a dervish of pent-up ambition. As Wining Boy, a bluesman turned moocher and dandy, the magisterial Chuck Cooper lets his basso profundo roll all over Wilson’s poetry.
The Piano Lesson has its obvious, overwritten patches, and some supernatural effects in the final scene come across as too broad and literal, but there’s much lovely, haunting music to be savored here, played by an exquisite ensemble.—David Cote
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