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LA Theater Review

The Piano Lesson

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Among August Wilson's seminal cycle of 10 plays that examines the history and psychology of the African-American experience in deeply passionate dramatizations, this one looks at the lives of a 1930s Pittsburgh family. The story opens in a house where Doaker Charles (Alex Morris) lives with his niece, Berniece (Vanessa Bell Calloway), and her 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (DaShawn R. Barnes). Prominent in Joel Daavid's nicely articulated set is a piano intricately carved with images of Charles' ancestors. Unexpectedly, Berniece's brother, Boy Willie (Russell Andrews), and his partner, Lymon (Roscoe C. Freeman), arrive with a plan to sell the piano. Boy Willie wants to buy the land on which his ancestors were slaves, so he can finally feel on an equal footing with white businessmen. Berniece blames Boy Willie for the death of her husband while the men were caught stealing, and she has no intention of letting him sell the piano.

Wilson's slice of life is particularly absorbing: It focuses not only on these members of the family but others who are interconnected: Avery (Julius Tennon), a preacher who wants to marry Berniece; Wining Boy (Ben Guillory), Doaker's alcoholic brother, a failed musician; and Grace (Tammi Mae), a party girl Boy Willie brings home after a night on the town. All flesh out the conflicts of the story with a Southern sensibility.

Calloway's realistic portrayal of Berniece is outstanding. Surrounded by men with all sorts of flaws, she perseveres, hoping that her daughter can have a prosperous future. Morris, too, delivers a fine, authentic characterization. Wilson's supernatural ending is far-fetched, but director Claude Purdy pulls out all the stops to great effect, as the characters do battle with a slave master's ghost. The real pleasure of the play, though, is in the revelations of individual characters' aspirations in the context of their beginnings.

Presented by Stagewalkers in association with 444 Productions at the Hayworth Theatre,

2509 Wilshire Blvd., L.A.

Thu.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat. 3 & 8 p.m., Sun. 3 p.m. Nov. 2-Dec. 8.

(800) 838-3006. www.brownpapertickets.com.

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