This fall August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson returns to Broadway for the first time since its initial run more than 30 years ago. The play is one of 10 in Wilson’s American Century Cycle (or Pittsburgh Cycle, as its also known; all but one take place in the city), all of which have been produced on Broadway stages. Each installment depicts a different decade and delivers a new take on the lives of African Americans in the 20th century. Both The Piano Lesson (1987), the story of a brother and sister locked in a dispute with their uncle over the fate of a valuable family heirloom, and Fences (1985) won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. The renaming of the historic Virginia Theater in Wilson’s honor in 2005, shortly after his death, further sealed his legacy in the NYC theater world.
The new production features veteran Broadway actress LaTanya Richardson Jackson in her directorial debut; her movie star husband, Samuel L. Jackson, who was involved in the original show; John David Washington, in his first Broadway appearance (his father, Denzel, won a Tony for his role in Fences back in 2010); and Danielle Brooks, returning to Broadway after being a Tony nominee for The Color Purple and a producer on Ain’t Too Proud. The production, like the play itself, is a family affair, and its path back to Broadway has been a long time coming—a story told best by the contributors themselves.
The following has been lightly edited and condensed from press and email interviews.
On the Journey
LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Director: This is a life dream…something that’s been in my heart for a long time.
Samuel L. Jackson, “Doaker Charles”: I did the production at Yale and it was great. [When] Charles Dutton was doing Crocodile Dundee II I had the opportunity to create Boy Willie again, and became very attached to it. Probably too much. By the time the play came to Broadway and I was an understudy [Dutton had reassumed the role], I was pretty much devastated that I wasn’t going to make my Broadway debut. So it’s kind of interesting to come back in this way and to be Doaker, and to listen to John David create Boy Willie and find my way into my character, in terms of who I am, how I’ve matured as an actor, and to support the play in a different way than I was able to support it before.
John David Washington, “Boy Willie”: It‘s an honor to be able to experience this with our leader, LaTanya Jackson. She’s teaching me about process and what my process really is or should be. I feel like I’m in grad school, like I’m becoming a different artist, an artist that I want to be.
Danielle Brooks, “Berniece”: This role means a lot to me. This was what I used, this monologue of Berniece, to get into Juilliard, to start my journey as an actress. To get to play Berniece now, with the leadership of LaTanya, getting to learn from Sam, getting to work with my brother, John David, it’s a gift. But I feel like I’m ready for it and I’m excited to share this story with the world.
Trai Byers, “Avery”: I went to Yale School of Drama, [where] these monologues made actors like myself and the countless others that we all know and watch and love. These are the pieces that we did scene studies with. I mean, it’s extraordinary. The very last thing I did at Yale School of Drama was understudying as Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, and I never thought I’d play Avery or anybody on Broadway or any other stages as far as August Wilson is concerned. To be here doing this is just magnificent.
Ray Fisher, “Lymon”: I used to bartend for the theaters on Broadway, and the [Ethel Barrymore] theater that we’re gonna be performing The Piano Lesson in is one of the theaters where I used to bartend. Ironically enough…one of the shows that I also was one of the bartenders [for] was Fences, when it starred Denzel Washington and Viola Davis. Now I get to be in an August Wilson piece on Broadway for my Broadway debut, and I get to be in it with another member of the Washington family.
April Matthis, “Grace”: This is the first time I’ve gotten to do August Wilson after being a reader of his since I was in school. The first time I saw Wilson live was really great, and it felt like the grown folks talking in my family. And to be part of the grown folks’ conversation that I grew up with, which is August’s language, it just sounds like my family and the people I grew up around. I’m from the South, Texas, so the language just makes a lot of sense to me. I hear my father, grandfather, grandmother, aunties. I feel like I’m embodying them, like a home that I’ve been waiting to come to.
On Working Together
LaTanya Richardson Jackson: Because I’ve been with him [Samuel] for 53 years, it becomes a sort of coded situation to talk to him. It’s tender, but we’re there to service August’s work.
I’m approaching it from the standpoint of, Look, I’m a servant here to lift what August Wilson has given us—this great gift. So I invite you all to be in the service of his tenet for this.
I have to sometimes remind myself, OK, you have to be a little more professional. John David has reminded me: “Auntie, we’re gonna be professional now.” I’m trying to allow them to flourish. Sam is a different story because he is very determined about what he knows. And he knows a lot. Not more than me. But it’s different, a lot of times, in what you see, because you’re on this [the director’s] side of the stage versus when you’re on the stage. So I’m trying to let him lead, but to sort of usher him along in a certain way. And he’s been very good about that. Vocal, but at least he’ll do it.
Samuel L. Jackson: Sort of, what she said.
April Matthis: Sam and Danielle’s ad libs during rehearsal are hilarious. They’re both just naturally funny and their sense of humor comes through even in these weighty, grounded characters.
Danielle and I had a lot of mutual friends but didn’t really know each other. I was a fan of hers and she was immediately so warm and friendly. She cracks me up offstage, so it’s fun to spar with her onstage.
[John David and] I met in this process. He’s so generous, game and very physical—we have a lot of mutual respect and we keep a sense of play in the air. We dance into the scene to establish and keep that buoyancy alive and active.
On the Importance of August Wilson’s Work
April Matthis: It’s a snapshot of a turning point in Black American life where we began to ask a question that we’re still trying to answer across generations: how do we as Black people reconcile the fact of slavery with our identity as Americans still seeking our own version of the American dream?
Constanza Romero Wilson (August Wilson’s widow): It’s for us all to remember where we came from. I think that all of these stories of August Wilson are American stories, and we need to remember, we need to see where we have been, in order to know where we’re going. This whole new movement of Black Lives Matter, August was saying that in all of his plays. He was yelling loud and clear, “Black lives matter,” and that’s why it’s important.
Danielle Brooks: The thing that I love about August Wilson is that, yes, he’s brought us Black stories but they are universal stories. They’re heart stories. They’re stories that everybody can relate to. I feel that August has provided us a way in for everyone. This story is about family, but during this pandemic a lot of people have lost family, lost connection. I think that this story reminds us to hold on to that—to build, to reconnect, to not forget—so I think that’s why this is still relevant.
Trai Byers: It is very special to be opening on Broadway. This is one of the biggest stages in the world, with so much history and prestige. This story, in particular, is one rife with culture, history, humor and honor. The timing is perfect.
Constanza Romero Wilson: [There] was a time when August had Fences going, I think on 46th Street, and he had Joe Turner’s Come and Gone on 47th [like The Piano Lesson, at the Barrymore Theatre]. And so he would cross over through the Hotel Edison and go from Fences to Joe Turner. It was, for him, more than a dream come true. I don’t think that he ever even imagined that he would make his mark here in New York. So New York meant a lot to him.
LaTanya Richardson Jackson: Broadway is the heartbeat, the pulse, the sparkplug of New York. People from around the world come here and they see a great show, they talk about it and they go out as ambassadors [of] New York into the world. It’s a great way for people to be in this City, to see all of the great sites that are here, [and] to be a part of this great town.
The Piano Lesson began previews at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on September 19, 2022, and runs through January 29, 2023. Visit pianolessonplay.com for tickets and additional information.