“I was around when August came in and presented eight pages of a new speech that we had to release that night because we were doing previews – and you run and you do it,” says Samuel L. Jackson. He thinks back to 1987, when he originated the role of Boy Willie in August Wilson’s play The piano lesson at the Yale Repertory Theater. He considers the late playwright ‘the black Shakespeare’, but says: ‘Man, that was a lot of words. It was exhausting. »
This fall, John David Washington stars as Boy Willie in a Broadway revival directed by Jackson’s wife of 42 years, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, and—because Jackson himself will appear as Boy Willie’s uncle, Doaker Charles—he will do this by standing on stage with the man who first gave flesh and blood to the character. “I come as a student,” Washington said in a double interview with his partner. “I come to learn as much as I can from our manager, LaTanya, and from this man here.” Washington has known Jackson since he was a toddler, thanks to Jackson’s friendship with his father, Denzel. Still, it seems like it would be daunting to recreate the role right in front of him. Jackson dismisses the idea. “He didn’t see me do it,” he says, then playfully adds, “but I killed that shit.” Washington laughs: “And the ghosts, as in the theme of the play, will haunt us forever.”
The piano lesson, which won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1990, is set in the Charles home in Pittsburgh in 1936, as Boy Willie and his sister, Berniece (Danielle Brooks), fight over the fate of the family’s prized piano. and confront the good and evil spirits it evokes. Boy Willie is an impetuous fighter eager to seize his share of the American dream even if it means worsening an already tumultuous relationship with his sister. He wants to sell the piano to buy land in Mississippi that their family worked on for decades as sharecroppers, and start building generational wealth. Berniece wants to keep the piano as a testimony to their tragic history; it is, after all, carved with images of their ancestors. Doaker, who delivers several of the play’s key speeches, wants the most elusive thing of all: peace.
Boy Willie and Berniece’s struggle over the piano summons the ghost of a dead landowner named Sutter, who terrorized the family down South. The malevolent spirit could be a stand-in for slavery, Jim Crow, white supremacy, or all of the above – and it’s this force that Richardson Jackson is most interested in fighting with on Broadway. “Let’s amplify that part,” she told me, flashing the most infectious smile you’ve ever seen. “Let’s look at this effin’ ghost.” Why is Sutter here? What does Sutter want? Why are we still talking about Sutter? We continue to conjure the ghost, but we don’t deal with it. We’re going to have to deal with that, and we’re going to deal with that in this one.
Richardson Jackson worshiped The piano lesson since seeing her husband play Boy Willie at Yale Rep. nominated for a 2014 Tony for Best Actress for Lorraine Hansberry’s grape in the sun and later played Calpurnia in Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of Kill a mockingbird. “I’m quick to tell everyone: August Wilson didn’t create the language, but he was able to capture it better than anyone I’ve ever read or seen. He writes it and I hear my grandparents. Wilson’s dialogue, she says, reminds her of her grandfather who goes off to play checkers and “slap talk.”
Wilson’s monumental 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, including The piano lesson is a part, captures the undeniable joys and challenges of black life in earthy, colloquial, poetic and mysterious language that both reveals and obscures the intentions of the main characters. When I ask Richardson Jackson if she plans to reinvent one of the roles of The piano lesson– as Sorkin did when he amplified Calpurnia’s role in mockingbird-she says, “The way August wrote Berniece, it’s already dynamic. She is already ahead of the game. And with the incarnation of Danielle Brooks, it takes it to the next level.