When Tony and Emmy-nominee Danielle Brooks was 17 years old, at home in Greenville, S.C., she picked up a copy of August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” a canon of 10 plays spanning the 20th century which chronicled African American life in its most vivid, lyrical and intimate settings yet written for the stage.
Sifting through the collection, she picked out “The Piano Lesson” and read it, thumbing across the names of African American actors and actresses whom she didn’t yet know.
“Today is about preservation,” she told Variety on Thursday at the opening night of the first Broadway revival of “The Piano Lesson,” in which Brooks stars as Berniece alongside Samuel L. Jackson and John David Washington.
“That’s what excited me about his work,” she said of the production, directed by Tony nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson. “I want to preserve and give reverence to my family. And not just my family, but the women who’ve come before me in this industry. I think about Alfre Woodard, about S. Epetha Merkerson, who originally played Berniece. I remember looking at their names, so intrigued to find out who they were.”
“The Piano Lesson,” which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, returns to Broadway in its original form—not adapted, cut, or mutated, as is the trend with many revivals this season, like “1776” and “Death of a Salesman” which seek to find new meaning in their source material. In defiance of Broadway’s most contemporary impulses, Jackson’s production declares what it is already known about August Wilson: Shakespearean in his grasp of African American language and dialect—his distillation of place, language and character spaciously rendered—Wilson’s plays are immutable.
“When we first started this, I was so nervous because they said we weren’t cutting anything,” Brooks continued outside the theater before her opening night performance. “It’s so repetitive. It’s long, but there’s a reason for it. I understand that reasoning now.”
Set in Pittsburgh in 1936—midway between Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” and “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” frames a central question of legacy—of what it is like to hold strife and pride in the same hand—in the context of a simple family dispute: In the intimate canvas of a family home, ghosts of enslavement bear down on Berniece when her brother, Boy Willie, arrives from the South to sell a precious family heirloom in exchange for land. Carved with the faces of their enslaved ancestors and stolen from their slaver, the piano at the play’s center transposes the long shadow of slavery into Berniece’s pride for her family’s history. In Berniece and Boy Willie’s conflict are—equally true—either side of the same question.
“I heard somebody say once that when it comes to people who come before us, once you forget, that’s when their spirit dies,” Brooks explained to Variety. “That’s the thing I’m trying to hold onto for my people in this play, and it’s the question which Wilson is wrestling with: How do we celebrate our legacy without it crushing us?”
Inside the theater on opening night—arguably one of the most anticipated tickets of the fall season—guests including Uma Therman, Whoopi Goldberg, Reverend Al Sharpton, George C. Wolfe, Patti LuPone, Joel Grey, Magic Johnson and Sunny Hostin took their seats.
Spike Lee, whose own career has endeavored to match Wilson in its vibrant, archival, and complicated rendering of Black life, had few words to offer before sitting down. “August is one of the great writers of all time,” he said, offering sarcastically: “Black folks, we’re part of history.”
At curtain call, Lee rushed to the foot of the stage to get a closer look, where director Jackson joined her husband and cast.
“I’m just reimagining,” Jackson said as the first woman to direct Wilson’s work—sometimes challenged for its lack of female characters—on Broadway. “I’m hopeful that more women will step up to the plate and do it.”
”It’s only by passing through life that we actually see these things,” she finished, as if holding up her play like a prism.