Critical reviews for The Piano Lesson all echo a sentiment of feeling the production nearly nailed it. Though full of strong performances all around, most felt the play was directed a bit unevenly and that design and select moments were pushed just a bit too far. Simpler and subtler moments were praised, like Samuel L. Jackson’s piano monologue and Danielle Brooks’ small stage business. Even if slightly out of tune from time to time, this phenomenal play stands strong, like the beautiful carved piano at its center.
The New York Times Review of The Piano Lesson
And yet even among Wilson’s outstanding and occasionally surreal plays, “The Piano Lesson,” both a family drama and a ghost story, stands out as one of the odder works. It’s a mix of themes and tones, both concrete and ethereal, ghoulish and comedic, but the imbalanced direction here, by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, overemphasizes the horror too literally; it works best on a metaphorical level. The performances are, in almost every case, engaging. Michael Potts…is perfection as Doaker’s brother Wining Boy. … Part of what’s missing in this mostly entertaining but often underwhelming “Piano Lesson” is the sense that this is a reality we’ve lived ourselves.
Variety Review of The Piano Lesson
Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson emphasizes — indeed, embellishes — the spooky parts of the story, which is the fourth chapter (and one of the most popular) in Wilson’s interlocking 10-play series, “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” In this formidable undertaking, Wilson tracks the Black experience across each decade of the 20th century. … The play’s characters are so individually well-formed and collectively solid that their voices have a way of lingering in the mind, and Wilson’s language is dramatic lyricism of a very high order. When his modest characters speak their minds, they can sound profound.
New York Post Review of The Piano Lesson
The revival of “The Piano Lesson,” which opened Thursday night on Broadway, is mostly in tune. The August Wilson play’s greatest asset is its young leads John David Washington and Danielle Brooks, both of whom are already widely admired, but display an altogether new and enticing range of skills. … Doaker, played by Jackson, listens more than he shows off, so the part can be thankless. Jackson gives him a lot of charm — he’s Samuel L. Jackson! — but his most consequential moment — a monologue in which he explains the complicated and harrowing backstory of the piano — fizzles. … What the production — directed by LaTanya Richardson Jackson, wife of Samuel L. — never quite nails is the ghost story that hovers over the living room drama and how best to marry the two. So it leans too heavily on dreary scenery.
The Hollywood Reporter Review of The Piano Lesson
[U]neven direction — often too emphatic or literal with a text that rewards a more delicate touch — is one of the chief flaws of this handsomely mounted production. … Wilson’s plays operate on the power of language that flows through his characters like music, not on over-the-top effects. … In his Broadway debut, Washington comes on full of swagger and bluster, a high-energy force and a big talker as the part demands. Perhaps it’s intimidating acting this role alongside the original Boy Willie, but Washington has no place to go from there and the performance lacks modulation. … The same applies to a lesser extent to Brooks…[whose] stubborn, don’t-mess-with-me indignation as Berniece could use more variation.