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Strong Spirits

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August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-wining play The Piano Lesson, which opens at the Hattiloo Theatre this weekend, is an atypical ghost story and a potent family drama. Set in the 1930s, the fourth play of Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle finds the Charles family fighting over their future while wrestling with horrors from the past. The drama begins when Boy Willie, an ex-con, and his friend Lymon steal a truck in Mississippi, fill the bed with watermelons, and head to Pittsburgh to visit Willie's uncle Doaker and his sister Bernice. In addition to selling the melons, Willie hopes to sell the family's only heirloom, a piano that's been carved with images of his ancestors. He's prepared to sell this one connection to the past in order to purchase the land his family once worked as slaves, even if it means tearing his family apart.

Theatergoers who missed T.C. Sharpe's boisterous take on Troy Maxon, a Negro League heavy-hitter turned garbage man in August Wilson's Fences, missed one of the last decade's most exciting performances. But Sharpe, a versatile performer with a knack for wringing every drop of meaning from Wilson's prose, is back at the Hattiloo this season in the pivotal, if less flashy, role of Uncle Doaker, the play's chief storyteller. Sharpe is joined by Cooli Crawford as Boy Willie, Mary Pruitt as Bernice, and Anthony Bell as a past-his-prime blues singer called the Whining Boy. The show is directed by Hattiloo's founding producer, Ekundayo Bandele, who says he's attracted to Wilson's plays because of "the cultural nuances that are throughout each script."

"I especially like The Piano Lesson because of the otherworldly references and the honorable mention he gives to the African tradition of ancestor reverence," Bandele says.

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