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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
At first, it's just an entertaining bit of music, and then you realize it has changed the play.
In the first act of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, now in a celebrated revival at Signature Theatre, a group of men gather around a kitchen table in Pittsburgh in 1936. These men knew each other down South, where many of them toiled on Parchment Prison Farm and all of them faced the racism of white families who were slave owners just a few decades before.
And even though they've made it up north, even though several of them have good jobs and all of them have big dreams, they can't quite escape those awful legacies. There's a literal ghost in this Pittsburgh house---the spirit of a white man who used to torment them---and there's a piano in the corner whose intricate carvings represent the bloody history of the characters' ancestors. These specters touch everything in the play.
The legacy takes yet another form when the men gather around the kitchen table and start to sing. Good-natured banter evolves into an a cappella rendition of "Berta, Berta," a prison song from the Parchment days. (Wilson wrote it especially for the play.) One at a time, the men add their voices, until everyone is singing about a woman named Berta and why she shouldn't wait for a man who's stuck at Parchment Farm.
In the Signature revival, which is directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, "Berta, Berta" begins as a playful performance, but it evolves into an explosion of grief. Voices dance around each other, shouting and moaning and whispering the notes, while hands and feet pound a somber rhythm. For a moment, the song creates a sense of anguished reverence in the theatre, as though monks were invoking a spirit with their chanting.
"That segment is storytelling," says Chuck Cooper, who plays Wining Boy, a shiftless but lovable musician whose brother died after reclaiming the family's piano. "That segment is the musical chapter of Parchment Farm, and there are many colors in that, from horror and desperation to moments of hope and redemption."
Crucially, the song changes in every performance. "There's a general skeleton over which the skin is improvised," says Cooper, who is on the far left of the photo above. "If you saw it several nights in a row, you would recognize it, but you would see different brush strokes." Those fluctuations underscore the song's power as a lively storytelling tool.
But it's also a historical reference. Wilson wrote "Berta, Berta" in the tradition of slave and prison worksongs, and those resonances are crucial to the play. "One of the things August said, and I'm paraphrasing, is that African-American history is written in our music, in the blues," Cooper says. "August has always been able to give voice to people who had no voice. The people I speak of are black people, my ancestors, the people I grew up knowing and the people my mother and father grew up knowing and my grandparents grew up knowing."
This puts unique demands on an actor. As Cooper says, "The ancestral connection and memory that is encapsulated in his work requires my highest attention and effort and respect. It's very different from doing Shakespeare or Tennessee Williams, or even Lorraine Hansberry and Marcus Gardley. There's a 'blood memory'---August used to use that term---that runs through his work, and I find that when I'm immersed in it, things come to me on a much deeper level."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Joan Marcus