Imagine an August Wilson play performed by the African American a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, and you’re getting close to the feeling evoked by Nambi E. Kelley’s lyrical “For Her as a Piano,” now in a world premiere with Pegasus Theatre Chicago.
Kelley is of course no stranger to Wilson’s work — her performance as Risa in the Goodman’s production last spring of “Two Trains Running” was justifiably lauded. But where guarded Risa speaks volumes through what she doesn’t say, letting her glances and deliberate walk reveal her inner turmoil, the women in “For Her as a Piano” contain verbal universes of language and legacy, poetry and pain. Tracing three generations of African American women’s experiences — political activist Sarah (Toya Turner), her thwarted musician mother Mary (Nadirah Bost), and defiant-but-broken grandmother Delores (Toni Lynice Fountain), the pioneer to Chicago in the Great Migration — Kelley provides an elliptical and frequently compelling fugue about how we wrestle with our personal family legacies.
“Fugue” is actually appropriate at a couple of levels. In addition to the contrapuntal interweaving of voices in Jaret Landon’s original compositions, the three women also occasionally exist in a sort of fugue state. This is most true for Mary, whose struggles with mental illness provide the generational connective tissue. As Kelley’s story flows back and forth between present and past, reality and fantasy, some narrative details get a bit fuzzy. But she almost always manages to bring it back around to one act committed by Mary when Sarah was a small child that reflects both Mary’s own tormented childhood and her inability to fully transcend that pain.
The presence of a piano throughout the three women’s histories feels like a tip of the hat to Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson,” where siblings fight over a piano whose carvings contain the history of their slave ancestors. Sarah’s tour guide through her family’s history is simply called “Piano.” As played by Camille Robinson (decked out in Brittany Bodley’s smart black-and-white costumes), the Piano seems at first strangely unsympathetic to Sarah’s despair. “Did anything good ever happen to us?” Sarah asks. The Piano, who calls up fresh bits of memory and evidence by plucking the vertical strings suspended on Lauren Nigri’s set, provides snapshots of horror as well as resistance that lead up to a hopeful — if perhaps too-pat — resolution.
Director Ilesa Duncan’s staging keeps the strings pulled tight. Like the Piano, Kelley’s play doesn’t spend much time nurturing self-pity, but rather suggests the collage of backstories — known and unknown — that make us who we are. There is also plenty of wit on hand here, and the chorus of supporting players not only deliver soaring harmonies, but also do generally strong work playing the men in the background of the women’s lives — from DuShon Brown as Sarah’s solid and thoughtful black radical activist father to Nicole Michelle Haskins as her podiatrist love interest, Bill, whom she meets while canvassing for Barack Obama.
But the personal trumps the political in Kelley’s story. Given the tendency of pop culture to diminish and negate the experiences of African American women, “For Her as a Piano” deserves warm consideration for its ability to embrace women who are troubled, flawed — and full of their own oddly affirming songs in the key of life.
By Kerry Reid from Chicago Tribune
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