29 December 2012

Military Wisdom (Not Necessarily an Oxymoron)

[These were sent to me by a friend recently and they’re quite wonderful.  And mostly all are absolutely true.  (Except the one about not leaving anything up in the sky.  It must have been coined before space flight as I believe there are still a few objects up there—including a couple of Russian cosmonauts and a dog or two.)

[Someone left off the wisest military comment, now universally known as Murphy's Law ('Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong').  Ed Murphy (1918-90) was an actual Air Force captain, so it qualifies.]

If the Enemy is in range, so are you.
—Infantry Journal

It is generally inadvisable to eject over the area you just bombed.
—U.S. Air Force Manual

Aim towards the Enemy.
—Instructions printed on U.S. rocket launcher

When the pin is pulled, Mr. Grenade is not our friend
—U.S. Marine Corps
Cluster bombing from B-52s is very, very accurate. The bombs are guaranteed always to hit the ground.
—USAF Ammo Troop

Whoever said the pen is mightier than the sword obviously never encountered automatic weapons.
—General Douglas MacArthur

Try to look unimportant; they may be low on ammo.
—Infantry Journal

You, you, and you.  Panic.  The rest of you come with me.
—U.S. Marine Gunnery Sergeant

Tracers work both ways.
—U.S. Army Ordnance

Five second fuses only last three seconds.
—Infantry Journal

Don't ever be the first, don't ever be the last, and don't ever volunteer to do anything.
—U.S. Navy swabbie

Bravery is being the only one who knows you're afraid.
—David Heckworth

If your attack is going too well, you're walking into an ambush.
—Infantry Journal

No combat-ready unit has ever passed inspection.
—Joe Gay

Any ship can be a minesweeper.  Once.

Never tell the Platoon Sergeant you have nothing to do
—Unknown Marine Recruit

Don't draw fire; it irritates the people around you.
If you see a bomb technician running, follow him
—USAF Ammo Troop

You've never been lost until you've been lost at Mach 3.
—Test pilot Paul F. Crickmore

The only time you have too much fuel is when you're on fire.
Blue water Navy truism: There are more planes in the ocean than submarines in the sky.
—From an old carrier sailor

If the wings are traveling faster than the fuselage, it's probably a helicopter—and therefore, unsafe.
When one engine fails on a twin-engine airplane, you always have enough power left to get you to the scene of the crash.
Without ammunition, the USAF would be just another expensive flying club.

What is the similarity between air traffic controllers and pilots?  If a pilot screws up, the pilot dies.  If ATC screws up . . . the pilot dies.

Never trade luck for skill.

The three most common expressions (or famous last words) in aviation are:  “Why is it doing that?”  “Where are we?”  And “Oh S - - - !”

Weather forecasts are horoscopes with numbers.

Airspeed, altitude and brains.  Two are always needed to complete the flight successfully.

Mankind has a perfect record in aviation; we never left one up there!

Flashlights are tubular metal containers kept in a flight bag to store dead batteries.

Flying the airplane is more important than radioing your plight to a person on the ground who is incapable of understanding or doing anything about it.

The Piper Cub is the safest airplane in the world; it can just barely kill you.
—Attributed to Northrop test pilot Max Stanley
A pilot who doesn't have any fear probably isn't flying his plane to its maximum.
— Astronaut Jon McBride

If you're faced with a forced landing, fly the thing as far into the crash as possible.
— Renowned aerobatic and test pilot Bob Hoover

A slipping gear could let your M203 grenade launcher fire when you least expect it.  That would make you quite unpopular in what's left of your unit.
—Army's magazine of preventive maintenance.

Never fly in the same cockpit with someone braver than you.
There is no reason to fly through a thunderstorm in peacetime.
—Sign over squadron ops desk at Davis-Monthan AFB, AZ, 1970

If something hasn't broken on your helicopter, it's about to.
Basic Flying Rules:  “Try to stay in the middle of the air.  Do not go near the edges of it.  The edges of the air can be recognized by the appearance of ground, buildings, sea, trees and interstellar space.  It is much more difficult to fly there.”

You know that your landing gear is up and locked when it takes full power to taxi to the terminal.

As the test pilot climbs out of the experimental aircraft, having torn off the wings and tail in the crash landing, the crash truck arrives, the rescuer sees a bloodied pilot and asks, “What happened?”  The pilot's reply, “I don't know, I just got here myself!”
—Attributed to Lockheed test pilot Ray Crandell

[I don’t know where these came from originally.  They sound a little like things that used to appear in Reader’s Digest—which had a regular feature called “Humor in Uniform”—but I have no idea.  The friend who sent them to me got them from someone else, so he doesn’t know the source, either.  I guess we’ll just have to pass them from hand to hand, like the old Soviet practice of samizdat, without ever knowing the origin of the collection.  Like a chain letter—without the curses or Ponzi-scheme promises of wealth.  Just chuckles and knowing smiles.  ~Rick]

24 December 2012

“Historic 1906 Film Captures S.F.'s Market Street”

[This story was first broadcast on the CBS magazine 60 Minutes on 17 October 2010 with Morley Safer as the correspondent, and updated on 21 June 2011.  It was recently aired on 10 July 2011.  I’ve chosen to post it on ROT simply because it’s such an interesting tale.  Not only is the film described in the story a true historic artifact in itself, but its provenance was only surmised.  It was simple detective—and a lot of terrific observation—work to learn the facts of the film’s creation, what happened to it afterwards, and when it was made.]
You’re about to take a short trip into the past, a remarkable glimpse of a footnote to history we first broadcast last April. It’s a film made more than 100 years ago on Market Street, San Francisco’s main thoroughfare.
In fascinating detail, it shows how people lived and dressed in what was then, as now, the Golden City of the American West. The film is well known to historians. 
But who made it and why, and most importantly, exactly when? For a century, time, like the fog that blankets San Francisco, has shrouded the answers. But now we know. The film is a time traveler’s glimpse of a joyous city on the brink of disaster. 
Our trip into the past begins on a San Francisco streetcar built in 1895.
“It still comes out once in awhile and carries passengers down the main street. It looks just like a cable car because it was built by the people who built the cable cars,” Rick Laubscher of the Market Street Railway, told correspondent Morley Safer as they set off on a trolley ride. 
The Market Street Railway is a non-profit group that keeps the city’s vintage trolleys rolling. “This is the main artery of San Francisco and always has been,” he told Safer.
Market Street is three miles long, 120 feet wide – the beating heart of the city since the days of the gold rush.
“This is where the original film started, right here about 8th Street,” Laubscher explained.
The black and white film makes the past come alive, thanks to a camera that was mounted on the front of a cable car a century ago, catching glimpses of fashion, faces, and the helter-skelter of city traffic – horses, trolley cars, and that new devil’s own invention, the motor car. 
“You can see when people turn to look at the camera, it was really the shock of the new. Can you imagine? Here comes this contraption down the street with these guys hand cranking this camera furiously,” Laubscher said.
Others had made films of San Francisco, starting in the 1890s. But the cameraman of this film had the good sense to simply turn it on and leave it on. 
“When you saw that film, what did you make of the people, the news boys, the cars, the horses, everything all happening at once right here on the tracks?” Safer asked.
“Yeah. I mean, you can see the people would circulate wildly. And they’re just kind of wandering across the street. You have these huge drays led by teamsters with four, sometimes eight horses hauling along,” Laubscher said.
“And it seems, watching the film, that there were absolutely no traffic rules,” Safer said, commenting on the traffic chaos the film captured.
“It seems like it. I mean, sort of, people, it was optional to stay to the right. But you know, it seemed to be honored in the breach. And there are people will tell you today that Market Street is still that way,” Laubscher said.
Looking back a century from the same spot on the same street is an eerie sight. Teddy Roosevelt was president then, life expectancy was 47 years for men, 50 for women, most of whom still couldn’t vote. No one ‘– man, woman or child' – went out without a hat.
The last few blocks of Market Street today are home to banks and brokers ‘– “Wall Street West.” A century ago, it was the wholesale district, offering coffee, tea, and spices. It was a time when a decent salary was $400 a year. 
“It’s left us an astonishing record, the likes of which we rarely see,” film archivist and historian Rick Prelinger told Safer.
Prelinger owns the clearest of the three surviving copies of the film. “This is over 100 years old, but the image quality is just absolutely excellent,” he said.
According to Prelinger, the film is extremely fragile. 
The version excerpted on “60 Minutes” is a digitally restored, high definition copy, seen for the first time on television.
“What is it that moves us so when we see something like this?” Safer asked.
“It’s uncanny, first off, to see something that’s so old, in almost an alternate universe, really,” Prelinger said. 
“I love when the little kid, in the carriage ahead of the streetcar and opens up that curtain and peeks out,” he added, commenting about a moment caught on film. “And then, at the very, very end, the streetcar turns around. And you have a glimpse of newsboys looking at the camera and waving, just for a few frames. It dazzles audiences. People applaud this film.”
The film ended at the Ferry Building on San Francisco Bay. The movie is a small gem about a much larger gem: this magnificent city on the hills. 
It’s more than even that: it’s a mystery, a mystery quite literally ripped, as they say, from the headlines of the past.
“It just seemed like it was an important film that something must have been written about it someplace. And why not try to figure it out? I’m like that,” movie historian David Kiehn told Safer.
Kiehn is a man obsessed with unlocking the secrets of the Market Street film. He spent days, weeks and months at the San Francisco Library, scanning old newspapers for clues. Judging from the state of the construction on various buildings along the way, the Library of Congress had dated the film to September 1905. 
Screening it over and over, Kiehn wasn’t so sure. “There’s some water between the tracks, there. Reflection,” he observed.
The film showed puddles from a recent rain. But the San Francisco newspapers from September 1905 showed no rain at all.
More clues came from the surprising number of cars: there were only a few thousand of them in the whole country in those days. And it appears the drivers on Market Street were recruited to fill up the screen, circling around the camera to make the city look more lively. 
Kiehn was able to identify one of the cars captured on camera. “That’s J. Barry Anway, who was a chauffeur,” he explained.
Kiehn checked old car licenses and registration records and discovered the chauffeur’s car, number 4867, was registered in January 1906. Another one, number 5057, registered in February 1906, suggesting the film was made sometime after that. 
Kiehn went back to the 1906 newspapers and found the following: “Starting around mid-March, and going to the end of the month, there was quite a bit of rain.”
Enough rain to account for the puddles, and to push the likely time the film was made into April 1906. 
On April 18, 1906, the great San Francisco earthquake struck. It, and the subsequent fire, killed thousands.
“Was there a ‘Eureka!’ moment when you said, ‘Ah hah. It was not 1905. It was spring of 1906,’?” Safer asked.
“Well, certainly, seeing the New York Clipper articles, that was the, I think the defining moment,” Kiehn said.
The New York Clipper was a showbiz paper where actors, jugglers, songwriters, and movie makers advertised their wares. It was also where Kiehn found a series of ads from the Miles brothers, filmmakers offering movie houses a travelogue called “A Trip Through Market Street.” 
An ad was run on April 28, 1906, ten days after the quake: “We have the only pictures of any value ever made in San Francisco before the frightful catastrophe,” Kiehn read.
“So this strongly suggests that the film was made just before the earthquake?” Safer asked.
“Yeah. Well, it actually spells it out right here. This film was made just one week before the complete destruction of every building shown in the picture,” Kiehn said.
New research this summer confirmed that. Kiehn had stripped away the haze of history to show us the real story behind the trip through Market Street: San Francisco closing in on its rendezvous with catastrophe. The odds are that some of the people you see in the film had just days to live. 
“When you look at that film, all you can think of is what was about to happen,” Safer remarked.
“Yes. When David Kiehn did his research and established that this was made within days before the earthquake, it takes on a power that is almost inconceivable because you can look at the buildings and know with certainty that almost all disappeared. You can look at the people on the street and wonder who survived. You’re watching a shade fall down over an era,” Rick Laubscher replied.
Among the buildings destroyed by the quake and fire: the offices of the Miles brothers; their film of San Francisco in happier days barely survived. 
They had shipped it to New York by train just the night before the quake.
“Knowing that it was our relatives that did that. We were very proud,” Scott Miles told Safer. 
Miles and his uncle Dwayne are descendants of Earl Miles, the man who supervised the filming. 
They have one of his cameras and a family album of still pictures the Miles brothers took of the damage and the city’s refugees. 
But they never knew the Miles brothers made the Market Street film until David Kiehn uncovered the story.
“David Kiehn just produced so much wonderful information for us. And we’re astounded,” Scott Miles told Safer.
“What is it about ‘The Trip Down Market Street,’ why do you think people are so moved by it?” Safer asked.
“I just see the people there. And they don’t know what’s about to hit them. And you can’t help but feel for them,” Miles replied.
“It’s just how vulnerable we are, you know? Like this is one week. And then a week later, you’re picking up everything off the ground,” Dwayne Miles added.
As for the man who figured it all out, he was armed only with a computer, the internet, and an incurable curiosity.
Kiehn understands well the strange power of images from the past. In the California town of Niles ‘– a throwback itself to a gentler age ‘– Kiehn runs a theater devoted to silent films. Charlie Chaplin himself made movies in Niles, and watched them in the very room. 
On the night Safer was there, “A Trip Through Market Street” was the star attraction. “That’s the beauty of film. It captures something that nobody today has seen any more. It makes a connection. Young and old. They still react with amazement,” Kiehn said.
And 30 miles across San Francisco Bay, the Ferry Building still welcomes travelers. And Market Street, a century later, rolls on and on.
© 2011 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

19 December 2012

Lower East Side Tenement Museum

A Special Installment of “A Helluva Town”

[I didn’t really plan it, but I seem to have started an occasional series articles on New York City tourist sites.  I’ve written about the High Line Park, our “park in the sky” (10 October), and Governors Island, a floating park in New York Harbor (19 November).  I’ve also covered a number of New York peculiarities, including sites that might interest a visitor, in my collection of shorts called “A Helluva Town” (15 & 18 August 2011, 9 January 2012).  Now I’m going to publish an article on another place in the city that I think is either unique or nearly so, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a restored (though not by much) 19th-century apartment building in the part of downtown Manhattan that has been home to newly-arrived immigrants for two centuries.  One afternoon last April, when my mom was here for a birthday visit, we rode down to have a look at this still-new (and, as far as I can tell, relatively unknown) museum of New York City’s (and America’s) immigration experience.]

97 Orchard Street, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, is an unprepossessing building.  If you walked down Orchard Street back in 1997 and passed the 6-floor red-brick tenement, you probably wouldn’t even turn your head, except maybe to have a passing glance in the windows of the stores on the stoop level or the basement.  If you did, you’d notice, perhaps, that the building was old (after September 1992 there was a plaque identifying it as a National Historic Landmark and putting its construction date as 1863) and, except for the shops, empty.  It would have been exactly like many others in LES, buildings built between the middle of the 19th century and the years between the World Wars, some of them still occupied, others abandoned and derelict.  A haunt for bargain-hunters—its fabric and notion shops and upholsters have been a treasury for costume and set designers for decades—and seekers of echt Jewish deli and dairy cuisine aimed for the neighborhood.  I may well have passed by the building myself back in the late ’70s or early ’80s because aside from the fabric stores along Orchard Street, it was also home to shops that custom fit sheets and made and repaired umbrellas.  Generally speaking, however, it wasn’t a tourist area.  Little of LES was slated for gentrification.

In 1984, historian and social activist Ruth Abram, the first president of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, came up with the idea of a museum to focus on the American immigrant story that would stress tolerance and understanding.  Three years later, looking for office space for her new project, she happened on the largely abandoned building at 97 Orchard Street.  Feeling as if she’d come across a time capsule, the sense that the building had been sealed up with its history for half a century, Abram knew she’d found a perfect home for her vision.  When the building was opened, Abram found that everything was exactly the way it had been when the last landlord sealed it up.  It was just like an urban Pompeii, a pharaoh’s tomb for New York City’s immigrant past.   

The first two apartments, the second-floor homes of the Gumpertzes (1870s) and the Baldizzis (1930s), were opened to the public in 1992.  On 19 April 1994, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark and on 12 November 1998, it was labeled a National Trust Historic Site associated with the National Park Service.  The Italianate building, however, is owned and operated by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, a non-governmental agency.  The museum serves about 170,000 visitors a year, of whom about 40,000 are students. 

Restoration has been minimal, mostly structural to shore up floors and staircases that were in danger of collapse from age and neglect, and, as far as the eye is concerned, stripping away much of the accumulated layers of flooring and wall coverings down to the oldest level to show what the building was like in its early years.  The researchers, preservers, and restorers at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum included a demographer, genealogist, historian, urban archeologist, architectural historian, and wallpaper conservator.  Beneath the layers of wallpaper—as many as 15 or 20 layers—and floor coverings, objects, notes written on the walls, and other artifacts have been uncovered giving glimpses into the world of the tenants of 97 Orchard Street.  More than 1,500 items, including kitchen utensils, toys, cosmetics, medicine vials, soda and milk bottles, family and business papers, letters, newspapers, buttons, coins, fabric scraps, and so on, were found in the building as it was restored, many under the flooring or in the mailboxes.  The museum conducted an archaeological dig in the rear yard and historians and genealogists have tracked down the outlines and even many details of the building’s occupants, examining photographs, diaries, and letters to reveal the stories of the real people who lived at the tenement over its 72-year history as an apartment building.  (The most well-known of the tenants at 97 Orchard was Sam Jaffe, the late actor who played the title role in Gunga Din in 1939, but whom I’ll always remember from my childhood as Dr. Zorba, the title character’s boss on the 1961-65 TV series Ben Casey.  Jaffe, who was also featured in one of my favorite moves, the 1951 original version of The Day the Earth Stood Still, was born in the building in 1891.) 

A tenement, when 97 Orchard Street was built, wasn’t the slum building the word conjures today.  It was simply a word that meant a building with multiple dwellings rented to “more than three families living independently of one another and doing their own cooking upon the premises,” as New York’s Tenement House Act of 1867 defined it.  This differentiated it, I suppose, from a boarding house or a rented room in someone’s home.  The original tenement houses, which began to appear in the 1840s and ’50s, weren’t intended to be slums, though they were deliberately inexpensively built with few, if any, amenities to keep down costs and quickly became associated with poor tenants and shoddy conditions.  The word became derogatory and newer accommodations became known as ‘apartment houses’ instead, until that phrase was seen as ordinary and upscale home seekers began flocking to ‘condos’ and ‘co-ops.’

The building at 97 Orchard Street, valued at about $8,000 when it was erected, was, in fact, nicer than many others built at around the same time.  In fact, the owner himself, tailor Lukas Glockner, chose to live there, having moved from St. Mark’s Place in what is now the East Village.  There was no indoor plumbing yet, but that was common in the 1860s; the backyard privies were clean and the stairs, while narrow and unlit (also common), were well-built.  Interior rooms had no windows, but there were transoms that brought in light from the front and back windows; a later law required these small windows but the ones at 97 Orchard seem to have been original construction.  The front and rear windows also let in more air than was usual for mid-19th-century tenements.

Between its construction by Glockner, a Saxon immigrant who fled the European unrest of 1848, in the middle of the Civil War and 1935, on the eve of World War II (which began in Europe in 1939), 97 Orchard Street was home to some 7,000 tenants, mostly families, from over 20 different countries.   (LES wasn’t David Dinkins’s “gorgeous mosaic”; it was the original melting pot.  Russians, Italians, Germans, Letts, Irish, Poles, and scores of other nationalities, were all crowded together in the same buildings on the same few blocks—and they came out Americans as their children and grandchildren moved on.  Later Chinese, Vietnamese, Caribbeans, Latin Americans occupied these same tenements in a continuing cycle.)  Glockner lived on the second floor and rented the rest of the building out.  There are 22 apartments in the building which has five stories above street level, starting with a stoop level a short flight of stairs up, and a basement whose separate entrance is a few steps below the sidewalk.  The basement originally housed a saloon and restaurant run by the Schneider family from Bavaria from 1864 to 1886.  (The museum has plans to “reopen” Schneider’s saloon in the future.)  Over time, the building was altered to meet the changing laws of the city and the basement was converted into two apartments and then into commercial space; the four stoop-level apartments also became stores; one of the rear units was Professor Dora Meltzer's Palmistry Studio at the turn of the 20th century (and which the Tenement Museum may also open to tourists).  When the rest of the building was vacated, these spaces remained occupied.

There are four apartments per floor in the building, two in front and two in the rear.  Between the two north and two south dwellings runs the dark, narrow corridor and staircase.  Each apartment has three rooms, a large front room (11 x 12½ feet), called the living room or parlor, a kitchen, and a tiny bedroom (8½ square feet).  Only the front room gets direct sunlight and outside air (the rear units looked out over the backyard).  The apartments, which typically housed families of six or seven, cover about 325 square feet.  The Confino family who moved onto the fifth floor in 1913, had ten family members at 97 Orchard Street, the largest family to live in the tenement.  As you might imagine, sleeping arrangements took some careful and clever maneuvering.  There’s no toilet or bathroom—privies were originally located in the rear yard—and no running water in the apartments.  Heat was supplied by the kitchen fireplace, which burned either coal or wood.  (Gas was piped in later.)  Coal-burning stoves, which may have been the apartment’s source of heat as well, had to be purchased by the tenants. 

Modernizations were made periodically: indoor plumbing was brought in, but only cold water ran into the apartments—the original meaning of “cold-water flat”—and there were two toilets on each floor; an airshaft was created to provide the interior rooms with light and air; gas was installed around 1905 and then electricity sometime in the early 1920s.  (Interestingly, an exterior fire escape was required by an 1862 law, so the tenement was built with one, though the present structure, a replica of the original, was mounted by the museum in 1997.)  These improvements were costly to the landlord, cutting into his rental profits, and in 1935, instead of continuing the process, then-owner Gottlieb Helpern, whose family continued to own the building until 1988, evicted the residents.  The upper floors were closed off and boarded up; only the commercial shops in the basement and the stoop level remained open.  (Even today, with the museum’s renovations, parts of the upper floors are still closed.)  97 Orchard stayed in that state of suspended animation until 1988 when the East Side Tenement Museum took control of the premises.  Though it slowly deteriorated as unoccupied buildings tend to, 97 Orchard had in a way become the amber that’s preserved a glimpse back into the way New York’s immigrants lived in the last third of the 19th and first third of the 20th centuries.

Visitors can only enter 97 Orchard with a tour group and a guide from the museum.  There are three different way to visit the Tenement Museum: take a tour the building and see the restored apartments, including period-accurate furnishings, of several residents from different decades; meet some of the building’s residents portrayed by costumed “interpreters”; or  take a walking tour of the neighborhood and learn about the Lower East Side and the life of the immigrants that shaped its culture.  (Unfortunately, because of the limitations of the 150-year-old structure, the building itself isn’t wheel-chair accessible.  The neighborhood tour, however, is fully accessible to wheelchairs.) 

To visit the building, there are six different tours, each one with a different focus.  In “Exploring 97 Orchard Street,” the museum guide takes you behind the scenes to display the “layers of history” revealed by the building’s many alterations and improvements.  The tour shows how the restorers stripped away the overlays of paint and wallpapers to find ever-older appearances of the tenement and how these revelations have been interpreted by “urban archeologists.”  (This tour covers parts of the first, second, and fourth floors of the tenement.  Keep in mind that the first, or stoop, floor is nine steps above street level.)

“Irish Outsiders” uses period-appropriate objects in the home (though not original to the family or the building) to tell the story of the Moores, Irish Catholics on the fourth floor who suffered the malnutrition death of five-year-old Agnes in 1869.  The tour compares the Moore’s efforts to keep their family healthy with those of the Katz family, Jewish immigrants from Russia who lived at 97 Orchard in the 1920s and ’30s. 

With “Sweatshop Workers,” visitors experience the lives of the Levine and Rogarshevsky families on the third floor.  At the turn of the 20th century, the Polish immigrant Levines, who arrived in 1870, ran a dressmaking shop in their home, a common practice in LES, and Abraham Rogarshevsky, who, with his large family from Lithuania moved into 97 Orchard in 1901, worked as a presser in a garment workshop in the first decades of the 20th century.  The Rogarshevskys later changed their name to Rosenthal.

In “Hard Times,” visitors learn how immigrants living at 97 Orchard survived the economic depressions of the era, starting with the Gumpertz family on the second floor, German Jews whose patriarch, Julius, disappeared during the Panic (stock market crash) of 1873.  He worked cutting heels for Levi’s cobbler shop nearby and left for work one October morning in 1874 and never came home, leaving Nathalia, his wife, to work as a dressmaker to support their children.  The tour then visits the second-floor apartment of the Sicilian-Catholic Baldizzi family who lived in the tenement during the Great Depression of the 1930s.  Adolfo tried to find work as a mason while his wife, Rosaria, did piece work sewing at home, but like so many in those years, the Baldizzis survived on welfare.  Adolfo and Rosaria’s daughter Josephine was located by museum historians and helped restore the Baldizzis’ apartment. 

(The “Hard Times” and “Sweatshop Workers” excursions both offer an extended, two-hour tour and discussion version.  The simple visit is an hour, as is “Irish Outsiders”; “Exploring 97 Orchard Street” takes 90 minutes.  Note that for most of these, there are stairs to climb—no elevator has been installed in the Tenement Museum—and the staircase is narrow and quite steep.  Visitors should also be aware that no additional lighting has been installed, either, so hallways and stairs are also fairly dim.)

To walk the neighborhood, the museum also offers three alternatives.  “Outside the Home” (1½ hours), which doesn’t go into any neighborhood buildings, explores LES the way immigrants have experienced it for 150 years.  Sites that had significant impact on new Americans include the Jarmulowsky Bank building, where prospective citizens put their life’s savings, which many lost when the bank failed in 1914 when German depositors caused a run by withdrawing their money to send to family at the start of World War I; the Daily Forward building, the socialist-oriented Yiddish newspaper (now published as a weekly with an English-language edition) that fought for worker rights; and P.S. 42, the area school that taught generations of immigrants how to become “American.”

In “Then & Now,” the two-hour tour explores the district’s history with a focus on why it became such a center of immigrants, comparing its present day with its past.  (This tour also doesn’t visit any buildings.)  For “Foods of the Lower East Side,” visitors must bring not just their appetites, but their culinary adventurousness.  As the museum describes this two-hour tasting tour, it explores “the immigrant experience and some of the ways immigrant foods have shaped American food” by sampling the cuisine of the Ashkenazi Jewish, Chinese, and Afro-Caribbean newcomers, among several others, who have resided in LES in their turns and are represented in the neighborhood by the many ethnic restaurants.  Tour participants sample about a dozen different foods at various stops and you learn some of the hidden histories of common American dishes that have perhaps surprisingly evolved from immigrant traditions. 

On the first floor of 97 Orchard, museum-goers can visit with “Victoria Confino” in the Meet the Residents program, an hour-long encounter with the 14-year-old resident of 97 Orchard Street in 1916.  Played by a costumed “interpreter,” known in the museum business as a “first-person character,” Victoria answers questions from visitors, always remembering the year and her circumstances (or, as we say in the theater: staying in character), about her life in LES as an immigrant learning to negotiate her new environment.  The Confinos, Sephardic Jews from Kastoria, Greece, in the days when it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, came from comfortable circumstances, but her family became the object of scrutiny during the Balkan Wars in 1912 and ’13, so they packed up and emigrated to America in 1913.  Victoria, who grew up speaking Ladino, the Spanish-based vernacular of the Sephardim, has begun to learn English in her new school, a part of the role the museum interpreter has to internalize as visitors go back in time to meet her.

The meeting with Victoria Confino requires the visitors to play roles along with the interpreter.  They are expected to put themselves into the time and place of the young girl, assuming the roles of new immigrants themselves.  (The interpreter won’t answer questions on topics outside her time period or her age group.  Take, for instance, World War I: at her age, Victoria wouldn’t be likely to know much about it a year before the United States became involved beyond the fact that the Great War, as it would have been known then, was being waged in Europe.)  Though it’s the most creatively demanding, Meet the Residents isn’t the only inter-active visit in the Tenement Museum’s program.  All the guides at 97 Orchard Street ask tour participants questions and prompt them to relate anecdotes from their own histories or recall things they might have learned in history classes or out of their own experiences.  Objects and artifacts are often the catalyst for stories or historical details someone might remember. 

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum is open seven days a week throughout the year (except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Days) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.  The times of the different tours vary, so it’s necessary to call in or go on line to plan a visit (and some tours can be reserved on line in advance).  Tours, limited to 15 visitors, are booked and assembled and tickets are purchased at the Visitor Center at 103 Orchard Street, a few doors north at the corner of Delancey, which also houses the Museum Shop (providing many books on the subject of LES and immigration, among other pertinent topics) and the newly-opened Sadie Samuelson Levy Immigrant Heritage Center.  The Heritage Center hosts readings, lectures, panel discussions, films, and other presentations.  Tickets for most tours are $22 ($17 for students and seniors); the “Foods of the Lower East Side” tour costs $45 ($40 for students and seniors).  The museum offers memberships that provide deeper discounts as well.  There are also educational programs, including both actual tours and virtual tours, geared to students and school groups for ages 8 to 18.  There are also resources for teachers, and the website lists books and other sources for research and reading.

The museum is accessible by bus and subway (and many of the sightseeing buses stop at the museum, though street parking in LES is difficult and limited as the streets are narrow and it’s still a busy shopping area.  There are lots and garages, some of which offer free or discounted parking for museum visitors with validation.)  Keep in mind, as I said, that the building tours are not wheelchair accessible.  Some of the outdoor tours offer indoor alternatives for inclement weather and there are also alternative and supplemental arrangements to accommodate visitors with physical limitations such as blindness or deafness.   A good place to start exploring this interesting museum is on its website, http://www.tenement.org, which has links to specific information about the museum and the programs, including advice on group tours and other special arrangements that are available; the National Park Service (which doesn’t operate the museum), has a Tenement Museum site as well: http://www.nps.gov/loea/index.htm.  The general information phone number is (212) 982-8420 and the general e-mail address is lestm@tenement.org. 

[I must add that one visit to the Tenement Museum isn’t enough to get a real impression of what surprises it holds.  Since you have to visit the building with a guide, the operators have planned several different tours, each with a slightly different perspective.  You get a different narrative with each visit and a different view of the immigrant experience in lower Manhattan is revealed. 

[I’ll also point out that this isn’t the first museum about which I’ve written on ROT, though it is the first in New York City (not counting the brief description of The Cloisters I included in the first installment of “A Helluva Town”).  On 25 March 2010, I described a trip to the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., in “Spook Museum.”  There was a private aspect to that visit, as you’ll see if you read the report, but even outside of that, it’s a potentially more exciting experience than is the Tenement Museum.  Not less revealing or instructive, just more lively.  One important difference, though, is that the Tenement Museum is about the way people connected to many of us lived—my dad’s parents and grandparents, for instance.  (My grandparents and great-grandparents didn’t live in LES—they went up to Massachusetts to join other family members—but they did come through Ellis Island and eventually lived in similar neighborhoods in Upper Manhattan and the Bronx.)  Not many of us know people engaged in the life displayed at the Spy Museum.  Well, I do—but you probably don’t.  (I’d tell you more, but then . . . well, you know how that goes!)

[I’d also like to note that the life of 97 Orchard Street is almost precisely the same as the heyday of Yiddish Theater (which I recount in “National Yiddish Theatre – Folksbiene,” Parts 1 and 2, 23 and 26 August), many of whose patrons lived in this very neighborhood.  Many different waves of émigrés lived on the Lower East Side and the flavors, smells, and sounds changed accordingly, but in the era of the Tenement Museum, it was largely Ashkenazi Jewish, German and East European, and Italian.  Unsurprisingly, there was an émigré theater and entertainment scene that represented each national and language community.  (See also my report “Farfariello” on 6 June for a glimpse at an Italian-American performance form that was popular at the same time.)

[And since ROT is ostensibly a theater blog, I’d like to point out an interesting article about the “living history” interpreters, the “first-person characters” like those portraying Victoria Confino at the Tenement Museum: Nahma Sandrow’s “The Actors Who Make History Live” in the New York Times on 30 December 2001 (http://www.nytimes.com/2001/12/30/arts/the-year-in-review-theater-the-actors-who-make-history-live.html; originally in the Arts & Leisure section).  Though Sandrow introduces the article with a depiction of an encounter with Victoria, she covers many similar living history programs like Plimoth Plantation and Colonial Williamsburg.]

14 December 2012

'The Piano Lesson'

Following on Sam Shepard’s Heartless (see my ROT report on 10 September), the first offering of the Signature Theatre Company’s Legacy Program for 2012-13, my frequent theater companion Diana and I were again at the Irene Diamond Stage of the Pershing Square Signature Center on Theatre Row for the 7:30 performance of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson on Friday evening, 7 December.  I’ve seen a number of Wilson’s decology plays (I seem to have missed two, 1988’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Radio Golf from 2005), but the only presentation of Piano Lesson I’d seen was the 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast on CBS; I’d never seen Wilson’s 1987 play on stage.  (Not that the TV version was a lightweight presentation: it was directed by Wilson’s long-time collaborator, Lloyd Richards, and starred Charles S. Dutton, Alfre Woodard, and Courtney B. Vance, among others.)

The fourth play in Wilson’s 10-play cycle of the 20th-century African-American experience, The Piano Lesson premièred at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, on 26 November 1987.  Directed by Richards, who was artistic director of Yale Rep and head of the Yale School of Drama, the production starred Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie.  The Yale Rep staging moved on to the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston, where it opened on 9 January 1988 with Dutton replacing Jackson as the male lead.  Richards then directed the play on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theatre where it opened on 16 April 1990, running until 27 January 1991 (328 performances) and winning the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play, plus garnering several nominations including four Tonys.  (The TV adaptation won the 1995 Peabody Award and received two Emmy nominations.)  Signature’s revival, the first in New York since the Broadway outing, started previews on 30 October and opened under the direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, a frequent force in Signature seasons, on 18 November; it’s scheduled to close now on 30 December, including one extension from 9 December. 

Wilson always professed that he was much inspired by blues music and the art of Romare Bearden, and the great collagist created a picture called The Piano Lesson in 1983 that moved the dramatist to write a play focusing on a strong female character for his depiction of African-American history in the 1930s.  Constanza Romero, the writer’s widow, said, “In the painting, The Piano Lesson, there is a figure of a mother standing over a small girl playing the piano.  August thought the girl was perhaps doing her scales and heard the mother say, ‘Play it again, Maretha.’  This was the genesis of the play”; and Andrea Allinger, a freelance writer, quotes Wilson on the August Wilson Blog as saying to a friend upon viewing Bearden’s Piano Lesson, “This is my next play,” and the writer was already speaking lines from it the next day.  According to Allinger, both artists used the technique of collage, “a melding of materials,” to draw their portraits, and the playwright gave “voices and stories to the characters Bearden created in his collages.”  Wilson’s widow confirmed that she “saw a parallel between August’s and Romare Bearden’s work,” explaining that “they were both collagists.  August would start with an image, or with some dialogue, then would start writing what he heard in his mind.”  Others have also noted that Wilson composed by combining bits and pieces of found images, observed or overheard around him; pieces of his biography; cultural and ethnic history; Pittsburgh lore and color; researched facts and events; influences from art and music; and flights of imagination.

Blues figures in the play a great deal, too, as all the men harmonize on a prison farm work song and one character, Wining Boy, a semi-professional musician—a pianist and singer, wouldn’t you know—sits at the titular instrument and knocks out a gorgeous blues riff he’d composed for his lost love.  Furthermore, the characters all speak in what the title character in Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) calls “life's way of talking.”  Bearden’s art and the rhythms and themes of the blues run through Piano Lesson like the veins and arteries of a human body.  The actual songs and piano-playing aside, The Piano Lesson is as much a piece of music, from the lyrical prose to the dancelike movement of the actors, as a piece of writing.  We’ll see that many of the reviewers wrote of the musicality of the script and the conductor-like efforts of director Santiago-Hudson.

Wilson’s play is set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh of 1936, in the house of Doaker Charles.  A 137-year-old, upright piano, decorated with carvings in the manner of African sculpture, is the focus of the parlor.  Boy Willie, Doaker’s nephew, arrives at the door, accompanied by his friend Lymon and a truckload of watermelons he intends to sell.  Boy Willie wants to raise enough money to buy some farmland back home in Mississippi—the Charles family is split by the Great Migration, in full swing at this time—and not have to work as a tenant or a hired hand anymore.  He realizes that if he also sells the piano, his share of the family heirloom will give him enough cash to buy the land on which his forefathers worked as slaves and sharecroppers, but his sister Berniece, who lives in Doaker’s house with her 11-year-old daughter, doesn’t want to part with the piano, which depicts (and represents) their family’s history.  (The piano had actually been the property of the slave-holder who owned Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandparents and grandfather; the land Boy Willie wants was owned by the deceased descendant of the same family.)  The struggle, both within Boy Willie and between him and Berniece, is the lesson that the piano has to teach.

The Piano Lesson isn’t just about an heirloom piano or even the story of one family stretching back into the 18th century.  As Michael Feingold put it in the Village Voice: “Wilson never did anything superficially,” and Constanza Romero said, “If there’s one unifying theme in August’s plays it is the question, . . . how can we go forward without confronting and embracing the past?”  Wilson is demonstrating how history can haunt people for generations as the accumulated effluvia of life adds to the load each person carries.  (There’s even an actual spirit that may or may not be hanging around the Charles house, attached somehow to that piano.)  While Berniece adamantly holds onto the family past as represented by the piano, which she no longer will play, and its carved images of her forebears, Boy Willie believes that those ancestors intended them to move up, to improve their lot, and that buying the land where his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers and becoming his own man, a farmer on his own land, is a step he has to take and that their father meant the piano to be a means to that worthy end.  Berniece came to a strange place (Lymon constantly remarks how different things are up north) and established a new and different life, but Boy Willie wants to stay down south—Lymon is staying, but Willie’s going back by train—and do what he knows how to do: farm. 

The specter of the family past—the sale by the planter of the great-grandmother and nine-year-old grandfather (“one-and-a-half slaves”) to buy the piano; the carving of their images into the instrument by the great-grandfather, left behind; the murder of Boy Willie and Berniece’s father (Doaker and Wining Boy’s brother) after he stole “back” the piano; the violent death of Crawley, Berniece’s husband (which she blames on Boy Willie); the splitting of the family again by the Great Migration; the mysterious death of the farmland-owner and descendant of the slave-holder—comes to Doaker’s house and turns up the heat until the pot boils over.  Though both siblings—Doaker basically remains neutral and plays referee—behave recalcitrantly, they each have a lot of right in their positions.  Berniece came north to escape the poverty and the Jim Crow oppression that was not only cruel but dangerous but wants to keep a connection to the family past that was so often interrupted and severed but which has kept them all linked for generations despite geographical separation.  Boy Willie needs to advance his status, to start a real life of his own and he wants to do it where his roots are, where he feels he belongs and not be forced to choose between being someone else’s hireling or settling somewhere 1,800 miles away to take up an alien life.  (Lymon, also a farm boy, is looking at working at loading boxcars in a rail yard.)  But to resolve the impasse, one side has to give up a cherished desire.  The ghost of slavery has to be exorcised.  Man, can there be anything more dramatic than that?

The New York Times’s Charles Isherwood’s review on 19 November was as close to a full-on rave as I’ve seen in a long time (“one of the best shows in town,” he wrote) and the STC Legacy revival measures up entirely to the reviewer’s estimation.  First, the production is excellent, from the acting, which is doubtlessly some of the best ensemble work I’ve ever seen, especially from an American company, to the directing to the design (the set is a wondrous naturalistic fragment).  Then the script is one of Wilson’s best, less narratively diffuse and more structurally solid than most of the other nine plays in the so-called American Century Cycle.  The two-acter still runs 2¾ hours because the writer goes off on several tangents (delightful though they are), but for Wilson, this is tight writing.  The result is one of the best evenings I’ve spent in the theater that I can remember.  (Am I a wuss if I confess here that the performance was so theatrically moving that I teared up more than once at the sheer beauty of the art, and that I, who usually forgo the now-ubiquitous standing ovation, got to my feet at the end along with nearly everyone else?  Well, I guess I’ll just have to accept that.)

The ensemble acting of the company has to be largely the responsibility of Santiago-Hudson, starting with his casting.  I’ve seen this director’s work many times now, including another Wilson revival at STC, the 2006 Seven Guitars (a play for which he also won a Tony as an actor in the 1996 Broadway première), and I noted then that the cast displayed extraordinary ensemble work.  Clearly, whether consciously or unconsciously, Santiago-Hudson, who’s accomplishments as an actor may have something to do with this, is adept as communal stage work of this nature.  It was just fantastic to watch.  In addition, from what I’ve read, the earlier stagings of Piano Lesson employed over-obvious effects to depict the spookiness that reaches a crescendo at the end of act two, but this director keeps the SpFX to a minimum.  (Don’t misread me: I think the whole apparition/poltergeist element—lights that go on and off by themselves, a piano that plays itself and will not be lifted off the floor, doors that slam on their own—is overdone, but that’s in the script to a degree.  Santiago-Hudson has apparently gotten more literal than Wilson indicated, however.)  Although Wilson’s side trips and diversions attenuate the play, Santiago-Hudson handles them nicely, keeping them organic and bringing the characters smoothly back from them into the play’s main narrative.  You just have to go on a little walkabout through Wilson-land.

Michael Carnahan’s set is magnificent, the living room, kitchen, staircase, and upstairs landing of Doaker’s house, with the outer siding visible at stage left and the skeleton of the roof seen above the ceiling.  Bits of the neighboring houses loom next door.  When I entered the auditorium, I couldn’t stop examining the stage picture, which looks like a sort of expressionistic cut-away of a home—not as if someone had sliced off the back like a doll house, but torn it off like a tornado had passed by.  It’s a house that’s either disintegrating or reforming.  The clothes by Karen Perry are both period-perfect and right on for the characters and situation.  I especially liked the suits and shoes Wining Boy brings along and ends up selling to Lymon.  (Lymon’s probably half Wining Boy’s size, but the sales job Wining Boy does is priceless, so the scene as acted and staged makes the costume aspect all the more marvelous.)  The countrified attire in which Lymon and Boy Willie arrive contrasts meaningfully with the city duds adopted by Berniece, Wining Boy, and the other residents of Pittsburgh.

The lighting in The Piano Lesson needs to be more than just atmospheric and mood-setting.  Even aside from the occult effects, first suggested and later fully displayed, the way Doaker’s house is lit or not lit is as significant to the dramatics as Perry’s costumes.  What happens in the dark is important and designer Rui Rita knows exactly how to manipulate the illumination.  The music, composed by Bill Sims Jr., is equally important as it establishes the meaningfulness of music, particularly work songs and blues, which is woven into the fabric of the lives of the Charles family and the world from which they come.  David Van Tieghem did the overall sound design and, with Sims, creates what TheaterMania called “a haunting aural atmosphere.”  I can’t think of a stage performance where the physical production is as much an integral part of the play’s dramatic heft and impact as it is here.  We’ve probably all read descriptions of productions in which the writers asserted that “the set’s a character” or “the sound is like another character,” and I’m sure that’s been true; I’ve even written it myself, I’m sure.  But I don’t remember seeing a show where all the technical elements were like that.  Of course, I probably wouldn’t feel this way if they didn’t all work in tandem so perfectly as they do at STC. 

I’ve delayed writing about the acting because I don’t really know what to say about individual performers.  I’ve already gotten effusive about their work together, but the problem with that kind of collaboration is that it makes it hard to speak of each actor on her or his own.  But I’ll try.  A superb physical actor, Brandon J. Dirden, bursting with unbounded enthusiasm and hope, completely inhabits the impulsiveness and stubbornness of Boy Willie; I felt the strength of his pursuit of his dream, the sincerity of his belief that that’s what his father wanted for him.  He seems selfish (as, in fact, does Berniece), but because Dirden is steadfast in his sense of his own correctness, he convinced me of it, too.  As sister Berniece, Roslyn Ruff is as fierce as Brandon Dirden’s Boy Willie, but sterner, more closed off, harder-edged.  There’s a glimmer of the softer person she’s walling off, but Ruff is unbending and determined, though far from unsympathetic.  To say, however, that these performances stand out is to be unfair to the rest of the troupe, though Brandon Dirden and Ruff set the standard for the company.

There’s a sadness in Boy Willie’s friend Lymon as played by Jason Dirden (Brandon’s brother), a loneliness that made me understand why he’d want to stay in Pittsburgh and start over, remake himself.  (The play’s largely about people remaking themselves in some way.)  Though he scampers around Boy Willie like a puppy, he also feels the tentative start of an attraction to Berniece, as if the boy were becoming a man.  As the calm center of the Charles storm, James A. Williams as Doaker made me feel that he’s not only seen it all before, but that he knows how it’s going to come out.  All he has to do is keep Berniece and Boy Willie from killing each other first.  He seems pretty sure he can do that, too.  (Williams is the only actor I recognize as having seen before: as Mr. M, the teacher in Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! at STC in May.  See my report posted on 11 June.  He comes off to better effect here.)  In truth, however, all the actors acquit themselves superlatively, from Chuck Cooper’s Wining Boy, the itinerant sometime-musician who drops in that incredible blues number (and he’s funny, too), to Eric Lenox Abrams, the sincere and earnest preacher who’s trying to court Berniece, to Alexis Holt’s little Maretha, Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter.

The Times’s Isherwood characterized The Piano Lesson as “a generous gift,” an “immensely satisfying show,” “emotionally sustaining great theater,” and a “savory theatrical feast.”  As strongly as I feel about this production, I could never match the Timesman’s effusiveness.  In his words, Wilson’s writing has “the breadth and majesty of great symphonies” and the company delivers it with “commitment and artistry.”  Isherwood summed up the theatrical experience by asserting that “you never want the sweet, sad music to end.”

Elsewhere in the press, Joe Dziemianowicz in New York’s Daily News wrote that The Piano Lesson “strikes a major chord” in Santiago-Hudson’s “note-perfect staging” realized by an “impeccable” cast and “deft designers” who “mine the riches of this resonant drama.”  The News reviewer noted that the script’s “overwritten” (a complaint several other reviews made), but that the production is otherwise “a fine-tuned vision.”  In the New York Post, Frank Scheck praised the “sterling revival” of a “deeply moving work.”  “The play is filled with emotionally resonant moments,” noted Scheck.  Though he also remarked on the overwriting, he found the “gripping” production “superbly staged and acted.”  Linda Winer of Long Island’s Newsday confessed that she always saw The Piano Lesson as “one of the lesser, more conventional” of Wilson’s works, but that the STC revival “reveals this as richer and more emotionally complete than ever before.”  Dubbing the production “first-rate,” Santiago-Hudson’s direction “meticulous,” and the cast “splendid,” Winer asked at the end of her notice: “What good is a legacy?”  Her response?  “This revival is its own answer.”  The Voice’s Feingold, characterizing the play as “remarkable,” found the STC remount “better unified in tone than the Broadway original” and Terry Teachout pronounced the production “magnificent” in the Wall Street Journal, with “taut and disciplined” staging and “sumptuous” acting from a “sublime” cast. 

In New York magazine, Scott Brown described STC’s “joyous revival” of The Piano Lesson as “concerted, conducted, and focused.”  With “unforgettable performances from a flawless cast,” the production “pulses with magic, ecstasy, pain, and (forgive me) spirit,” he reported.  Brown’s final recommendation is: “I’d advise you to commune with” the performance.  David Cote of Time Out New York dubbed the play a “grand drama” that “reaches operatic intensity.”  The production’s “impeccable ensemble” realizes “Wilson’s polyphonic, novelistic voice,” the man from TONY declared, concluding that “there’s much lovely, haunting music to be savored here, played by an exquisite ensemble. 

Clifford Lee Johnson III of Back Stage characterized the play as “a theatrical whirlwind” which is being staged in a “welcome revival” presented by a “sterling cast.”  As Johnson saw it, Santiago-Hudson “conducts the play as much as he stages it” and though the play has imperfections, the Back Stage review-writer concluded they are “only slight blemishes on a powerful production.”  In Variety, Marilyn Stasio opened her notice by asking: “What have we done to deserve a magnificent revival like the new Signature Theatre production of ‘The Piano Lesson’?”    Describing Santiago-Hudson’s directing as “flawless” and the acting “brilliant,” Stasio proclaimed that the STC revival “makes this 1987 play live and breathe and sing for a new generation.”  

On the Net, Dan Bacalzo wrote on TheaterMania that STC’s “top-notch cast does justice to Wilson's well-defined characters and lyrical language” in “a superlative revival,” and on CurtainUp, Simon Saltzman called the production “a stirring revival” for which Santiago-Hudson establishes a “chillingly spectral atmosphere” through “keenly focused direction” that addresses “the emotionally visceral changes” through which the Charles family and friends go.  On TalkinBroadway.com, Matthew Murray pronounced The Piano Lesson “a mostly superb new revival” in a “brutally gutsy and realistic rendering” by director Santiago-Hudson.  Though Murray saw the play as “the clearest statement of Wilson's ethos,” he nonetheless felt that “cracks begin to show a bit on the more detailed and human level” because of the “lack of impassioned monologues” (an estimation, by the way, with which I don’t agree).  He acknowledged, however, that “the lapses are so minor . . . that the overall impact of the production is barely lessened” due to the “tight rein” of the director who “knows just what notes to hit.”  The Web reviewer concluded by affirming that Wilson’s people “have rarely . . . been rendered more melodious than in this version of The Piano Lesson.”

The New Yorker’s Hilton Als was the lone outlier.  Though he acknowledged the “imaginative force” in Santiago-Hudson’s staging and declared that “there is not one false note among” the “excellent cast,” Als complained that “Wilson tips the balance by adding more blackness to blackness” so that the playwright “enslaves the characters who we’re watching to a historical blackness that should be part of the character’s interiority.”  This situation arises from a “problem with ‘ethnic’ theatre” the New Yorker writer perceives so “that the marginalized people on display . . . tend to get more ethnic once they step in front of the footlights,” and he felt that this fault diminished “a fine enough dramatic premise.”  I’m not entirely sure what Als means by all this, but if it’s generally true at times, I never felt it was a hindrance in STC’s The Piano Lesson.