Danielle Brooks
Danielle Brooks

Danielle Brooks’ Rich History with the Words of August Wilson

Returning to Broadway in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is a full-circle moment for stage and screen star Danielle Brooks. The Pulitzer Prize–winning play was her introduction to Wilson during her search for a college audition monologue. She ended up choosing a monologue of Berniece Charles, the character she currently plays in the LaTanya Richardson Jackson–directed revival at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre.

“When people ask me what my dream role is, this is it,” says Brooks. “Not only did [the character] help me get into Juilliard, but [Wilson] passed away that same year, as did my grandmother and my godmother. It resonated on a deeper level. I really felt the grief and loss that Berniece was feeling. To now get to play her in totality and honor my grandmother, my godmother, and August, it means a lot.”

Danielle’s personal connection to family adds another cosmic element. The Piano Lesson follows a family in 1930s Pittsburgh as they decide the fate of an important heirloom. Berniece insists they keep the piano, which features designs that honor the Charleses’ history and enslaved ancestors. Brooks has inherited her own sacred heirlooms from her own grandmother and godmother.

“They taught me how to love. Especially my godmother—she was so full of love and kindness, and had so much patience with me.”

It’s a quality that stays with her as she prepares for opening night on October 13. It marks the first Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson since the original production in 1990. S. Epatha Merkerson, who originated the role of Berniece, offered wisdom and guidance to Brooks.

“I called her at the height of my nervousness and she was so encouraging,” says Brooks. “She was like, ‘I get it, sis. It’s hard, but you can do it.’ What struck me was that when she did [the role], she only had nine days to prepare. I thought, ‘If this woman could muster up all of what she had to tell this story with only nine days, I can do it with four weeks.’”

While Brooks has her rich history with Wilson’s words, the familiarity doesn’t mean she isn’t working hard in the rehearsal room. Rediscovering how to work with his words in a new way has been a challenge she’s embracing.

“I actually found putting August’s words in my body very challenging because it’s like jazz,” says Brooks. “Classics, like Shakespeare, have a structure and lexicon that you can rely on. With August, there is structure, but there’s a musicality to it that is very challenging to embody. You have to put your own life into it, and that’s something no one can really teach you.”

Brooks has excavated cultural and sensory heirlooms to help her find the rhythm of Wilson’s words, like the sight of uncles playing dominoes and the smell of grease burning off her hair as a child. There’s also another Wilson touchstone at her fingertips, one she’s been rehearsing with for four weeks: Oscar honoree Samuel L. Jackson, who played Boy Willie in the world premiere of The Piano Lesson at Yale Repertory Theatre in 1987.

“It’s been really awesome to work with Sam because we get to watch him be the incredible, real storyteller that he is,” says Brooks. “To see him navigate this language and keep people engaged—it’s a master class every day.”

The rehearsal room also has a special spark because this revival is being led by director Richardson Jackson. Not only is she the first woman to helm a Wilson play on Broadway, she is a step forward in a long marathon of more Black women directing shows on Broadway.

“We speak a similar language,” says Brooks. “When we were in tech, she was guiding me on how to sit a certain way, and I knew exactly what she meant. Or there’s a moment when Berniece makes the bed for Lymon, and we were talking about could she sit on the bed, and we both said, ‘No, there’s no way she would sit on a bed after she made it up for company.’ We don’t have to waste time discussing; we just get it. I really enjoy having her in the room and sharing space with someone with the same background as me.”

The Tony-nominated play is the fourth play in Wilson’s The Pittsburgh Cycle (also referred to as the Century Cycle), a collection of 10 plays—each set in a different decade—that take place in Pittsburgh. While several of these plays have seen film adaptations in the last few years, like Fences and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Broadway audiences most recently saw Wilson’s work when Jitney premiered in 2017, going on to win the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play.

Learn More About The Piano Lesson