Review: Illuminating Traumas of Slavery, August Wilson’s “Piano Lesson” Strikes Core of American Identity
August Wilson is often referred to as one of the greatest African American playwrights of the 20th century. He also happens to be one of the greatest playwrights, period. Last night, the Flatiron Hot! News critic saw the latest revival of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” (premiered in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theater) at the Signature Theatre. The play is not only a poignant snapshot of the African American experience in the 1930s, but an overall sublime work of art relevant to Americans of all races.
The premise of “The Piano Lesson” is deceptively simple. Taking place in 1936, it details a family squabble over what to do with an antique piano sitting inconspicuously in the corner of a cozy, but dilapidated row house in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is clear from early on that this is no mere musical instrument, but a complex metaphor for the historical experience of a family scarred by the trauma of slavery. The characters’ attitudes regarding the object reflect how they view their heritage going back to the plantation, a heritage still very much weighing on them at the start of the play.
To Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden), it is something to sell in exchange for a plot of land in the South. Although he initially seems as trustworthy as a used-car salesman, Willie’s aspirations, when articulated, are admirable. His desire to own and cultivate his own plot of land represents a version of the American dream still extant in the early 20th century, one not easily available to African Americans at the time. Although his pontificating can grow tiresome, his motive strikes a chord with all who aspire to the promise of the so-called land of opportunity.
Boy Willie’s sidekick Lymon (Jason Dirden), who he has enlisted to help commandeer the piano once they’ve sold the watermelons currently occupying their vehicle (I’ll leave it to audience members to hash out the symbolism behind this endeavor), is just as pivotal to Wilson’s thematic purpose. Although often a source of comic relief, the young man serves a vital purpose. Unlike Boy Willie, he possesses no clear goals or objectives beyond the accumulation of wealth and the company of women. In his simplicity, he is the perfect foil for his more complicated partner.
Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), on the other hand, is unwilling to part with the piano. She sees in the valuable heirloom the history of her family going back generations. Bitter though that history may be, Berniece is unwilling to part with an object so rich in sentimental value. Her reluctance is all the more understandable given the instrument’s tragic back story, which is revealed over the course of the narrative. Without spoiling too much, the ghost of a dear family member is tethered to the object, appearing at key moments to remind us that the characters are haunted by their past. Clearly, it must be confronted if the family is to achieve closure.
Also caught up in the sordid affair are Wining Boy (Chuck Cooper), a washed up bluesman who pops up periodically to regale the audience with lively piano performances, the well-meaning preacher Avery (Eric Lenox Abrams), and Berniece’s young daughter Maretha (Alexis Holt). None of these three characters are particularly fleshed out, instead personifying various elements of the African American experience (music, faith, and the future, this critic would venture). Nevertheless, their roles are key, illuminating thematic elements and fleshing out the viewpoints of the play’s primary protagonists.
Perhaps the strongest element of “The Piano Lesson” is that Boy Willie and Berniece’s experiences both seem so relatable. Uncle Doaker (James A. Williams) tries to play mediator, but it is clear that he is dealing with individuals whose reconciliation cannot be achieved by human efforts.
And, in the end, it is not. Just when Boy Willie and Berniece’s disagreement appears to be on the verge of a tragic and bloody conclusion, the aforementioned ghost emerges to teach all present a valuable lesson about confronting one’s past. To have the “The Piano Lesson” conclude in such an over-the-top manner is jarring. Although hints of the supernatural bubble up over the course of the production, the characters and their relationships appear to be the guiding forces behind the action until the very end.
Although a climactic exorcism wraps up the narrative in an acceptable fashion, this critic was left feeling a bit cheated to have the intriguing conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece solved by what could be seen as a MacGuffin. That said, the ghost/exorcism is a consistent motif throughout the play, not to mention many other American and African American works of fiction (Toni Morrison’s Beloved comes to mind). Therefore, one’s opinion of the play’s ending comes down to personal taste.
Regardless, “The Piano Lesson” is one of the best plays of the year, with fantastic, Obie-worthy performances across the board and quality writing that could only derive from a playwright of August Wilson’s high caliber. While it may not reach the literary heights of its successor, “Fences,” anyone with the slightest interest in dramatic storytelling should see this masterful revival at the Signature Theatre before it closes on January 20th.