There are many reasons to read August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson. Among the first reasons that come to mind is the idea that this is a (relatively) contemporary work of American drama.
Much of the theatrical work that Americans are familiar with (outside of blockbuster musicals like Wicked or Hamilton) comes from early and mid-century playwrights like Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Reading The Piano Lesson offers a glimpse of the American stage that is simply newer and fresher than The Glass Menagerie and Death of a Salesman. Thus these great, older plays gain a new context through reading Wilson's 1990 play.
One attribute of the play that goes along with its contemporaneity is the nature of its comment on race and history in the United States. Our cultural discourse on history has always included slavery, but for a long time did not really include Black history, per se. The Piano Lesson offers a view of American history from a Black perspective, which is helpful in developing a broad vision of the country's history.
Furthermore, the Jim Crow era discussed in the play is a period that has not always been well represented in literature or in histories of the United States. The Piano Lesson offers a nuanced view of some of the challenges faced by Black families and individuals in the period following emancipation, exploring the migration of Black Americans to the North in ways that directly examine the stresses this migration placed on social bonds and social identity.
The two strongest themes of the play can be connected to (1) individual responses to a shared history and (2) notions of the lingering effects of historical circumstances. Boy Willie and Berniece have very different feelings about how to deal with their shared past. These differences are as telling as they are complex.
Berneice has left the South, but keeps the family piano with all its carvings and all its latent meaning. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano so that he can return home to the South with enough money to buy land there. Berniece no longer plays the piano because of the memories attached to it, but she refuses to give it up. Boy Willie never learned to play the piano but feels that it can be useful to him as a means to take power in (and control of) his life.
The complex differences between these two main characters act as a metaphorical parallel to the historical theme of the play, which is choice. After emancipation there was a period of uncertainty and hope. In talking about his time on the railroad, Doaker offers another metaphor for this period.
"Now, you can start from anywhere. Don't care where you at. You got to go one of the four ways. And which way you decide to go, they got a railroad that will take you there. Now that's something simple. You think anybody would be able to understand that. But you'd be surprised how many people trying to go North get on a train going West. They think train's supposed to go where they going rather than where it's going.”
The push and pull between Berniece and Boy Willie is, arguably, a dispute over how to conceive of the past and how to move on in the future. It is, in short, a dispute about Black identity. It is about finding a way forward and about the difficulties of that task.
Wilson's play recalls something William Faulkner once famously said: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The conceptual structure of the play places an emphasis on retrospection and a contemplation of the notion that the past leaves people in the present with unfinished business. There is a continuity from past to present, in other words, which might resonate with audiences today or at any time.
We are thus invited in The Piano Lesson to consider similar questions of how the past is still working on us in the present. What strains and conflicts, hopes and disappointments are still being worked out in our society and where can we identify them in the past?
A final reason to read the play then is that it articulates a clear vision of how history impacts the present and in doing so offers us a way to see the past as something that is not divorced or completely separate from the present. We can see in this play how our roots continue to shape us, as individuals and as a country.