The Piano Lesson

by August Wilson

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An Eloquent Form of Social Protest and Public Education

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August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his second) The Piano Lesson demonstrates that commercially successful theater can be an eloquent vehicle for social protest and public education. Wilson’s early involvement in the Black Power movement and in black community theater, and his ambitious plan to write a cycle of plays about African-American life in the twentieth century, are proof of his desire to ‘‘alter the relationship between blacks and society through the arts.’’ His representation of black suffering, coupled with his celebration of black resistance and endurance, offers his audience a new representation of African-American history.

In the late-1960s, artists involved in counterculture movements resurrected the theater as a forum for political protest and a vehicle for social change. Many artists saw community theater as a means to reach out to their community and educate and politicize them. Wilson participated in the Black Power movement in the early-1960s and, like many artists during this period, he saw writing as a means to bring about social change. In 1968 Wilson cofounded the Black Horizons Theater in his homesuburb of the Hill in Pittsburgh.

Wilson found community theater at Black Horizons and, later at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a challenging experience. Throughout the 1970s he directed and wrote short plays for both these organizations, in the process perfecting his craft. Wilson was not content to remain involved in community organizations, however. He wanted the professional advice and support of the National Playwrights Center, and, after they rejected his plays several times, he finally won them over. The Center accepted a draft of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play that became Wilson’s first commercial hit. Wilson’s shift from community theater to the comparative profitability of Broadway was either hailed as progress for black audiences and artists or seen as him selling-out to white expectations and commercial incentives. But close examination of Wilson’s oeuvre reveals that he maintained his original ideal: to educate his audience and to contribute positively to the African-American identity.

Wilson’s aesthetics are founded on a belief in the African-ness of black Americans and upon an emphasis upon reclaiming black history. He stated in an interview conducted shortly after the completion of The Piano Lesson (reprinted in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights) that he hopes a viewer will ‘‘walk away from my play, whether you’re black or white, with the idea that these [characters] are Africans, as opposed to black folks in America.’’ Such an aim is in keeping with the black nationalist movement, which emphasizes the African roots of African Americans and the importance of African culture in sustaining generations of slaves. Wilson’s inclusion of African cultural and religious practices in his plays—Gabriel’s ritual dance in Fences, Berniece’s appeal to her ancestors’ spirits in The Piano Lesson—is just one way in which he emphasizes the ethnic roots of African Americans and rewrites their history from a black perspective.

Emphasizing such an African perspective necessarily involves recovering and re-examining black history in America. But Wilson’s desire to reclaim African-American history is complicated by the fact that many African Americans were long denied the literacy and education enjoyed by most white Americans. Not only did this mean that early black writers such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass struggled against great odds to write, it also meant that until recently African- American history was mainly located in oral forms, such as spirituals, jazz songs and the blues, trickster stories, visions, conversion experiences, and folk tales. Wilson’s decision to include some of these forms in his plays evidences his commitment to valuing the diverse...

(This entire section contains 1600 words.)

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sources of black history and his desire to celebrate black cultural achievement.

Equally significant is Wilson’s project of writing a play about African-American experience for each decade of the twentieth century. Wilson skillfully integrates sociological research into the fabric of each play, while exploring an issue that he sees as characteristic of the decade as a whole. In The Piano Lesson, the decade in question is the 1930s, and the issues that Wilson fixes upon are the relationship of urban blacks to their past as slaves and the Great Migration of southern blacks to the cities of the North. In effect, each play is a new installment in a new history of the African-American people.

The Piano Lesson is set in a period with which many audience members are at least superficially familiar, for the Great Depression’s impact upon generations of Americans was so wrenching that to this day mention of it conjures up vivid images of gaunt faces and soup kitchens. But Wilson offers audiences a story that has not been told as often as it might have been: the story of black American experience during the Depression.

While poor blacks and whites alike experienced tremendous hardship during the 1930s, black poverty differed from white poverty in significant ways. The relatively recent resettlement of millions of blacks to urban northern centers during and after the First World War had produced enormous upheaval in kin networks, tension that was exasperated by the fact that almost all migrants moved into urban slums in the inner city. Nonetheless, the promise of steady income and improved living conditions in big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh continued to draw black migrants North.

The Piano Lesson dramatizes the moment of migration and represents the city’s temptations: Lymon is attracted to Pittsburgh because of the possibility of finding good work, meeting attractive women, and living the ‘‘good life.’’ Avery’s decision to abandon the South and his subsequent success in Pittsburgh exemplifies a successful migration. The play is subtly didactic: it encourages the audience to re-think American history by asking them what might have happened if more blacks had stayed on the southern land, and it encourages black Americans to value their own history of suffering and resistance under slavery. Wilson believes, as he stated in In Their Own Words, that ‘‘blacks do not teach their kids . . . that at one time we were slaves.’’ This history must be told: ‘‘It is the crucial and central thing to our presence here in America.’’ To this end, in the play the Charles family come to accept the burden of the past that the piano represents. The faces of their ancestors carved into the piano represent the family’s loss and suffering, but the artistry of the carvings also testifies to their ancestor’s achievements. Similarly, the terrible loss that Boy Charles’s death brings to the family is balanced by the beauty of the music that the stolen piano gives the family.

While Wilson never sounds a strident call to arms, his representation of the history of black protest encourages the audience to value it and supports contemporary black protest. The examples given above, for instance, are testimony of the family’s endurance of hardship and of their maintenance of their identity, but they are also testimony to the family’s resistance to their bonds: Doaker’s grandfather, Boy Willie, breaks his master’s orders and creates an artwork that is testimony to his bonds of affection, rather than his mistress’s, and Boy Charles’s decision to steal the piano strikes another blow against the Sutters’s—and white—oppression. Indeed, the play includes several important examples of blacks carving (literally and figuratively) out their own space in a hostile white world, such as Avery’s attempt to found his own black church and Boy Willie’s attempt to reclaim the land on which his ancestors slaved.

Wilson’s essentially positive project of valuing black history, even its most terrible and painful elements, is also apparent in his representation of the richness of African-American culture. The Piano Lesson is typical of his plays in that he touches upon all of the central elements of African-American culture. Avery’s character speaks to the importance of religion in African-American life, ‘‘our saving grace,’’ while Berniece’s call to her ancestors speaks to the continuing influence of African belief in ‘‘ancestor worship . . . ghosts, magic, and superstition.’’ Wining Boy represents the black tradition of the blues, while Berniece’s management of her household acknowledges women’s role in the black family’s resilience in the face of great adversity. Last but not least, the dialect in which the characters speak is not only realistic but also a showcase to the unique contribution African Americans have made and continue to make to American English.

Wilson’s journey from community theater in the Hill to commercial success on Broadway has been a long one, but The Piano Lesson shows that his original belief in the playwright’s potential to ‘‘alter the relationship between blacks and society’’ remains unshaken. He still seeks to reach out to and educate his audience, to encourage them to re-think their present and their past and to offer black audiences voices with which they can identify.

Not only does Wilson continue to use the theater as a form of public education, he also continues to use it as a form of social protest. The Piano Lesson mourns black suffering under slavery and its impact three generations later on the descendants of those slaves. But, like all social protest, the play harnesses the energy of anger and grief in order to change the present: the play’s conclusion asks black Americans to honor their ancestors’ history and their own painful inheritance.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Ifeka is a Ph.D specializing in American and British literature.

The Blind Leading the Blind

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August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is set in the 1930s, continuing his chronicle of black life in America during each decade of the past hundred years. A family in Pittsburgh owns an antique piano, which originally belonged to the master of their ancestors in the days of slavery. The widowed young matron of the family, Berniece Charles, wants to keep the piano; her brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell it to help buy a piece of land in the South that was originally part of the plantation on which the family were slaves. The piano is covered with carvings made by their great-grandfather, depicting the family history.

The Piano Lesson is thus not only a historical play, but also a play about a family trying to come to grips with its own history. The controversy over selling the piano is not just a simple conflict between sentimentality and practicality. The piano is a symbol for Berniece, but an empty one. She will not even play it; her daughter, Maretha, picks at it in desultory fashion. On the other hand, for Boy Willie, selling the piano is not just a means of getting some cash. Buying a hundred acres of the old plantation is a way of getting control over the family’s terrible past. The land for him functions as the carvings on the piano did for his great-grandfather. Taking something that belonged to the master and making it into his own is a means to power, a way to go on record and be somebody, an ultimate triumph over white oppression.

The first act of Piano Lesson is talky and slow, with lengthy exposition about half-a-dozen unseen characters that is more suited to a novel than to a play, but in the second act the pace quickens. As the conflict between brother and sister approaches tragedy, the tone of the play becomes crazily comic, as when Berniece comes down the stairs with a gun in her pocket, while carefully wiping her hands on a dish towel. Boy Willie’s repeated attempts to steal the piano from the living room are thwarted by the sheer bulk of the thing, a piece of business that manages to be both highly symbolic and hilarious. The mystical overtones that occur in all of Wilson’s work are more explicit than usual, with apparent visitations by a ghost from the family past, which is finally exorcised.

Ultimately, The Piano Lesson is not as tightly written as Wilson’s Fences or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, but he remains unmatched today for vividness of characterization, richness of background, sensitivity to American history, and use of poetic imagery. Motifs of ghosts (showing the influence of Ibsen and O’Neill), music, land, wood, and travel are gracefully woven into the naturalistic façade, in a way no other American playwright has done since Tennessee Williams.

Lloyd Richards directed superbly, as he has with all of Wilson’s other plays. The players, from that small group of serious black American actors who are an unacknowledged national treasure, were all wonderful. Charles S. Dutton failed to get a Tony Award for his Boy Willie, but he deserved one for his inventive, varied, graceful, energetic, driven performance. (There was no timid underplaying here!) Dutton, a graduate of the penitentiary and the Yale Drama School, has a past of his own that he has exorcised.

Source: Richard Hornby, ‘‘The Blind Leading the Blind’’ in the Hudson Review, Vol. XLIII, no. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp. 471–72.

Traveling Man and Hesitating Woman

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The interior of the newly restored and rechristened Walter Kerr Theatre (it was formerly the Ritz), where August Wilson’s ‘‘The Piano Lesson’’ opened last week, is truly exquisite. I have an idea that parts of Wilson’s play must be exquisite, too. Unfortunately, I found it difficult to see past the head of the extremely tall man sitting in front of me. Offhand, I can think of no playwright whose work is harder to appreciate in such a situation. Wilson is unusual among contemporary playwrights in that he writes for the proscenium stage. His plays tend to present two juxtaposed areas—the adjoining rooms of a recording studio, or the world within someone’s back yard and the world outside it, or a boarding house where people stay briefly and the city of roads and bridges that carry them away—and you have to be able to view the whole stage to get the full effect of what is happening there.

In the case of ‘‘The Piano Lesson, ’’ which takes place in the house of a black family in Pittsburgh in 1936, the stage is divided into two rooms (evoked by E. David Cosier, Jr.): a living room, where the piano in question sits, and where the person who wants to sell it does most of his talking; and a kitchen, where people mostly talk about why it couldn’t or shouldn’t or won’t be sold. There are some spell-binding scenes in ‘‘The Piano Lesson’’— like the one in which a man sits in the living room talking about his hands while in the kitchen a woman goes through the elaborate process of taming her little girl’s hair with a hot comb and grease. What the man is talking about—working to produce something that white men will own—goes back to slavery. What the woman is doing—using her hands to make her daughter conform to white fashion— looks toward the future. Because of where the actors were placed in this sequence, something of its meaning came across to me. But most of the important scenes in Act I—like the one in which a room comes alive with the movement of men singing a work song, and the one in which we hear the history of the piano—take place on the right side of the stage, the side that this very tall man and I were sitting on. I would have gone back the next night, but I quailed at the prospect of sitting through Charles S. Dutton’s performance again.

Dutton is the central character, Boy Willie, whose arrival and departure frame the play, and Dutton’s performance, which could all too easily win him a Tony Award (it seems calculated to), and which has already won the actor praise, is, I think, terribly damaging to the delicate structure of Wilson’s play. Like the performances that Lloyd Richards— who directed ‘‘The Piano Lesson’’—elicited from James Earl Jones, Mary Alice, Courtney Vance, and Frankie Faison in Wilson’s ‘‘Fences,’’ it is essentially a bid for attention. It’s not so much stagy as self-conscious; indeed, self-consciousness is virtually its only quality. Stagy acting is what Maggie Smith does so well in ‘‘Lettice & Lovage’’— projecting the mannerisms of someone who doesn’t behave the way real people behave. What Dutton is doing is stagy only in the sense that you know (because something in the actor’s bearing or timing or intonation tells you) when a big line is coming up; for the rest, it’s projected realism: the simulation of a feeling—anxiety, say, or indignation—at such a pitch that the audience is constantly aware of watching the performance of an actor in a play.

What impresses people about this sort of acting may be its effortfulness. In Mr. Dutton’s case, effort means speed. Dutton bursts onto the stage at the beginning of the play acting at such a level of hysteria that his performance has nowhere to go; his character talks incessantly, compulsively, and Dutton delivers practically every speech with the unvarying, frenzied purposefulness of a crazed auctioneer. He induces a sort of delirium, so that by the end of the evening it’s impossible to focus on anything Boy Willie is saying.

To be fair, it’s hard to know how else an actor could approach the role. ‘‘The Piano Lesson’’ is a play that desperately wants cutting, and Boy Willie has most of the long speeches. Yet Dutton’s performance isn’t about subtlety, and all the rest of the performances are, as is the play. With the exception of ‘‘Fences,’’ all Wilson’s plays are subtle: they explore complex ideas by constructing around some aspect of the experience of black Americans an intricate system of theme and imagery. If ‘‘Fences’’ was Wilson at his least interesting, that’s because it was linear: its eponymous image meant basically the same thing to all the characters. The central object in this play—the piano, a beautifully carved upright, decorated with faces and scenes—means something different to everyone. To Boy Willie, who wants to use money from the sale of the piano to buy the land his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers, the piano means the future and his spiritual emancipation. To his widowed sister Berniece (S. Epatha Merkerson), whose father died stealing it from the man who owned it, the piano means a heritage of grief, bitterness, and women without men. To Berniece’s would-be suitor, Avery (Tommy Hollis), the piano represents the baggage of sorrow he wants her to relinquish. For Berniece and Boy Willie’s uncle, Wining Boy (Lou Myers), a former recording artist, the piano was once a living and is now a burden, and to Boy Willie’s friend Lymon (Rocky Carroll), an interloper, it’s just a good story. To Doaker (Carl Gordon), the head of the household, whose grandfather carved pictures of his wife and son on the piano for the slave owner who sold the wife and son in order to buy it, the piano embodies the family’s history—symbolically and in concrete terms.

If a man carves pictures of his wife and son on a piano, to whom do the pictures belong: the artist or the man who owns the piano and once owned the wife and son? Which is more important, the future or the past? How do you measure the abstract value that one person puts on an object against the practical use to which another person can put it? And what is the best way of making your way in a world in which whatever you make with your hands belongs to someone else? Wilson never answers any of these questions. Instead, he tacks on an ending that takes refuge in mysticism and melodramatic event—a tendency of his. Like the stages for which he writes them, all Wilson’s plays are divided in two—between earth, represented by women and home, and mysticism, embodied in the men who travel around in a world no part of which, they feel, can ever really be theirs. And mysticism always wins out. Usually, though, some marriage between the two forces has been effected in the audience’s mind by means of music. ‘‘O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well, go ’head marry don’t you wait on me,’’ sing the men in the kitchen. ‘‘I am a rambling gambling man,’’ sings Wining Boy, pounding the piano. ‘‘I’ve travelled all around this world.’’ And later he sings, ‘‘It takes a hesitating woman wanna sing the blues,’’ while Doaker makes up a song out of the names of the towns on the Katy line. All the music in ‘‘The Piano Lesson’’ is about travelling man and hesitating woman—except for the prayer that Berniece improvises to resolve the conflict and bring the play to a close.

I suspect that at one time Wilson had it in mind to include in the play an actual piano lesson. Wilson said in a recent Times interview that the play was inspired by a painting of ‘‘a young girl at the piano, with a woman standing behind her who seems to be admonishing her to learn her scales.’’ I think this image got translated into that wonderful hair-fixing scene, in which Berniece stands behind her daughter, Maretha (Apryl R. Foster), who is seated. At one point, the child tries to play the Papa Haydn piece out of the Thompson piano primer; in disgust, Wining Boy pushes her away and launches into some boogie-woogie. But there isn’t a piano lesson in the literal, down-to-earth sense. It’s clear that by the time Boy Willie departs Wilson wants us to feel that the piano has taught him something—or that he’s learned something about it—but the precise message of Wilson’s mystical ending is obscure to me.

Source: Mimi Kramer, ‘‘Traveling Man and Hesitating Woman’’ in the New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 82–83.

A Ghostly Past, in Ragtime

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The piano in Doaker Charles’ living room is a family heirloom, and like most heirlooms it is prized more than used, its value measured less in money than in memories. For this piano, the Charles family was torn asunder in slavery times: to acquire it, the white man who owned them traded away Doaker’s grandmother and father, then a nine-yearold. On this piano, Doaker’s grieving grandfather, the plantation carpenter, carved portrait sculptures in African style of the wife and son he had lost. To Doaker’s hothead older brother, born under the second slavery of Jim Crow, the carvings on the piano made it the rightful property of his kin, and he lost his life in a successful conspiracy to steal it.

Now, in 1936, it sits admired but mostly untouched in Doaker’s house in Pittsburgh, and it threatens to tear the family apart again. Boy Willie Charles, son of the man who stole the piano, wants to sell it and use the proceeds to buy and farm the very land where his ancestors were slaves. Boy Willie’s sister Berniece denounces as sacrilege the idea of selling away a legacy her father died to obtain.

That is the premise of The Piano Lesson, which opened last week at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. The lesson of the title—an instruction in morality rather than scales or fingering—makes the work the richest yet of dramatist August Wilson whose first three Broadway efforts, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, each won the New York Drama Critics Circle prize as best play of the year. The fact that producers are not shoving each other in haste to bring Piano Lesson to Broadway, especially in a season when the Tony Awards are likely to be given to mediocrities by default, underscores the all but defunct place of serious drama in our commercial theater.

Piano Lesson debuted more than a year ago at the Yale Repertory Theater, where Wilson has launched all his plays. In that production, the work seemed an intriguing but unpolished amalgam of kitchen-sink realism (there is literally one onstage) and window-rattling, curtain-swirling supernaturalism. Not much of the actual text has changed. But at the Goodman the play confidently shuttles spectators between the everyday present and the ghostly remnants of the past, until ultimately the two worlds collide. The first glimpse of the spookily poetic comes before a word is spoken, when a shaft of white light illumines the piano, which by itself plays an eerily cheerful rag.

The other major change since Yale is the recasting of Boy Willie with Charles S. Dutton, who gives a performance as energized as his Tonynominated Broadway debut in Ma Rainey, Puffing his cheeks, waving his arms, hopping around like Jackie Gleason in a one-legged jig, the burly Dutton seems a rustic buffoon. But when conversation turns to conflict, his jaw tightens and the clowning stops. In Boy Willie, Dutton and Wilson achieve that rarity in literature, a truly common, ordinary man of heroic force.

The rest of the cast is equally fine, notably S. Epatha Merkerson as Berniece and Lou Myers as the dissolute uncle Wining Boy, who leads family members in musical interludes that include a haunting, African-influenced chant. Director Lloyd Richards needs to tinker with the ending, a sort of exorcism in which a sudden shift from farce to horror does not quite work. But already the musical instrument of the title is the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield’s glass menagerie.

Source: William A. Henry III, ‘‘A Ghostly Past, in Ragtime’’ in Time, Vol. 133, no. 5, January 30, 1989, p. 69


Critical Overview