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If August Wilsons The Piano Lesson were set to music, the format
unquestionably would be blues. If the story were relocated to Argentina or Portugal, tango
or fado respectively would be the music of choice. In The Piano Lesson Wilson not only creates
repetitions and recurring themes in words that accrue musically like an extended blues
composition, but also (as in tango and fado stories) depicts a people and culture
struggling to survive in a world that does not support them or their traditions. What is
particularly remarkable is the way Wilson makes this story of an African American family,
subject to all the past political injustices of slavery and the current trials of
emancipation, widen to embrace a universal look at the human condition. Its an
accomplishment well worthy of the Pulitzer Prize with which The Piano Lesson was
Arena Stage, under the direction of Seret Scott, has produced a fast-paced and rhythmic interpretation of The Piano Lesson that requires a Zen patience to tune in to how the actors deliver their lines. Running just fifteen minutes shy of three hours, the patter of southern black argot carries the listener, once connected to the style of speech, forcefully like the trains on which Uncle Doaker has worked for 27 years. The story through-line concerns the quest by Uncle Doakers nephew, Boy Willie, to buy a piece of land. Boy Willie is fixed on getting the money he needs by selling the family piano despite its irreplaceable value to the family, especially to Boy Willies sister Berniece. Like two trains speeding to the same crossroad, Wilson creates dramatic tension between the material and spiritual worlds of Boy Willie and Berniece.
Several episodes of history complicate the story. The land up for sale belonged to a man named Sutter whose family had owned Uncle Doaker, his grandparents, parents and brothers as slaves. The piano had originally belonged to Sutters grandmother Ophelia. To pay for the piano, Ophelias husband had traded Doakers grandmother and father to a man named Nolander who moved the young woman and her child far from the Sutter plantation. Eventually Ophelia regretted the loss of her slaves on whom she depended for certain household tasks and companionship. Since Nolander would not consider returning the two slaves and Ophelia was so distraught she had taken to her bed, Ophelias husband enlisted Doakers grandfather, a skilled woodworker, to carve the image of his wife and child into the piano to symbolically return Ophelias favored slaves to her. After emancipation, Doakers brother Boy Charles, father of Boy Willie and Berniece, enlisted his brothers Doaker and Wining Boy to steal the piano from the Sutter house.
Two deaths also complicate the story. Berniece blames her brother for the death of her husband Crowley, who, along with Boy Willie and his buddy Lymon, were out stealing firewood. Boy Willie explains that if Crowley had just given up to the sheriff as he and Lymon did and Crowley had not tried to shoot his way out of the situation, Crowley would still be alive. After Crowleys death, Berniece and her young daughter Maretha moved north from Mississippi to Pittsburgh to her Uncle Doakers house, which is where the entire action of the play takes place. Although three years have passed since Crawleys death and a down-home boy named Avery has followed Berniece north to court her, Berniece refuses to move past her loss.
The other death critical to the action of the story introduces a supernatural situation into Doakers house. Three weeks prior to Boy Willie and Lymon noisily barging into Doakers house at five in the morning (this is where act I begins), the current owner of the Sutter property fell down his well. Down home gossip says it was the Ghosts of Yellow Dog. Yellow Dog is one of the railroad lines on which Doaker works. After Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house, he decided to stick around and act like he was not involved. However, someone knew Boy Charles was involved and so Boy Charles house on the Sutter land was burned down. Boy Charles escaped according to Doaker on the 3:57 Yellow Dog, only to be burned alive in a railroad car with four hobos. After that, men who had adversarial relationships with the African American community started falling to their deaths in their own wells. After her fathers death, Berniece was forced to learn and play the stolen piano for her grieving mother who said she could hear Boy Charles speak when Berniece played. Since the death of her mother, Berniece has refused to play the piano, although she is sending Maretha to a teacher for lessons. Berniece fears invoking the spiritual world. Sutter, it seems, is haunting Doakers house and eventually brings the situation between Boy Willie and Berniece to a fever pitch that is not unlike the emotional wallop created by Lorraine Hansberry in A Raisin in the Sun.
Jeorge Watson as Boy Willie delivers a standout performance. He portrays a brash young man who offers lines like he is equal with any white man while liberally calling family and friends around him, Nigger. Watson also rises handsomely to defend principles of decency. When Berniece, in a fit of exasperation and trying to fix Marethas hair, tells her daughter, Be still. If you was a boy, I wouldnt be going through this, Boy Willie berates his sister for wishing Maretha were a boy and hurting her feelings. Watson, despite the overall production decision to deliver dialogue at a fast clip, knows how to lean into his vowels on words like feel to heighten the emotional impact. Another memorable scene for Watson with strong support by David Emerson Toney as Doaker finds Boy Willie singing a prison work song. Watson struts around Doakers living room like a Flamenco dancer stomping and building his energetic output.
Whats disappointing about The Piano Lesson is that the Wilson does not give Berniece even one line where she expresses some love for her brother. Boy Willie, despite their differences over the fate of the piano, cares about his sister and his family, a caring that is seen throughout the play. Harriett D. Foy as Berniece plays a complaining and blaming sister who wants her brother out of her life. The acting comes off as wooden and stereotypical. Foy never attempts to show by gesture or body movement that Berniece and Boy Willie are blood-and-bones family, having suffered together as children. What the playwright left out then becomes the domain of the actor.
Washington, April 7, 2005 - Karren L. Alenier