The lively revival of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson at the Signature Theatre seems a timely choice in view of the re-election of President Barack Obama. The play is the fourth part of Wilson’s Century Cycle, 10 plays that examine the Black American experience. The Piano Lesson, set in Pittsburgh in 1936, portrays a family’s efforts to deal with their past — pitting brother against sister as they debate whether or not to sell an heirloom piano. The play borders on the Shakespearian – there are ghosts, soliloquies, musical interludes, family feuds, and it’s very long. On the recent evening I attended, many had clearly seen the play before and were keen to see this rendition of a classic; as such The Piano Lesson deserves our attention.
We are drawn into the past with the help of Michael Carnahan’s accurately-designed interior set and its 1930s period details. Into this staid environment bursts a force of nature named Boy Willie, here a frenetic Brandon J. Dirden. He has arrived from the South at his sister Berniece’s house to sell a truckload of watermelons with his former jail mate Lymon. It’s step one in Boy Willie’s plan to raise enough money to buy the land that belongs to the family that used to own his ancestors in the time of slavery. Step two is to sell the ornate piano, decorated with carvings that depict the family’s struggles through the generations. Berniece, played by Roslyn Ruff, refuses to sell the piano because it is a connection with their past and wants Boy Willie to leave.
This tension dominates the first act of the play. The siblings’ Uncle Doaker, the sonorous James A.Williams, is a railroad worker who amusingly describes the foolishness of his passengers. But he also hints at the trauma to come when he says: “If everyone stayed in one place the world would be a better place.” This forms part of the lengthy explanation of the back-story punctuated with much unconvincing fussing about in the kitchen. When the male characters, led by the ebullient Wining Boy, Chuck Cooper in fine form, finally break into an a capella interlude, one ruefully feels a sense of relief. But the real turning point comes with a sighting of the ghost of the landowner from their family’s past just as the house lights come up at intermission.
The second act is the reward. Rosslyn Ruff drops much of the rigid control she adopted in the first half and reveals her true strengths with a searing performance. The piano takes on a life of its own and Boy Willie’s plans are thwarted by the spirits of the past.
Wilson’s dramatization of the real life experience of African American’s in the twentieth century represents an important record of social history. As America’s first African American president prepares to begin his second term, The Piano Lesson is a helpful reminder of how far the country has come but also of how much there is left to do. One emerges from this production with the feeling of having studied an assigned text, one that should be read (and experienced) by more Americans.