Language, Spirit, and Vision: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, featuring Charles Dutton and Alfre Woodward

By Daniel Garrett

The Piano Lesson
Directed by Lloyd Richards
Hallmark Hall of Fame, 1995

August Wilson, like Toni Morrison, has gifts of language, spirit, and vision; and, again like Morrison, Wilson has explored aspects of American history with particular meaning—pain and possibility, rigor and ritual, sense and sound—for African-Americans. In August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, a Yale production directed by Lloyd Richards that appeared on Broadway and in a 1995 Hallmark Hall of Fame television presentation, a brother looking forward to the future, Boy Willie, and a sister haunted by the past, Berniece, argue over their inheritance, a piano that has scenes of family life carved into its panels. It is a gorgeous piano, its panels featuring African forms: the piano was bought by a white southern slave master who traded two of the black family’s ancestors for it, only to have the master’s wife miss the sold slaves, a loss the master answered by asking an artisan to create portraits of the lost for the piano. The artisan of wood, a blood relative of the sold persons, embellished the piano with the requested images and others; and later one of the black family’s members, Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, stole the piano and was killed for it. His ghost and those of the men killed with him are thought to haunt the descendants of the killers.

It is early twentieth-century America: Mississippi and Pennsylvania. Boy Willie, who has some money saved, and is visiting Pittsburgh, from Mississippi, to sell a truckload of watermelon with his friend Lymon, wants his sister Berniece to agree to sell the piano, to help Boy Willie get the balance he needs to acquire the land his family used to work. Berniece does not want to sell the piano, for the history and sacrifice it represents, though she does not play it. The argument of rowdy Boy Willie and careful Berniece is an argument of present versus past, material versus spirit, and will versus sentiment; and each perspective has force and value. Charles Dutton plays Boy Willie, and Alfre Woodard Berniece, in what is a family drama, and a coming of age story as Boy Willie takes responsibility for his destiny, and a romance as Berniece has two suitors, and a ghost story as Berniece and others think they see a ghost in the house, and, lastly and importantly, it is a story of decision and transformation for Berniece.

The Piano Lesson, as presented by Hallmark, has some staginess still, but what remain impressive are August Wilson’s language, spirit, and vision. Wilson’s language is more natural than poetic, but it is ever flowing—creating character and music and relationship—and summoned are a particular time, 1936, and place, America (Mississippi and Pittsburgh). The characters in the play—the supporting roles include a relative who works on the railroad, and a suitor who is both an elevator operator and a minister, and also an aging, drinking, struggling entertainer—speak with personality, with chastening and relished experience, with awareness and wit. Some of the scenes are vivid—the pastoral country and built city neighborhood scenes—but there are also instances of visual dullness, even awkwardness; and there are a few moments when the acting is too emphatic, but for the most part this is an admirable, engaging, and important production. August Wilson has created a drama, a situation, which allows the observer to see the complexity of African-American experience rendered with dignity, honesty, and pleasure. When the men are assembled around a table and sing an old prison song, it is an example of beauty arising out of sorrow, transcendence. It is a dream of male community. Yet, the use of ghosts in the play as emblems of the past, of grief and guilt, of ancestral connections, as symbol and fact, gives the play much—theatricality, horror, humor, and spirituality—but that is also a confirmation of superstitious thinking, of a magical realism that forestalls the corrections of logic and law.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics.