In August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson – the fourth play in his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle – the stubborn legacy of slavery is both literally and figuratively embedded in an heirloom piano engraved with portraits of the Charles family’s enslaved ancestors. The story of the piano is the story of intergenerational trauma: the piano is haunted by the spirits of the great-grandmother and grandfather who had been traded away from their husband and father by a white slaveowner in exchange for it. It’s also a vessel for the ghost of Boy Charles, who was burned to death in a boxcar by a lynch mob after he stole the piano from that former slaveholder’s plantation. The piano’s intricate carvings make it valuable, not just to the family, as an heirloom and repository of their history, but also to white antique hunters.
Enter Boy Willie (Wali Jamal), the thirty-year old son of Boy Charles, recently returned to Pittsburgh after having spent a few years in jail in Mississippi. He’s come north with his friend Lymon (Monteze Freeland) and a truckload of watermelons. His plan is to sell the watermelons, and the piano, and use the money to return to Mississippi and purchase farmland from the heirs of the plantation master who once owned both the piano and his ancestors. Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece (Karla C. Payne) refuses to sell the piano, however; too much of her family’s blood and sorrow are bound up in it. There, in a nutshell, is the central conflict of the play: Berniece values the piano as a literal embodiment of the labor and suffering of her family in the past, and Boy Willie wants to shed the past and build on his family’s legacy to create capital and wealth for his family’s future. There are other stakeholders in this drama, too, including Doaker Charles (Kevin Brown) and Wining Boy (Garbie Dukes), brothers to Boy Charles (and uncles to Berniece and Boy Willie), who helped liberate the piano thirteen years earlier and still feel the guilt of their brother’s death. There is also the newly ordained pastor, Avery (Edwin Lee Gibson), who would like to yank Berniece from wallowing in the past and convince her to build a future with him. And then there’s the ghost of Sutter, the recently deceased plantation owner, come to Pittsburgh to join all the other ancestral spirits who scare the bejeesus out of Berniece’s poor young daughter Maretha (Nia Woodson/Trysta Miri Lei Fields) every time she sits down to practice Für Elise.
Like the other plays in the Pittsburgh Cycle, The Piano Lesson steeps us in a moment in African-American history (here, it’s the 1930s) to provide a window into the historically specific effects of institutionalized racism at different moments in the twentieth century. Striking about this play, in particular, is how immediate the legacy of slavery remains for the Charles family, seventy years after the end of the Civil War. Their family’s physical enslavement has ended, but they remain psychically and emotionally bound up with their ancestors’ enslavement (and with the whites who enslaved them): there are many ghosts, both black and white, that need exorcizing in this play. In the end, the piano – symbol of the very many ways institutionalized racism exploited and terrorized African-Americans from slavery on – refuses to budge from the Charles home, just as the history of slavery and its violent aftermath stubbornly continue to determine the family’s social and economic fate.
The play is in production at the newly reopened August Wilson Center, in a co-production by the Pittsburgh Playwrights’ Theatre Company and the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust. Under Mark Clayton Southers’ direction, the ensemble brings the rhythm and lyrics of Wilson’s language vividly to life. But at nearly three hours, the play starts to drag towards the end, and the final scene, in which Avery attempts to banish Sutter’s ghost from the home, is so muddled in its staging that some members of the audience mistakenly thought it was supposed to be funny. Nonetheless, it’s a cause for celebration that the beautiful August Wilson Center is open once again and highlighting Wilson’s important contribution to the American theater: his canny insights into all of the ways American society has structurally disadvantaged African-Americans remain sadly all too relevant and resonant today.