In the early 1980s, August Wilson set out to encapsulate the experiences of 20th century black culture. Although he purposefully set each of his plays in a different decade, it is important to understand that Wilson doesn’t claim to be a historian.
Wilson’s memories of his mother are reflected in the fragmented collection of music and storytelling that characterize his Pulitzer
Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson, currently playing at Arena Stage.
The play tells the story of a family in the 1930s living in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Wilson’s own childhood home. When Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, comes to visit her and their Uncle Doaker from the family’s native Mississippi, they are forced to deal with the literal and figurative ghosts of their past.
An old piano engraved with the pictures of their ancestors is the only heirloom connecting the siblings to their slave roots. When Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the plantation on which his family toiled for so many years, Berniece must face the piano’s history and her inner struggle to cope with its sentimentality.
This play brilliantly captures the raw emotion of a black family trying to move on in the North during the Depression, while still haunted by their not-so-distant history in the South.
Director Seret Scott was able to use the theatre-in-the-round setup of the Fichandler Theatre very effectively to tell this story. By having the actors do everyday activities such as cooking toast, washing dishes, and hot-combing their hair, it gave the impression that the audience was just another guest in the Charles household.
The chemistry of the cast was also a pivotal part of this production’s success in pulling off the at-times disjointed plot elements. Jeorge Watson gave an outstanding performance as Boy Willie. He played the character’s range of emotions subtly, in a way befitting a desperate man who is trying to prove himself to his family and society. Harriett D. Foy countered Watson’s talent well enough as Berniece, though her performance was not as well nuanced.
The performances of Carl Cofield, Frederick Strother, and David Emerson Toney were crucial to the storytelling and background that gave the story its mystery and authenticity. Their characters, Lymon, Wining Boy, and Doaker, respectively, were part of one of the play’s most moving scenes, in which they join Boy Willie in a spiritual they had each learned in prison in Mississippi. The singing begins haltingly, but eventually consumes the men and the audience in a chilling rapture that makes their pain all too real.
The lighting design by Allen Lee Hughes also helps with the story’s continuity and effectiveness. A subtle change of filter allows time to leap ahead five hours in an instant and then a dark stage illuminates the play’s haunting conclusion.
Wilson’s play is not a historical epic, nor does it necessarily follow reason or logic. However, what the play and this production of it do exceedingly well is to capture the passion of a black family’s struggle to find peace with the past and step forward into an uncertain new era.
The Piano Lesson will remain at Arena Stage’s Fichander Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SW until May 15. Go to www.arenastage.org for ticket information.