The Piano Lesson by August Wilson opened at Central Piedmont Community Collage’s newly renovated Pease Auditorium on April 9. One of ten plays by the African American playwright, included in what he called the Pittsburg Cycle, the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama explores the conflict of an African American Charles family brother (Boy Willie played by Jonavan Adams) and his sister (Berniece played by Karen Abercombie) over the sale of the family piano.
Set in Pittsburgh during 1936, the action begins as Boy Willie and his sidekick Lymon (Robert N. Isaac) arrive with a truckload of watermelons from Mississippi at his sister’s house in Pittsburgh where she lives with her daughter Maretha (Karen Ambercrombie) and her uncle Doaker (John W. Price). Determined to acquire enough money to buy his own farm, Boy Willie is there to sell the family piano.
Berniece, on the other hand, will not part with it. She sees the piano as an heirloom and a work of art that embodies their family's history. Doaker relates that, during the 1800s, a farmer named Robert Sutter exchanged two slaves, their 9-year old and great-grandmother (also named Berniece) for a piano as an anniversary present for his wife. Although Mrs. Sutter loved the piano, she missed her slaves. Unable to trade back the slaves, Sutter asked the great-grandfather (also named Boy Willie) to carve portraits of the slaves into the piano so that Mrs. Sutter would not miss them. Obeying, he also carved images of his mother, Mama Esther, his father, Boy Charles, his marriage, his son's birth, his mother's funeral, and the day his family was taken away.
In the 1900s, one of the Charles grandchildren, Boy Charles, decided the piano and its heritage belonged to their family and he talked his brothers, Doaker and Wining Boy (Gerald Hazelton), into stealing the piano while the Sutters were away at a picnic. The Sutter patriarch formed a posse and chased after Boy Charles and burned him to death while he hid in a boxcar of the Yellow Dog. Doaker went on to work for the railroad or 27 years and Wining Boy became a gambler, drunk and mediocre musician.
Sutter's ghost appears to each of the characters throughout the play. Although supernatural themes often lurk in Wilson’s dramas, Sutter’s apparition also symbolizes the oppressive society that continues to enslave and intimidate the Charles family and African-Americans on the whole, since the characters in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle portray the African American family as it struggled under the past injustices of slavery and present stumbling blocks of emancipation.
Although the play’s central metaphor, the piano, dominates, there are many railroad metaphors, such as when Uncle Doaker says “If the train stays on the track, it will get where it’s going.” And, like two trains speeding to the same crossroad, there is dramatic tension between the material and spiritual worlds of Boy Willie and Berniece.
Wilson’s play is worth seeing for its content alone but, under the direction of Corlis Hayes, The CPCC production is not very fast-paced, making an already long production (just shy of 3 hours) seems even longer. The rhythm of the southern black jargon makes many of the lines difficult to understand and, although the cast appears to be capable, the acting oftentimes comes off as wooden. Other than a forced sense of levity now and then, the only other layer appears to be anger, which is often portrayed bombastically.
When: April 16 -17 8 p.m.; April 18 2:30 p.m. *
Where: Pease Auditorium, CPCC campus near Kings Drive and Elizabeth Avenue
* There will also be a free workshop about August Wilson and his work at 11:a.m., Tuesday April 13 at Pease Auditorium.
More info: (704) 330-6534 www.arts.cpcc.edu; www.carolinatix.org