The Goodman Theatre

The Piano Lesson, the latest play by August Wilson, the man who wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and the Pulitzer prize-winning Fences, is unfinished–as anyone who watched it fall apart in the second act could tell you.

But it’s also rich in language and character, and if not thematically profound, certainly well on its way. What’s more–and perhaps the most urgent reason for you to catch the current production–The Piano Lesson features some of the best acting and direction that this town has seen in some time.

The centerpiece of this story is a piano, which is the legacy of the Charles family. Back before the Civil War, some of the Charles family, who were slaves in Mississippi, were traded for the piano. And the father, who was kept behind, was told by his master to ornament the woodwork on the piano. So he carved the legs like a totem pole with the images of his lost family. Much later, after the Emancipation, the sculptor’s three grandsons stole the piano. There was a reprisal, and one of the brothers was burned alive, but the other two got away with the piano. Worse luck for four black hoboes who, although unaware of the theft, were murdered for good measure. Berniece and Boy Willie, the children of the murdered brother, inherited the piano. Berniece took it with her when she moved north to Pittsburgh, and this is where The Piano Lesson takes place, in 1936.

The play opens just before dawn, when Boy Willie arrives, having traveled all the way from Mississippi with a truck full of watermelons and a three-part plan. With his savings (the first part) and the money he makes from selling those melons (the second part) and the piano (the third part), he’s going to buy 100 acres of the land that his ancestors used to work as slaves. The only problem is, Berniece won’t part with that piano. Its price in blood can’t be matched in cash. And, although Boy Willie argues a hard case for the future and the sustenance that the farmland would provide, Berniece won’t be swayed. She’s afraid to even play the piano, but for all the pain and loss it represents for her, she can’t let it go.

With this piano and this family, Wilson gives shape to one of the major problems facing black Americans. If economic equity with whites can only be bought with the sacrifice of your culture–as Boy Willie is inclined to do–isn’t that slavery of a sort? Don’t ask me; ask the black MBA student. Or were you to hang on to a bitter legacy, like Berniece, and pass it on to your children–would that be any better? Playwright Wilson doesn’t take sides on this issue. As Berniece and Boy Willie’s Uncle Doaker says, “I ain’t said nothing about who’s right and who’s wrong. I was just telling the man about the piano.” What, indeed, could Wilson say?

Perhaps Wilson himself was overwhelmed by the problem he’d raised. We never find out what happens to the piano. Along the road to climax the plot becomes complicated with ghostly visitations from the late Old Man Sutter, former white man and piano owner, who was recently and mysteriously thrown down a well. Did Boy Willie do it, as Berniece suspects, or was it the spirits of the four black hoboes mentioned earlier? This question isn’t resolved either, and even if it were, I haven’t the slightest idea of how it would contribute to the play. The Piano Lesson–so steady in the first act, so drunkenly uncertain in the second–culminates in an exorcism scene, of all things. What is this? Some desperate lunge toward a deus ex machina, or an uncanny attempt to get George Romero to direct the film version?

Anyway, and in spite of this glaring flaw, Wilson has a brilliant hand at dialogue and characterization. I could sit at the kitchen table and listen to these characters for hours. They speak with ease and humor. “How you got to be a preacher, Avery?” Boy Willie suddenly blurts out, taking a pause in his lifelong monologue. And Avery’s response–his dream, his summons, his testimony–will leave you born again in hysterics. As Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick, says, “Hear him tell it, the Holy Ghost done sat on his head.” Even little bits of dialogue, such as when Doaker’s brother Wining Boy reads a letter announcing the death of a close friend of the Charles family, create moments both specific and universal. That is, it’s part of the play–you know that–but somehow it’s also part of your life. And this is how you know that the voice and soul of these characters have come alive. It’s not so much that their humanity calls attention to itself, but that it reminds you of yours.

Sure, acting has something to do with it, and this cast is terrific. Charles Dutton (as Boy Willie) is the powerhouse, talking a mile a minute and goosing any scene that needs a prop broken or a conversation hurried along. S. Epatha Merkerson plays the hardening but not hardened Berniece, as immovable in her convictions as a piano without casters. Paul Butler and Lou Myers play the two brothers (Doaker and Wining Boy, respectively)–who helped steal the piano in the first place. Mostly I recall Butler’s subtlety in expressing Doaker’s tacit guilt over surviving the piano heist, and the less subtle way that Myers, as Wining Boy, would sit at the kitchen table, knees apart, feet together, conning the world around to his point of view. And Rocky Carroll (as Lymon, Boy Willie’s sidekick), with his charm and his crisp and shyly confident gestures, is simply a joy to watch. There are a few others in supporting roles, but the point I want to make is less about individual performances than of the excellence of the ensemble. These actors fit together naturally like the family and friends they portray. More than that, they resurrect a people and their history.

Lloyd Richards, of Yale Rep and the O’Neill Theater Center, is a longtime collaborator with August Wilson. So it comes as no surprise that his direction here shows an insight and a sensitivity to the script that’s rare these days. One scene, above all, stands out. Doaker, Wining Boy, Lymon, and Boy Willie are gathered at the kitchen table. One starts singing, then another, and soon a harmony emerges. The beat is tapped out on the floor or the table. Lymon clinks his glass against the empty Jack Daniels bottle. A music of strange and complex beauty, like none I’ve ever heard, rises up to nourish a lyric that has little meaning except in song. Richards knows how to put the ritual to Wilson’s words.

Of course, Richards doesn’t know how to finish the play any more than Wilson does. And when the play starts falling apart like an overdone pot roast during the exorcism scene, Richards resorts to thunder and lightning effects. Which got me to wondering why they didn’t iron the kinks out of this thing back at Yale, or at its subsequent production in Boston. Maybe Chicago is just another trial venue on a shakedown cruise to New York. That’s us, the second city. Well, so what? At least we got a crack at it first.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.