In August Wilson’s remarkable 1990 play, The Piano Lesson (Signature Theatre), a brother and sister battle over the disposition of an inherited piano. But Wilson never did anything superficially. The battle runs far deeper than the issue of whether or not to sell a piano. What Boy Willie (Brandon J. Dirden) and his sister, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), are actually warring about is the whole meaning of their heritage. And that war can never be completely won or understood. Heritages don’t settle themselves quietly. They must be accepted—bitterness, bloodstains, burdens, and all.
The piano, a white European musical instrument, can only be successfully played by the use of both its black and its white keys. The particular piano that sits, in 1936 Pittsburgh, in the house where Berniece lives with her uncle Doaker (James A. Williams), a railroad worker, has, like them, come north with the blood memory of slavery and Jim Crow still fresh within it. Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandfather, a slave with a gift for woodworking, decorated it at his owners’ request. He did so by carving on it his family history, including portraits of his wife and son, who had been traded for the piano’s purchase. The European instrument is a repository of African memory and African-American grief.
The wood-carver’s grandson augmented the grief: He seized the piano from its white possessors and was horribly murdered for doing so. Boy Willie, a sharecropper who still works for his family’s former owners, prizes the piano’s heritage but wants to sell it; the landowners have offered him a chance to purchase the acres he farms. Berniece, who no longer plays the piano and has not even told her 11-year-old daughter (Alexis Holt) its history, stoutly refuses to sell. “Money,” she tells her brother curtly, “can’t buy what that piano cost.”
The stakes are gigantic. Wilson surrounds this grab-you-by-the-throat conflict with a panoply of black life—post-slavery, post-northward migration—that resonates with it. He infuses the play with motifs, each given a new spin, that derive from the stereotypes that have weighed down black America: blacks seeing ghosts, blacks eating watermelon. The heritage of bitterness contains an infinity of files; this is a black family in which four generations of men carry the hated word “boy” in their names.
How literally Wilson means the play’s supernatural imagery is difficult to gauge. (The background of the house’s haunting, involving the retributive deaths of the white men who murdered Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, requires more space than I have.) Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s somberly intense, handsome revival goes for all-out ghost-story mode, using effects not specified in Wilson’s script. But these literal effects—doors that slam unaided, the piano playing without visible human assistance—only enhance the metaphoric sense in which Wilson meant his story. The ghosts are bound into the characters’ spiritual makeup, and Boy Willie’s climactic struggle with an unseen force is a Dostoyevskian far cry from the 1930s films in which Manton Moreland or Willie Best shuddered at Hollywood hoodoos.
Wilson never wholly resolves that struggle. Ultimately, Berniece and Boy Willie both learn to accept the piano’s value, but the rather hasty climax leaves the real-world issues facing them unsettled, the one small flaw in a long, rich play, thick with incidents and subordinate characters. Santiago-Hudson’s production, better unified in tone than the Broadway original, does it honor.
The original had a grander, more consciously sculpted air about it: Charles S. Dutton and S. Epatha Merkerson, as Boy Willie and Berniece, seemed huge, hieratic figures, slightly cut off from everyone else. Without lowering their intensity, Santiago-Hudson has fitted their characters more smoothly into the general picture: Dirden, blunt, brusque, fast-talking, makes Boy Willie’s verbal effusions a scrambling nonstop ride, perfectly balanced by Ruff’s steely, slow-burning determination.
In the first-rate supporting cast, two performers stand out for the way they project, from deep within their roles, their constantly evanescing moods: Eric Lenox Abrams, sweetly abashed, modest, and yet vibrantly sincere as Avery, the young minister who courts Berniece; and Chuck Cooper, as the siblings’ scapegrace uncle, the hard-drinking, gambling, sometime jazz pianist Wining Boy. Wholly within his element musically, Cooper uses his natural authority to mix gleeful and rueful, heedless and heartfelt into a memorable figure that manages to tower without overpowering the play’s central focus.