The Piano Lesson | The Black Rep

play piano-lesson_75The resolution might seem simple enough—it’s understandable to want to serve no more masters—but it’s complicated.



play piano-lesson

August Wilson was an angry man and that was one of the qualities that fueled his greatness as a playwright. The son of a black mother (whose last name he took when his white father died), he identified with his African roots much more strongly than he did his German ones. Among his works are 10 plays (called variously the “Century Plays” or the “Pittsburgh Cycle”) crafted to articulate the black experience in 20th century America—decade by decade, though not written in order—to those who were living it and those who dwelt in that other world: white America. He didn’t pull punches. The Piano Lesson is the “1930s” play, and it focuses on the Charles family, two of whom are living in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson himself grew up, and one visiting who still lives in Mississippi.

Doaker Charles (Robert A. Mitchell) and his widowed niece, Berniece (Sharisa Watley), share the home, along with Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (Carli Officer). Early one morning in July 1937, Boy Willie (Ronald L. Conner) and his friend Lymon (Chauncy Thomas) wake the house, as they announce their arrival up from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to sell. However, Boy Willie’s real mission is to remove a piano from his sister Berniece’s keeping so he can sell it to buy his own farmland and stop sharecropping. This plan does not meet with Berniece’s approval because this isn’t just any old upright. The instrument is intricately carved with renderings of their forbearers.

His brothers, Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandfather, the original Boy Charles, did the artwork on the piano. The Sutter family who owned the instrument also owned him. His wife and their grandson, nine years old at the time, were traded away by Mr. Sutter, but his wife really missed the two, so Sutter had his slave render their faces to comfort her, and he kept adding to the carvings to the point that it became a kind family totem. Years later, Boy Charles, the son of the former nine-year-old, felt like the piano was his family’s by right, since their faces were all over it, and one night, he and his brothers Doaker and Wining Boy (Ethan H. Jones) stole it. When the crime was discovered, his house was set on fire, and when he tried to escape by boxcar, that too was burned, killing him and several others. Doaker and Wining Boy managed to get the piano to safety. Soon after, the men responsible for killing those in the box car began to mysteriously fall in their own wells. The latest victim is the current generation’s Mr. Sutter, and Berniece is convinced Boy Willie was the culprit, while he insists he was not.

Berniece is suspicious of Boy Willie anyway because she blames him for getting her husband, Crawley, killed for committing a minor crime together. She’s still grieving, and she naturally doesn’t trust her brother. It doesn’t take much, therefore, to set them at odds about the relative importance of the piano versus Boy Willie’s urge to be his own boss. The resolution might seem simple enough—it’s understandable to want to serve no more masters—but it’s complicated by the fact that Boy Willie has not only proven that he is irresponsible in the past, but there’s no indication that he’s not talking big and meaning little this time either. Still, he is determined to get the piano, no matter what it takes, and some fine comic moments are provided by his and Lymon’s attempt to lift it. But, as often happens in Wilson’s plays, there is a supernatural aspect central to the action: Mr. Sutter’s ghost is appearing around the house. Doaker saw him first, but didn’t say anything, then Berniece was frightened by him (blaming Boy Willie for stirring him up), and young Maretha was scared out of sleeping upstairs anymore because of the apparition.

Meanwhile, Boy Willie and Lymon continue to have trouble with their truck, which delays them. They have to sell enough watermelons to have room for the piano, too. Berniece is being courted by another native Mississippian, Avery (Robert Lee Davis III), who is a self-declared preacher trying to get a bank loan to establish a church he believed God required of him in a dream. The story of that dream is worth the price of admission, by the way. Wining Boy happens to be in town and he’s busy drinking, borrowing money from his brother, and taking advantage of the naïve Lymon whose main interest seems to be women. Candice Jeanine has a nice turn as the object of both his and Boy Willie’s fleeting affections. But unlike Boy Willie, Lymon intends to stay in Pittsburgh and seek his fortune up north. He is 29, but seems younger. He has almost a childlike charm about him, and Thomas is terrific in the part. Everyone here is very good, but Thomas pulls the focus whenever he’s around.

Wilson said he was creating a female counterpoint for Troy Maxson (the garbageman protagonist in Fences, the “1950s” play, and the other Pulitzer Prize winner besides this one in the cycle) and to the extent that she is the strongest-willed, surest figure in the play, he does. But Boy Willie is the one who makes the most profound impression on us and personifies the playwright’s beliefs through his obstinacy, big dreams, old resentments, and singular focus. He is the angry black man in this world, while Lymon is sweetly oblivious, Doaker is resigned, Avery’s found God, and Wining Boy is lost in the bottom of a glass. Boy Willie seems the most like Troy, as a younger man, anyway, before he has become so embittered that he fears success for his son because accomplishment for a black man, even in sports, will hurt him in the end. Boy Willie, he’s not at that point yet, but might it come?

So, who wins? You should go find out. As is the case with most of Wilson’s plays, this is a little over two and a half hours long, but you probably won’t notice that, and it’s time well-spent. It’s a good-looking production, too. Daryl Harris’s costumes are just right for each character’s personality. There are so many details to the surreal set and lighting (Tim Case, Jim Burwinkel) where the shadows of the ancestors appear when things get spooky. Lorna Littleway’s direction maintains the delicate balance of the situation and within the relationships. The piano’s lessons about race and class; the value of memory; the importance of family past, present, and future; spirituality and spirit in all its incarnations are clear by the end, though you may want to think a little bit more on ghosts. In 2013, The Piano Lesson, first presented 21 years ago by the Black Rep to inaugurate the Grandel Theatre where the company still resides, is truly impressive. | Andrea Braun

The Piano Lesson runs through Feb. 2, 2013, at the Grandel Theatre in Grand Center. Visit for more information, including tickets and showtimes.

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