The Piano Sublime, August Wilson’s Play Extended Again
August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is playing at SignatureTheatre until January 20.
Boy Willie embodies the idiom to wear the heart on the sleeves. He is a heart brimming with a dream that the audience knows will be deferred. This deferment is in the distance for Boy Willie, the lead character played by Brandon J. Dirden. Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh, at the house of his uncle, Doaker Charles. He arrives with a dream to buy land that he has been farming in the south from its newly dead land owner, Sutter. Sutter once owned the Boy Willie’s grandparents and his ghost hunts Doaker’s house. Did Boy Willie kill Sutter or did the Ghost of the Yellow Dog? His sister, Berniece, played by Roslyn Ruff, is convinced that her brother’s penchant for trouble is proof enough that he killed Sutter. She is the prime protector of the family piano, beautifully engraved with its beloved members. To see the piano on the stage from the front row, is to see the oval eyes and textured hair of about five figures from the Charles’s family recent past.
The story turns on the fact that Berniece is not willing to sell the family’s piano, which Willie needs to fulfill the asking price for Sutter’s land. Much of the play’s plot is predicated on this sibling angst. In fact, a recurring line is Willie’s declaration that the piano is at least part his and so should be able to “sell his half.”
Though not conventionally, Berniece wears her heart on the sleeve as well. Her passion for family and soreness from loss render her a woman of few words, namely “leave my house” in reference to Boy Willie and his hapless friend Lymon. She interests me because she is hardened from love. Only someone who cares and has had a sweetness can become truly bitter. Best of all, she is quite intelligent and self-made. I appreciate the lines that Wilson gifts her about not needing a man in a scene where she stays steadfast, requesting her love interest Avery, give her time to decide if she wants to be a preacher’s wife. Her lines are not simply written, but they are written in juxtaposition with a man being able to live without worry of how he is getting along without a woman.
Perhaps the must-see theatre moment happens in the first act. The men—Boy Willie, Lymon, Wining Boy (pronounced Whining), Doaker—sing a work song that is phenomenal on multiple levels. Well known to Broadway audiences for his soulful singing, Chuck Cooper plays Wining Boy with the range of sea waters. He speaks and sings in the lowest and highest of registers, making seamless shifts. In this quartet moment, the content is heartfelt as they sing about what kind of man a woman should desire. The point is that men in the fields work too hard and that she should desire a railroad man because he comes home. The form is harmonic rifts on the refrain and call and response delivery. The voice is bombastic. The men beat on the table as spit flies from their mouths and their voices pressurize the room. With the only oxygen left, the audience claps and cheers.
The second act includes several key moments, including Avery’s casting out of Sutter’s ghost and Wining Boy’s delightful display of musicianship as he plays the sublime piano. Even with these two moments, which are central to the play’s theme of spirituality and generational roots, the detail that sticks to me is Bernice hot-combing and braiding her daughter’s hair on stage. As if in an out-of-body experience, I freeze and watch myself watching the mother doing hair right of stage. Center of stage, Boy Willie makes many great claims in his argument for selling the piano during this scene, but I cannot look away from mother-daughter. I listen to Boy Willie, glancing at his puffy hair while I watch the girl’s straight hair get straighter. I recollect this moment and I share it with my younger self who knows it best. I am happy to see the glob of grease that sits on the actress’s hand. I wonder if she ever thought she would play a woman she most likely knew; I wonder if she thought her aunts had a story worth telling when she was growing up.
I have not read Wilson’s play. Viewing the stage play with a fellow writer, brought up some issues of storytelling. First, there is a fair amount of back story that is spoken to fill us in. This feature has the effect of monologuing dialogue. The result is a bit unnatural at least to the ears of two thirtysomethings. In fact, I thought of Tyler Perry whose films often have unreasonably long scenes that are heavily dialogued. Second, a good amount of the play concerns characters who are not present. These characters, specifically Bernice daughter’s father Curly, would have been better if captured on stage; a spotlight moment of a flashback or a voice over could have worked to add depth to the main action, which again is predicated greatly on the recent and old past. I must say that the depth of the arguments for and against selling the piano is truly expansive. The rhetoric prickled my skin like a strong gust of life-affirming wind. The drawbacks that I note are a message of aspiration and inspiration.
Needless to say, I will commence to reading Wilson’s oeuvre, which includes two Pulitzers! In my defense of knowing of Wilson, but not his work, I was lost. I can’t recall one class that highlighted Wilson in the Harlem Renaissance and I followed suit. But much like my late love affair with Romare Bearden, time is on my side.