August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is on stage at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre through February 7, one of his ten plays—The Century Cycle—set in Pittsburgh’s predominantly African American Hill District in different decades of the 20th century. The Piano Lesson and another play in the cycle, Fences, which McCarter produced two years ago, won the Pulitzer Prize.
The Piano Lesson takes place in 1936, in the midst of The Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities—Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago. One of its themes is the difference in perspective of visitors and newcomers from the rural south compared to their family members already established in the urban north.
The story centers on members of the Charles family and (with a captivating stage set showing both the urban neighborhood and the intimacy of the Charles’s home): Doaker, a cook on the railroad, his widowed niece Berniece, and her 11-year-old daughter. Their well-ordered routines are disrupted by the arrival from Sunflower County, Mississippi, of Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, and his friend Lymon, who’ve driven north with a ramshackle truck full of watermelons to sell.
Boy Willie has been offered the chance to purchase the farmland of a white man (Sutter) who died under mysterious circumstances. He’s saved up some money for the purchase, the sale of the watermelons will help, and to seal the deal he needs the proceeds from selling the family piano. Berniece refuses to sell it. Carved on the piano is the story of their family going back to slavery days. So beyond the rural/urban, south/north divide, there is the tug-of-war between honoring the past versus enabling the future.
Further disrupting the family is the claim by each of the northern household that they’ve seen the ghost of the dead white man, and their willingness or unwillingness to believe that Boy Willie killed him. Playgoers can develop various theories as to the reality and significance of this particular ghost, but it’s clear that the characters are haunted by many ghosts, including those represented in the piano’s carvings, and, more immediately, Berniece and her uncle Wining Boy’s dead spouses.
The excellent cast—Stephen Tyrone Williams as Boy Willie (with an unbelievably long Act II monolog that possibly should be trimmed); Miriam A. Hyman as Berniece; John Earl Jelks as Doaker; and Cleavant Derricks as Doaker’s slick brother Wining Boy—is directed by Jade King Carroll. David Pegram was a perfect Lyman, a half-step behind and eager to become citified. There is much good humor in the characters’ interactions of the kind only close kin can indulge in.
The presence of a composer, sound designer, and music director in the crew credits suggests how significant music is in Wilson’s conception of the family and their story. The beautifully staged men’s work song about the Parchman Prison Farm is long, but not long enough!
The program for the play includes a helpful family tree of the Charles family, who can trace their lineage (thanks to the piano) back to Doaker’s and Wining Boy’s great-grandparents. This is an unusually full picture of family during slavery days, as demonstrated in Henry Louis Gates’s fascinating Finding Our Roots PBS television program. Reflecting on ancestors in slavery is powerful, as Regina Mason’s discovery of a great-grandfather who was a former slave, attests. These modern-day quests, three or four generations after the action of Wilson’s play, illuminate how some members of many families, like Boy Willie, wanted to put all that history behind them and how others, like Berniece, believed in keeping it close. In her case, the lessons of the piano were worth more than money.