August Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, now running through November 13 at The Hartford Stage, might makes its thematic statement in this way, “The Piano Lesson is: Don’t sell your birthright.” The dueling siblings are not Jacob and Esau, but the inheritance at stake in the play is ancestral lineage, one that has been literally carved into the piano’s wooden exterior by a grandfather. It is so sacred as to cause the playwright to summon supernatural forces to resolve the conflict. That an audience accepts intervention from beyond is as much testimony to the extraordinary cast and production as to the affirmation of black family identity that is the play’s theme. 

The drama is set in Pittsburg in the mid ‘thirties, at the time of the Great Migration North. Berniece, the elder sibling and a widow, had made the journey some years before, and now lives with an uncle in respectable circumstances, devoted to her daughter and to their advancement. Enter unexpectedly Boy Willie, her brother, along with his friend Lymon – ferrying a load of watermelons to sell at profit. From the start, the arrival is an assault on the normal, a disruption of Berniece’s routine that she is at pains to halt. He brings with him the freight of the Old South, a tale of the sudden death of a former landlord, mysteriously drowned by falling down his own well. The new arrivals are suspect and fears of blood legacy, violent crime, erupt in accusations and defense. History, we are told, follows us to wherever we move: the piano’s carvings of family life also depict the violence of racism and apparent retribution.

Boy Willie sees in the instrument only its cash value, which along with the sale of his watermelons, will provide him with money to buy the property of the dead landlord that his family worked as tenants for years. This is a new beginning that disparages the past, wipes out what was and will allow him to make himself anew. Berniece is adamant that the piano cannot be sold, even though she has been unable to play since the death of her husband. The piano is sacred, the work of her ancestor’s hands and a depiction of what they are to each other. The complications of the plot take as their center this struggle: to keep or sell what is symbolic of family experience.

In effect, the plot leads to the education of Boy Willie and the liberation of Berniece: they accept each other as they embrace what cannot be changed: their past. Such acceptance is not defeat but affirmation. Now here is the strangest aspect of a play that relies on conventional realism: the ghost of the drowned landlord stalks the house, terrifies the family and ultimately weights so the piano that despite all Boy Willie’s efforts it will not move. The marvelous event prevents Berniece from shooting Boy Willie as he strains to remove the piano despite her protests. The deus ex machina breaks Berniece’s musical silence, and her piano playing exorcises the ghost to reveal the true worth of the family heirloom to Boy Willie.

What can this mean? Something essential will not be lost to this African-American family, so deep and meaningful that the very conventions of realist drama fall before it. The play applauds the undoing of its own terms of reference – the rules of the real world don’t apply. Paradoxically, only with such dramatic subversion do living values predominate.  

Forgive this speculation: the production is great theater. The set, the music, the acting (Clifton Duncan as Boy Willie in particular), and the ensemble singing do what theater should do, give that almost giddy elation that only live performance can give.  See the show.


Edward T. Wheeler, a frequent contributor, is the former dean of the faculty at the Williams School in New London, Connecticut.

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