In his lifetime, the late, great playwright August Wilson penned two Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway dramas: Fences (1985), and The Piano Lesson (1990), now in its first major New York City revival at the Signature Center. Early in its lifetime, The Piano Lesson profited from actors Samuel L. Jackson and Charles S. Dutton in the main role of Boy Willie—the ne’er-do-well ex-con from Mississippi. (In ’95, Dutton starred in the CBS TV-movie production opposite Alfre Woodard.) With a first-rate new cast directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, The Piano Lesson closes out the 2012 Broadway season with all of Wilson’s indelible, magical swagger fully intact.
The year is 1936. Boy Willie, in an excellent turn by Brandon J. Dirden, visits his sister and uncle up North in Pittsburgh with his homeboy Lymon (Jason Dirden), selling watermelons from a truck, raising money to buy land. His sister, Berniece (Roslyn Ruff), distrusts Willie and rebuffs him completely when it comes to selling the family’s ornately sculpted piano which they inherited long ago. The Piano Lesson brings the classic A Raisin in the Sun to mind: a Black man with pipe dreams of owning real estate fights family over the proper way to respect the wishes of their ancestors.
And then there’s the haunted house. The ghost of Sutter—the dead, white owner of the land Willie has his sights on—starts manifesting in front of Berniece, her tweenage daughter, and their Uncle Doaker. The supernatural element of the play is the shakiest component to the whole story, but an essential part nevertheless. Things go slightly over the top in the magic realism denouement of the play, when Berniece saves Boy Willie from Sutter’s ghost by playing the piano (invoking the spirits of their parents welled up in the instrument). Previous productions may not have taken Sutter’s occupation of the house so literally, but director Santiago-Hudson’s interpretation is hardly enough to derail the play.
Playwrights Lorraine Hansberry (A Raisin in the Sun) and August Wilson both brainstormed brilliant dramas about generational conflict in Black America, and the responsibility of respecting family legacy. Is it better to hold on to ancestor worship, or to imbue even more faith in the here-and-now for a brighter future? The Piano Lesson seems to side with the former point of view, but its greater value lies in Wilson raising the question so artfully to begin with.
The Piano Lesson runs at the Pershing Square Signature Theater in New York City in an extended run through January 13.