Unfinished Business

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson has returned to The Yale Rep where it debuted in 1987.  The play is part of a cycle of ten plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century, that Wilson wrote to depict African American experience.  With that sense of epic reach in mind, one approaches The Piano Lesson a bit awestruck, ready to watch a master work through family history and racial history in telling ways, making his characters “representative” but also fully weighted with individuality.  The play, as written and as presented, stands upon venerable traditions of naturalistic theater, with a grasp of character dynamics that recall Chekhov and O’Neill, playwrights celebrated for their ability to make dramatic points arise out of what seem to be everyday conversations. But that may be a misleading claim, for the plot of The Piano Lesson hinges upon events unusual in themselves, beginning with Boy Willie’s bumptious visit to his sister Berniece, coming all the way from Mississippi to Pittsburgh in 1936 as a man with a mission.  But once he gets there, with his slow-spoken friend Lyman along, the first mission—to sell a truckload of watermelons—doesn’t seem too pressing, and the other mission—to convince Berniece to let him sell the family heirloom piano—becomes the occasion for all sorts of reminiscences, grandstanding, arguing, haranging, and hauntings.  And there the feel of how porous is the difference between the usual and the unusual, the natural and the unnatural, becomes more portentous, investing the Charles family heirloom with a fetishistic quality that partakes of different forms of magic, all tellingly presented in the play.

The house is haunted by the ghost of Sutter, grandson of the slave owner who sold off Boy Willie and Berniece’s great-grandmother and grandfather to buy the piano.  He has died recently, pushed down a well, and that means his land, which the Charles family worked as slaves, is now available for Boy Willie to purchase.  And that’s why he needs to sell the piano.  Though we never see the apparition, it appears to different members of the family, indicating to Berniece that her brother may have been responsible for Sutter’s death, but also seeming to indicate that, even beyond the grave, Sutter is concerned with what becomes of the piano, a piano that was stolen by Boy Charles, father of Boy Willie and Berniece, along with his two brothers, Wining Boy and Doaker, and brought to Pittsburgh.  Carved into the piano are images of the two who were sold as well as images of other notable moments in the Charles family history (all this history comes out in Scene II in a wonderful speech, delivered as collective memory,  by Uncle Doaker).

Giving an object such historical and familial meaning is significant enough, but Wilson goes further, letting us feel the appeal of music—the prison worksongs (another great moment is when Boy Willie, Lyman, Doaker, and Wining Boy all join together on the song “Berta Berta,” beating time on kitchen implements), the boogie-woogie tunes (Wining Boy is an aging former saloon singer and piano player), the hymns and ballads that the piano seems to incarnate.  Berniece’s most persistent suitor, Avery, is an elevator attendant who aspires to be a preacher and his attempt to exorcise Sutter by blessing the house brings into play the strong evangelical magic that speaks to these folks to varying degrees.  Then there is the magic attraction of the loose woman, Grace, that speaks to both Boy Willie and Lyman, to say nothing of the alleged magic of the silk suit and Florsheim shoes Wining Boy convinces Lyman to buy from him, "guaranteed" to get him a woman.

In other words, talismans abound, and cultural reference points, and songs, and fluent rhythms of speech, all coming together to form a vast expressive fabric.

The battle between brother and sister about how best to live up to what the burden of the past means is the heart of the piece, as everywhere there is unfinished business—between Willie Boy and Berniece (she blames him for her husband’s death), between the Charles family and the Sutter family—the slaves and the masters—and between the North and the South, the rural and the urban, as sites of African American identity.

The question of who carries the day and why is what we leave discussing.  If we’re meant to sympathize with Berniece and her intentions to retain the emblematic piano, the performance by Eisa Davis made that difficult.  Her Berniece sounded brittle and strident, only appearing warm and appealing in her touching quasi-courtship scene with Lyman (Charlie Hudson, III) where the latter’s easy-going nature brought her out of a settled irritability.  LeRoy McClain’s Boy Willie, while engaging, energetic and instantly likeable, appeared at times so wrong-headed and insistent we can’t completely sanction his claim nor entirely dismiss his intention to sell off the past to improve the present.

The siblings’ struggle was fleshed out entertainingly by Charles Weldon as Wining Boy, a pivotal figure every time he was on stage because his command of a repertoire of moves and voices made vivid a character of vast experience, and by Keith Randolph Smith’s Doaker, a stolid figure with an air of bedrock solidity.  We might feel at times a taint of cliché hanging about these characters: the plainspoken railroad man, the feckless entertainer, the prim widow, the naïve hayseed, the sexy city-woman, the knockabout with a plan, but that sense of the familiar only proved uninspired in one instance: as Avery, the upright worker turned preacher man, Tyrone Mitchell Henderson was neither comical nor wholly convincing, there being an earnest dullness in the character he couldn’t quite overcome.

At times, there were places where the play could move more quickly, but time seems to be part of the burden Wilson wants to present, and director Liesl Tommy gives us a play we have to settle into and learn how to live with, providing just enough jolts to keep us off-guard, but also giving us a lesson in naturalistic action and ensemble work.  The piano may be all too obvious as an emblem of slavery, song, and family, but the genius of the play is in making the past—like the uneasy revenant Sutter—a real presence.

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson; directed by Liesl Tommy

Original music by Eisa Davis; lyrics by August Wilson

Yale Repertory Theatre, January 28 to February 19, 2011