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The Piano Lesson 

In this August Wilson play about race and power, a 1930s black family argues over the fate of a cherished family heirloom

Wednesday, Mar 6 2002
The question of freedom is at the heart of much of August Wilson's work, and The Piano Lesson is no exception. The story finds an African-American family in 1930s Pittsburgh arguing about the fate of a cherished family heirloom -- a 137-year-old, hand-carved piano designed by Boy Willie and Berniece's grandfather when he was a slave and left to both of them when their mother died. After living some time in the South, Boy Willie (with his sweet, dimwitted buddy Lymon) heads home to Pittsburgh to visit his sister and reclaim the piano. He wants to sell it and use the money to buy land, but Berniece refuses to give it up, claiming it's the only tie to their ancestry they have left. The controversy invokes the spirit of a long-dead friend of the family, who begins to haunt the premises. The play adeptly cuts into issues of race and power, weighing the price of nostalgia against that of financial freedom. But it runs too long (three-plus hours), and the supernatural ghost hoopla (complete with exorcism, spooky sounds, and shining white overhead lights) is a weakness in both the production and the script. Fortunately, Wilson's compelling, fully realized characters rescue the play. John Earl Jelks gives an outstanding performance as everyman Boy Willie; his remarkable stage presence adds several dimensions to the dramatic action, keeping us there for the long haul. Director Stanley Williams finds the soul of the play in its music, which manifests in several fantastic Southern ditties. Perhaps the real joy of Piano lies in Wilson's masterful monologues. Infused with humor, truth, and intelligence, these philosophical gems are gateways to confession and reform, as each character poses the question of how to define freedom.

About The Author

Karen Macklin


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