Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Piano Lesson @ Court Theater

posted by chicago pop

A.C. Smith portrays Doaker in August Wilson's The Piano Lesson
at Court Theater*

At the center of a room in Pittsburgh stands an ancient, upright piano, its legs and body decorated with distinctive carvings. In the house that holds the piano lives a widow with her young daughter, and her widowed uncle. Into their home enter two men from Mississippi -- family -- the widow's brother, whose father was killed a quarter century before, and a young man hoping to flee the injustice and hard rural labor of the South.

All this family can claim as its patrimony, a family strained by the dispersal of the Great Migration, and ruptured by the violent destruction of its men, is the 137 year-old piano.

The fate of this object is the subject of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning, 1987 play, the fourth in his epic "Century Cycle" of dramas exploring the experience of African-Americans across each decade of the twentieth century.

With a story of two siblings drawing the remnants of their kin into their dispute, Wilson presents a classic tale of sibling rivalry and, in the conflict over how to divide the family's inheritance, a struggle to achieve reconciliation with the past.

For this family, that past is dominated by slavery. The piano formerly belonged to the owner of the family's ancestors, and was bought by the slave owner in exchange for the grandmother and father of Doaker (above), whose likenesses were then carved onto the piano's body.

The piano is thus an ambivalent object, one with a sentimental link to a horrible past, and a money value that recalls the commodification of the slaves it was once bartered against.

Berniece (Tyla Abercumbie) and Boy Willie (Ronald L. Conner)
Argue Over the Family Piano*

What should be done with this object? Boy Willie , up from Mississippi, wants to sell it and use the money, fulfilling the long deferred promise of Emancipation by buying land and gaining independence as a free, yeoman farmer.

Berniece, Boy Willie's sister, resists her brother's entrepreneurial plans, and wants to keep the piano as a link to her dead mother in the past, as well as with her living daughter in the present, who is receiving formal piano lessons but knows nothing of its story.

The piano is the capital accumulation of one family, but is understood as a different type of capital by Boy Willie and Berniece, in a way that reflects the distinct gender roles of 1930's America: for Boy Willie the piano is economic capital, a commodity to be converted to cash for the purposes of investment and economic self-improvement, a prospect which is not equally available to Berniece, for whom the symbolic capital of the object, a sort of shrine to a tattered family heritage, far outweighs its selling price.

Perhaps the strangest thing about Wilson's play is its reliance on a literal haunting of the piano by a deceased white landowner to move the plot to resolution. But it works, whether taken literally or figuratively as the haunting of 1930's American with Jim Crow and the unfulfilled promises of the post-Reconstruction era.

In other ways, Wilson's play draws upon many genres and conventions, from slapstick to musical: the most moving sequence is arguably the field worker's song joined in by the men as they remember days in the South. The production suffered from only a few flaws, such as unintentional bumping of furniture, or a noticeable pause in Smith's recitation at one point.

My fellow theater-goer that evening, originally from the East Coast, remarked that anywhere else, he would expect a theater of Court's quality to be in the liveliest, most vibrant entertainment district of a large city, steps away from the after-theater bars, bistros and restaurants.

At one time, 55th Street might have filled that role, and the washed up piano man Wining Boy in Wilson's play, when he exited the stage, might have felt comfortable crossing the street and pounding the ivories till the early morning.

Though those days are gone, the attraction of the Court's productions is consistently high enough to accomplish what we spend so much time encouraging on this blog: draw people to the neighborhood from the rest of the city. On the night we were there, people were being turned away from the box office. That's the kind of problem we could use more of in Hyde Park.

*Image source:

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