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The Piano Lesson Hardcover – 1990
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Drama in two acts by August Wilson, produced in 1987 and published in 1990. The play, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, is part of Wilson's cycle about African-American life in the 20th century. The action takes place in Pittsburgh in 1936 at the house of a family of African-Americans who have migrated from Mississippi. The conflict centers around a piano that was once traded by the family's white master for two of the family's ancestors. Boy Willie and Berniece, the siblings who inherit the piano (carved to show family history), argue about whether or not to sell it. Berniece's climactic refusal to allow Boy Willie to move the piano exorcises both the literal and figurative ghost of the white slave owner who has been haunting the family. -- The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature
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The fourth play in Wilson's "Century Cycle," and the fifth written, turns on the question of whether it is nobler to honor the past or look to the future. As we expect from a writer of Wilson's caliber, "The Piano Lesson" is full of family tension, careful nuance, buried secrets, and stirring revelations. The dialog also sings with the stunning passion of African American folk language, in a music comparable to David Mamet, but distinctively Wilson's own.
My problem with the play is the second act. Act One is unified, tightly structured, and although it appears slow moving, every line of dialog is packed with insight. But Act Two breaks down into a number of short scenes, looser in structure, at least one of which (II.iv) could probably be removed without damaging the play. And the conclusion is too abrupt. The threads suddenly wrap up very neatly in a way that feels sudden and unearned.
The TCG hardback includes an introduction by Nobel laureate Toni Morrison. She makes some interesting points about the difference between reading a play as literature, and seeing it performed on the stage. She's right to say that details which can only be alluded to onstage--such as Lymon's truck or Sutter's ghost--become more real when read off the page. Concise and insightful, Morrison's intro is almost as worth a read as the play itself.
This play is of value both as a part of Wilson's magnum opus and as a literary gem in its own right. But that value is packed almost entirely into Act One. I recommend reading this play as a literary gem and as a great piece of American culture. But be aware that, like most literature, it is imperfect, and the greatness that creates the play is what makes its shortcomings all the more visible.
Berniece Charles (age 35) and her younger brother Boy Willie (30) spar over whether or not to sell their greatest family heirloom: a piano that was traded for their great grandmother and grandfather. Berniece wants to keep the piano, which has the images of long-dead family members carved in it by her great-grandfather. Boy Willie desires to sell the piano so that he can use the money to buy the land their family worked on ages ago down south. As the play moves along, we learn about the history of the Charles family and we watch the current generation debates over the decisions of their forbearers.
Wilson won his second Pulitzer for this play in 1990 (which was written in 1987). It's not as good as Fences, his 1985 Pulitzer winner, but it's still a very good play with a number of great lines.
Wining Boy on the life of a piano player: "Now, the first three or four years of that is fun. You can't get enough whiskey and you can't get enough women and you don't never get tired of playing that piano. But that only last so long. You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that's all you got." (pg. 41)
Berniece to Boy Willie about their parents: "You always talking about your daddy but you ain't never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mama."