The Piano Lesson, the fourth play in August Wilson's celebrated cycle of plays tracing African-American life in the 20th century, recently got a rousing production at the Anthony Bean Community Theater. Wilson won his second Pulitzer Prize for The Piano Lesson, and to get on his wavelength, it's helpful to think of other complex, rhapsodic writers like William Faulkner.
The story begins when Boy Willie (Stephfon Guidry) and his buddy Lymon (Donald Lewis Jr.) arrive in Philadelphia from Mississippi in a battered old truck. It's barely past dawn and they pound on the door of Willie's sister Bernice (Brittney James). Doaker (Will Williams), the owner of the house, lets them in. The crucial, but sometimes confusing backstory starts to emerge. A white man named Sutter fell in his own well and drowned. Willie, who wants to buy Sutter's farm, says ghosts pushed Sutter into his well. When Sutter's ghost, represented by eerie blue light, appears, he calls out Boy Willie's name. History literally and figuratively haunts the play.
Sutter is connected to the central symbol of the play, the piano in Doaker's parlor. In antebellum days, Sutter's grandfather traded two slaves for the piano. These slaves were Doaker's grandmother and the boy who was to become his father. But Sutter's wife grew heartsick missing her slaves. So Sutter asked Doaker's grandfather to carve the faces of the traded slaves into the piano, and he engraved the faces and more of the family history. Because of the carvings, the Doaker family felt the Sutters still held them symbolically in servitude. In 1911, Doaker, his father and his brother Wining Boy (Harold X. Evans) stole the piano.
Though the piano onstage was rather ordinary looking, in the play it is of great value — spiritual and monetary — to various family members. What is to be done with it affects how they hold on to or break with the past.
There's a great deal more to the narrative, including Bernice's charming little girl (Maya Patterson) and Avery (Alfred Aubry), a suitor to Bernice and a prospective preacher she enlists to exorcise the ghost of Sutter.
Anthony Bean directed. I found the lower-key performances of Williams and Evans particularly effective, especially given the sometimes lengthy emotional fulminations by other characters. A Piano Lesson was an absorbing, thought-provoking production. — Dalt Wonk