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The ghosts in the piano

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater stages August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Ghosts, both literal and metaphorical, haunt the African-American family in August Wilson’s award-winning play The Piano Lesson. At its heart, The Piano Lesson is a story about the conflict between the present and the past, when to honor your history and when to let it go.

In this case, that conflict revolves around an antique piano, a piece of family history, that Berniece keeps in her family’s Pittsburgh apartment. The year is 1936, and Berniece is a woman in her mid-30s whose husband died a few years earlier. She’s raising her 11-year daughter with the help of an uncle.

The piano is engraved with images of family members who were sold as slaves just a couple generations ago. Berniece’s brother Boy Wille, a southern share cropper recently released from prison with his friend Lymon (Cortney White), wants to sell the piano to buy a piece of land he’s had his eye on, but his sister not about to give up something that has such strong ties to the family’s history. “The piano was part of their family during the days of slavery,” says Terra Brantley, who plays Berniece. “Some of her relatives were sold for that piano, and some of her relatives ended up getting that piano back by breaking into the slave owner’s home. A lot of things transpired; people aren’t really sure who killed whom or what happened, but she now has the piano in her home.”

But to Boy Willie, the piano is a relic, and represents a past that he’s eager to put behind him. “He is very high-strung, uneducated yet extremely proud and motivated,” says Dwight Wilson, who plays Boy Willie. “He’s full of pride in a positive way in that he feels he’s just as entitled to his piece of the American dream as anybody else, regardless of race.”

Wilson says that Boy Willie is actually very compassionate and shows a lot of love for his sister and his niece Maretha (Lauryn E’Lessia Jones), but he’s also very stubborn in his desire for the piano and in his drive to make something of himself. “He knows that because of the time period that he’s got to be this aggressive bull because nobody is going to help him,” Wilson says. “So he’ll be damned if anyone is going to get in his way. At one point, he says ‘ain’t no difference between me and the white man,’ and that sums up what he’s feeling. He may not be better, but he’s certainly no worse, and he wants his piece.”

Director John Tolley, who calls Chicago home now but served as the artistic director of the First Presbyterian Theater from 1974 – 1990, says that The Piano Lesson is about the struggle between honoring what the generations that have come before us have had to do to get us where we are, and not being tied down by those things so we can move into whatever the new opportunities and the future brings. “In the play, it’s actually both a metaphorical ghost and a real ghost that has come to haunt the house from their slave roots on a plantation in the south. It’s the stories this family tells about itself to make sense of its struggles, its triumphs and tragedies and in the telling of the stories, we learn who these people are.”

The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” a 10-play series with the ambitious goal of chronicling the African-American experience in the 20th century. Each play takes place in a specific decade and addresses some of the issues of that time period (Wilson finished the series shortly before his death in 2005).

The Piano Lesson debuted at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1987, premiered on Broadway in 1990, and also won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama that year (Wilson’s second Pulitzer).

Tolley he’s relying on the cast, perhaps more than he usually does, to lead him through the play. “I said ‘I’m European-American’,” he recounts. “’I don’t have the experience growing up African-American, so I know there are going to be subtleties and things I’m going to miss, so I’m going to need you to keep me on here’.”

One of the first conversations he had with the cast was about some of the hard racial language the characters use with each other. As a theater professional, Tolley says his first impulse is to honor Wilson’s original text — a playwright uses specific language for a specific purpose, and its important to respect that. “Having said that, it’s not my place to have to sit here and say ‘you have to read this verbatim,’ when that may resonate in ways I can’t being to understand. So I said: ‘We’ll work with this, and if I need to challenge you, I will, and if you need to challenge me, you can’.”

And indeed, the cast had some serious discussions about the racial language the characters use in The Piano Lesson. As theater people, they wanted to respect August Wilson’s script (after all, Wilson did win a Pulitzer), but were worried that audiences might be offended. “From today’s standpoint, African-Americans are trying to get rid of the ‘n’ word, so we didn’t want to offend anybody,” says Dwight Wilson. “We tried to substitute the word with ‘fool’ or things like that, but it just didn’t give the play its punch. This play was written by an African-American man, and he put it in there intentionally. Once we put it back in there, the played flowed like it was so supposed to, the energy was there like it was supposed to be.”

Brantley is pretty unambiguous with her take on some of that “harsh racial language” Tolley talks about — those words are in there, and hopefully people who see the play won’t be offended and will take the language for an honest depiction of the way the characters talk to each other. “If that’s how you’re talking to each other, that’s how you’re talking to each other,” she says. “Why try to paint a different picture?”

Dwight Wilson worked in two previous Fort Wayne Civic Productions of August Wilson’s work, Fences and Two Trains Running. He says part of the power of Wilson’s work is that, though the plays may come from an African-America perspective, the themes they deal with are universal, and this is especially true of The Piano Lesson. “What family hasn’t had a situation where there’s an heirloom or something of value involved?” he says. “Where there’s a struggle between their roots and the future? That’s the real beauty of this play.”

The Fort Wayne Civic Theater presents The Piano Lesson
Rated PG-13


Saturdays, September 12 and 19 at 8 pm
Friday September 18 at 8 pm
Sundays September 13 and 20 at 2 pm

Arts United Center
303 East Main Street

Tickets: $24/adults; $16/age 23 and under; $20/Sunday Senior Matinee

Box Office: 424-5220

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©2018 Fort Wayne Reader. All rights Reserved.