Southern Lit 1: “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson
Last weekend, I finished reading “The Piano Lesson,” a two-act play by August Wilson, which I am reading for a brief independent study course on African-American drama. Having already read “Fences” numerous times – I teach the play in my upper-level creative writing courses – I was surprised at the similarities of tone and language in the two plays. The main similarity that struck me between the two plays was each having a mouthy dominant male character driving the plot: Troy in “Fences” and Boy Willie in “The Piano Lesson.” Both men seemed to feel cheated by the system, by white people, and by life in general, and planned to push forward into what he perceived as making a decent life possible, even if it meant defying acceptable roles.
“The Piano Lesson,” although it could easily be called a masterpiece of African-American drama or of American drama, could also easily be regarded as a masterpiece of human drama. Two characters, Boy Willie and his sister Berniece are locked in a struggle over how to use the resource left to them by past generations. In this case, the resource in question is an intricately carved piano with an equally intricate story. Berniece recognizes the object’s meaning within the context of family history, even going so far as to embrace the dark side of what it means, while Boy Willie recognizes its monetary value as well as that money’s role what he sees as his future. In some ways, it is similar to struggle for the quilts in the Alice Walker story “Everyday Use.” Although the driving force of the plot is their disagreement over whether or not to sell the piano — also whether the family should be looking backward or forward in time — the other characters in the play, Doaker, Wining Boy, Maretha and Lymon, do enrich the overall story. I don’t think the play would have been very good if it had only been Boy Willie and Berniece arguing for two acts.
When he saw me reading the play, a fellow teacher warned me that he didn’t like “The Piano Lesson” because he felt like the ending was very weak. I could see where some people might view the unseen Sutter’s Ghost character forcing Boy Willie into a trance-like submissive posture in an off-stage rumble as something of a deus ex machina — the tension had hit a fever pitch but there was nowhere to go: we couldn’t have the admirable character of Berniece to shoot her own brother, we couldn’t watch Boy Willie take the piano and sell it, and the rest of the male characters were incapable of standing up to Boy Willie for various reasons . . . so BOOM! Sutter’s Ghost handles him. Is this a metaphor for how even a dead white man can still control a headstrong black man? Or is it more of Wilson’s surreal storytelling technique like having Troy Maxson to claim to have wrestled with Death?
Whatever the end is supposed to accomplish, the play as a portrait of living drama is successful. I don’t know exactly which other play’s might have been up for the Pulitzer Prize in 1990, but “The Piano Lesson” seems like a deserving work. The sheer intricacy of the story of the piano, as well as how it worked into the plot on stage, was a literary feat.
Now, I am on to reading “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”