The piano, at least in a financial sense, is their only family legacy. It was carved by their great-grandfather, an enslaved carpenter named Willie Boy, for his master, Sutter. Sutter paid for the piano with Willie Boy’s wife and his nine-year-old son, Boy Charles, and gave it to his wife as a wedding present. But his wife comes to miss the former slaves, and Willie carves them into the piano as a reminder. She is delighted. The piano will eventually pass into Willie Boy’s family, but only after Boy Charles is set on fire and burned alive.
In 1936, Boy Willie (John Washington), great-grandson of Willie Boy, wants to sell the piano. Nobody plays it anymore, and he needs two thousand dollars to buy a piece of the former Sutter plantation. He will have ownership over the land on which his family was owned. But Boy Willie only owns half the piano; his sister, Berniece (Danielle Brooks), owns the other half, and she’s not selling. Plus, she’s just seen the ghost of Sutter—the younger one, the one who just died—at the top of her stairs.
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is haunted by many ghosts. There is the literal one, Sutter, and the metaphorical one, the piano, but there are also the ever-present ghosts that populate the stories of these characters. Berniece refuses to cease mourning her dead husband. She lives with her uncle, Doaker (Samuel L. Jackson), who spends much of the play reciting family history. His friend, the washed-out pianist Wining Boy (Michael Potts), laments the death of his ex-wife as well as the life they didn’t share together. Only Boy Willie and his friend, Lymon (Ray Fisher), seem to have a vision of the future. The rest is swallowed up by the past.
The strength of LaTanya Jackson’s current revival is its simplicity: these are strong actors reading good dialogue without anything to get in their way. Sutter’s ghost is rendered with subtle changes in lighting and sound, and the piano itself is gorgeous, nearly every inch covered in faces and figures that evoke African totems and masks. These, perhaps, are the most vivid ghosts in The Piano Lesson. The question for Boy Willie, Berniece, and the rest is: how do you honor and bear witness to their lives without being consumed by their deaths?
The Piano Lesson runs through January 29th at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. 243 West 47th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 45 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Julieta Cervantes.