In a 1993 interview, playwright August Wilson said he envisioned a participatory ending to his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson. As Berniece, the play’s central female character, sits down at the family piano and belts out the name of her ancestors in gospel cadence, audience members would join in with names of their own forebears. As it turns out, Wilson ultimately opted for a more conventional closing, but the notion that The Piano Lesson draws on the ancestry, not just of his characters but of all African-Americans, still rings as clear as Berniece’s throaty alto.
At the heart of the drama, set in Pittsburgh in 1936, is an intricately carved piano, left to Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, by their mother. Boy Willie has come up from the South to claim the heirloom and plans to sell it in order to purchase a plot of land back home. Berniece refuses to relinquish the instrument, however, even though she never touches it.
The significance of the piano is eventually related by the siblings’ Uncle Doaker, with whom the widowed Berniece lives. The piano was carved by the siblings’ grandfather for Sutter, a slaveowner who traded the siblings’ grandmother and father, then a small boy, for the piano. The carvings tell the story of the family’s lineage. As an adult, Berniece and Boy Willie’s father stole the piano from Sutter, but was killed in an ensuing act of revenge. The piano has remained in the family ever since.
Like all the works in Wilson’s chronicle of a century of African-American experience, The Piano Lesson proceeds at the relaxed pace required of what is, on one level, a family drama. But toning down can be a difficult thing for actors to do, as evidenced by the overzealousness of the leads in Wilson’s Fences at the Detroit Repertory Theatre last season. The members of Wayne State University’s Bonstelle Theatre Company, however, kick back remarkably well in this production. The exceptional performance of the undergraduate cast is especially noteworthy in light of the Hilberry graduate company’s recent, nearly farcical rendition of Hamlet. The play is directed by Edward G. Smith, the new director of Wayne State’s Black Theatre Program.
Senior Joel Steingold as Boy Willie, in particular, stands out, appearing completely at ease from his first moment on stage. It would seem that an air of effortlessness would be a prerequisite to casting an actor, but it is a feat all too rare in Detroit theater these days. Ironically, it is the one professional in the production, Judi Williams as Berniece, who lacks the spark the other performers exhibit. This is especially lamentable, as Berniece offers some critical and what should be forceful challenges to traditional ways of thinking — or not thinking — about women in 1930s America that still resonate today.
One technique that needs to be reviewed with Wayne State theater students posthaste: projection. The Piano Lesson suffers, as Hamlet did, from the diminished voices of strong characters. Smith’s actors are far too engaging not to be heard.