If Trent Lott didn’t exist, then black America would have to invent him. The execrable gentleman from Mississippi and his fellow albino reptiles make for excellent lighting rods. And African-Americans have plenty of static to unload: Affirmative action might well be in its endgame, this despite the obvious fact that many a black youth gets laid low by rotten schooling, while the vertiginous disparity of income stifles ambition and social mobility. And now we learn that Hispanics are the largest minority in United States. In short, the odds are getting longer, the margins tighter.
That said, and said sadly, Black History Month is upon us, a time when the plays of August Wilson are in perennial revival. Wilson is famously composing a 10-play cycle that chronicles the times and tribulations of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century. Plowshares Theatre is currently mounting The Piano Lesson, the story of a brother and sister doing battle over a toxic family heirloom. It is chronologically the fourth in the series, but perhaps the most relevant one to the lot of black America in 2003.
We are where Wilson will usually have us, in Pittsburgh in the working-class neighborhood called the Hill. The year is 1936. The Great Depression slowly and surely is grinding down the broken grist of America. Boy Willie (Marlon Bailey) and Lymon (John Woolridge III) arrive in town from Mississippi to peddle a truckload of watermelons and to pay a visit to
Boy Willie’s sister, Berniece (Cecilia Foreman), who shares a house with their uncle Doaker (Council Cargle). Barely in the front door, Boy Willie turns a covetous eye toward the piano in the living room, bequeathed to the siblings by their grandfather, a slave carpenter. With the money he’d earn from selling the watermelons and the piano, Boy Willie blusters, he could buy the very piece of land upon which his ancestors toiled thanklessly for a white devil named Sutter. But Berniece, as stubborn as her brother is headstrong, refuses to part with the piano.
Why not? Wilson takes his sweet time getting to that. In the play’s most affecting and effective scene, Doaker reveals to Boy Willie and Lymon that the piano was the bartering chip between two slave owners, a heartless deal that sent Boy Willie’s grandmother to a distant plantation. In turn, the grandfather, after carving the piano, stole it from Sutter, only to be burned alive in a boxcar in retribution.
Of the many fine performances, Cargle’s merits special note. He nails Doaker, the wily old railway porter — the way he shambles in knowing weariness, the rising, breaking tone of his voice as he spits out this awful story in righteous disgust. Here is a piano lesson not to be forgotten.
But moving on, if not forgetting, is exactly what Boy Willie has in mind. Sentimental value shouldn’t trump monetary value, he argues. The past is worthless if it can’t help the future. And as far as he’s concerned, the future is in Mississippi working the land — his land.
There are few more potent symbols in black American culture than the piano and the train. And there is no one more able to milk them for thematic oomph than Wilson, a self-proclaimed black nationalist and “race man.” Here the piano is a prison of nostalgia or minstrelsy, personified in the rootless gambler-entertainer, Wining Boy (Herman McCain); the train is an unforgiving enigmatic force, allowing the white devil to bring his misery wherever there might be black folk to suffer it. Little wonder the characters fear and mock the curse of “The Yellow Dog,” an all-purpose hex named in honor of a notorious train that haunted the deltas from which they have escaped.
Despite the admirable attempts of the players to modulate the rambling stridency of the script, the play often bogs down. The two acts should be three, a strategy that would break up its excessive melodrama that tests the patience of even the most sympathetic viewer. Wilson has never been known for his structural discipline. Nor has he had to be: Old-time storytelling, with all its attendant sidings, is his bag. Since the play’s arrival in 1989 (it won the Pulitzer in 1990), The Piano Lesson has quickly gone from being condemned as a treasonous revelation of black secrets to “theater that uplifts the soul,” as Plowshares’ Web site (www.plowshares.org) and playbill proclaim.
But what good are secrets if the world beyond black America couldn’t care less about finding them out?
The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, produced by Plowshares Theatre Company, is at Marygrove College (8425 W. McNichols Road, Detroit) through Feb. 23. Tickets are $10-$25. Call 313-872-0279 for information.Timothy Dugdale writes about theater and books for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]