Summary: Boy Willie returns to his sister's house to claim their heirloom family piano (they each own half of it). With the profits from this piano, he hopes to buy some of the land that his ancestors worked on as slaves and start a new life for himself "down South." His sister Berniece refuses, reminding him that the faces of their great-grandparents (slaves) are carved into the wood. The piano was first owned by a white slave-owner named Mr. Sutter and then stolen by Berniece and Boy Willy's father. Shortly after stealing the piano, he was killed...but the piano remained as inheritance for his children. To Berniece, the object represents family history, pride, struggle and a connection to the past.
Thoughts: As I began this project, I became more interested in various projects of great ambition by playwrights, notably Suzan Lori-Parks' 365 Days/365 Plays project (November 2002-2003) and The Pittsburgh Cycle, which contains two Pulitzer Prize winning plays. Also called The Century Cycle, this set of Wilson's plays each represent a decade of the 1900s and were written from 1982 to 2005.
1900s: Gem of the Ocean (2003)
1910s: Joe Turner's Come and gone (1988)
1920s: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984)
1930s: The Piano Lesson (PP) (1990)
1940s: Seven Guitars (1995)
1950s: Fences (PP) (1987)
1960s: Two Trains Running (1991)
1970s: Jitney (1982)
1980s: King Hedley II (1999)
1990s: Radio Golf (2005)
Having also read Wilson's Fences for this project, I naturally found myself drawing connections between these two works. Both of the plays examine familial relationships and are aided by the perspective of an outsider (Bono in Fences, Lymon in The Piano Lesson). These characters are able to offer more tempered advice and perspective as they are not relatives but have decades experience participating in the interpersonal relationships of the families. Additionally, both of these plays contain elements of the supernatural. In Fences, Troy's mentally handicapped brother Gabriel believes he is the angel Gabriel and has a divine vision in the final scene. The supernatural is much more prevalent in The Piano Lesson as the ghost of Sutter (the white slave-owner whose piano was stolen by the Charles' family) appears multiple times to different members of the cast, making it very clear that he does not want the piano moved.
While critics certainly have their favorites, I am reminded of the words of my professor David Jones, who described following progress of The Pittsburgh Cycle as: "It was like watching someone build a Gothic cathedral."