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11/19/2012 03:05 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2013

"The Piano Lesson" Review: August Wilson's Ghost Story Haunts Anew

The ghosts that haunt August Wilson's great play The Piano Lesson have hovered in the American psyche for centuries now, and as an admirable new staging at the Pershing Square Signature Center makes clear, neither time nor sorcery can ever completely exorcize them.

Written as part of his 10-play cycle covering the evolution of black America through the 20th century, Wilson set The Piano Lesson in 1936 when the country was still struggling through the Great Depression and countless black Americans were migrating north with dreams of casting off the yoke of subservience they still wore 70 years after Emancipation.

The central conflict of the play swirls around the old upright piano of the title, an heirloom instrument with carved figures on the front and sides, and whether it should be sold to buy the land in Mississippi its owners' forebears once worked as slaves.

Wilson was a brilliant, poetic writer, and The Piano Lesson which won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, is one of the richest in his cycle, both in language and lore. It is also the play in which he most directly deals with the issue of slavery and the burden it casts on black Americans striving for social and economic equality. The dialogue is often so lyrical it could almost be sung, and the actual music in the play ranges from old-time Boogie-Woogie to a foot-stomping rendition of an old Negro field song.

Piano Lesson opens with the arrival from Mississippi of Boy Willie and his friend Lymon at his Uncle Doaker's house in Pittsburgh with a truckload of watermelons they hope to sell. But Boy Willie has bigger plans. He also wants to sell the old piano he and his sister Berniece inherited and use the money to buy some farmland that has just become available with the death of James Sutter, whose family once owned his ancestors. But Berniece refuses to even consider the proposition. "Money can't buy what that piano cost," she tells her brother.

The history of the piano is steeped in violence - "thieving and killing, thieving and killing," Berniece says - and it is the legacy of all that bloodshed that makes the piano so valuable, either as a treasured keepsake or as an item for sale.

The piano was first purchased by the original Sutter plantation owner for his wife. The price was one and a half slaves, meaning one adult and one child, and the coin Sutter used to buy it was Boy Willie's and Berniece's great grandmother and her young son. Sutter's wife loved the piano, but she missed seeing her two slaves, so Sutter told their great grandfather, a woodworker, to carve his wife's and son's faces on the front of it. But he didn't stop there. He added likenesses of the whole family tree on the sides of the piano.

A generation later Boy Willie's and Berniece's father, Boy Charles, and his two brothers - Doaker and Wining Boy - stole the piano out of Sutter's house. The brothers carried it by wagon to some relatives in the next county, but Boy Charles hopped a boxcar on the old Yellow Dog railway. Some men - no one knows who for sure - stopped the train and set the boxcar on fire, burning him and some hobos to death inside.

Since then, every suspicious death of a white man in the county has been blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. The Sutter whose land Boy Willie now wants to buy died by falling down a well, and the gossip is that he was pushed by those same ghosts. The play turns more ominous when Berniece sees Sutter's own ghost at the house in Pittsburgh.

As always with a Wilson play, there are several subplots: Avery, an elevator operator who wants to become a preacher, is wooing Berniece; Lymon, who is on the run from a work farm back home, wants to stay in Pittsburgh and find a wife; Wining Boy, Doaker's washed-up musician of a brother, is mourning the death of his lady love.

A fine cast under Ruben Santiago-Hudson's taut direction brings all these characters vividly to life. Brandon J. Dirden delivers an electrifying performance as Boy Willie, dancing about the stage like a live wire, dogged in his determination to sell the piano and buy Sutter's land.
Roslyn Ruff is superb as Berniece, equally steadfast in her own determination not to let the legacy of suffering enshrined in the piano be sold off. Ruff's scene at the end, in which she caresses the faces carved on the piano, saying "Thank you. Thank you. Thank you," is like a requiem.

Jason Dirden is buoyant as Lymon, a young man facing an uncertain future with a grin and boundless hope, and James A Williams is solid as Doaker, a railroad employee who only wants peace restored in the family. Chuck Cooper and Eric Lenox Abrams add creditable turns as Wining Boy and Avery.