Learning “The Piano Lesson”

* I feel the need to disclose that we will read this in class so if you don’t want any spoilers then stop reading here *

I’m on a roll. Three blog posts in and three books completed, I’m sitting in my room which has gotten increasingly darker as the night encroaches on my progress. Surrounded by an excessive number of pillows and the smell of a grapefruit candle, I’ve been typing away for the better part of the evening. I always write these posts with music blaring in my headphones. Normally I start at a normal volume,  about half of what my iPhone can do, but as time has worn on, my volume has been steadily increasing as I find myself diving deeper into my writing and my thoughts about the three books (truthfully two plays and a book) that I have absorbed over the break. This has been a good weekend in terms of my book obsession.

While I wouldn’t call myself a play person, the second I watch or read a play, I’m instantly reminded of how much I love them. The Piano Lesson follows this same rule. It’s one of those plays that are pretty easy to get. At times I even found myself overthinking it, which is why I enjoyed watching the play more than reading it.

At the crux of the play is the dispute between Bernice and Boy Willie over a piano that their grandfather, a slave, beautifully carved and then their father stole which lead to his untimely death. Boy Willie makes his way to Pittsburgh from Mississippi to sell watermelons, and of course, to harass his sister. This is after Sutter, the former slave owner of his family, mysteriously fell into a well and his land is now available for purchase. Boy Willie wants to buy this land, seemingly just for the pride that comes with it, and the way he sees himself affording to do so is by selling both the watermelons and the piano. Bernice refuses to sell the piano. Thus the drama of the play ensues plagued by a ghost names Sutter, a preacher named Avery, and a girl named Grace.

What I found particularly intriguing about Bernice and Boy Willie was how they mirror their parents. Boy Willie is always empathizing with his father saying, “That’s all I’m trying to do with that piano. Trying to put my mark on the road. Like my daddy done.” (94). For him, buying the land is a matter of pride. He needs revenge. He needs closure. The only way he seems himself making a difference is through selling the piano and buying the land. Bernice doesn’t see things the same way as Boy Willie. She relates much more with her mother, both of them having lost their husbands and left to raise their children on their own. At one point in the play she gets so sick of Boy Willie putting their father on a pedestal that she takes a stand saying, “You always talking about your daddy but you ain’t never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mama” (52). Wilson doing this with the two characters makes it easier to relate to both of them.

If you’re just here to get the quick reader version of the story without reading the book than here’s the quickest version I can muster up. Lymon, friend of Boy Willie, and Boy Willie himself go to Pittsburgh in a rather sketchy truck. They annoy Bernice about the piano but they don’t realize that she’s a strong independent woman that is not to be messed with. Doaker tries and fails to play mediator to their disputes. Winning Boy, brother to Boy Willie and Bernice’s father (also a former singer with a gambling problem), cons Lymon out of five dollars when he sells him an old silk suit. Lymon and Boy Willie try to take the piano without permission, but — oh no! — the ghost of Sutter appears. Avery tries to cleanse the house of the ghost (what a good Priest), but to no avail. Bernice plays the piano, everything’s magically alright again, and Boy Willie stops his campaign to sell the piano.

If there’s one thing that bothers me about The Piano Lesson, it’s the quick conclusion. It’s like August Wilson was in a rush to end it. There’s a little a more complete ending in the Hallmark adaptation of the play, but not enough so that it sits well with me. I enjoyed reading this play, but not nearly as much as A Streetcar Named Desire. I think this lies in the fact that Tennessee Williams was much less obvious in his writing. I like literature that makes you work a little. It’s more satisfying.

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