THE PIANO LESSON, a wrenching but flawed cable adaptation of August Wilson's play, is committed to conveying the experience of poor African-Americans caught in a bind between treasuring their heritage and surviving financially.
Traveling up North with a truckload of watermelons he hopes to sell with compatriot Lymon (Courtney B. Vance), irrepressible Boy Willie (Charles Dutton) dreams of purchasing 100 acres of land for $2000. Dropping by unannounced at the home of Uncle Doaker (Carl Gordon) and Boy Willie's sister
Berniece (Alfre Woodard), desperate Boy Willie campaigns to sell his mother's hand-carved piano to finance his new start as a property-owner. Whereas Boy Willie only sees the instrument as a cash source, the high-strung Berniece views the disputed object as an heirloom. In the course of this
impasse, flashbacks reveal the tortured history of the piano.
Generations ago, slaveowner Sutter (Tim Hartman) traded two of Boy Willie's ancestors for a piano; when his music-loving wife yearned for her two sold slaves, he commissioned a slave artisan to carve their faces into the wood. Because the craftsman ended up whittling in the entire history of this
slave clan, Doaker's brother, Boy Willie's father, stole the unique creation and ended up burned to death in a boxcar along with some hobos, in a white man's reprisal against the theft.
Although realist Boy Willie still plans to make off with the piano, the house seems haunted by those who died for this symbolic item and by the spirit of the plantation master Sutter, too. Refusing to capitulate even though she has not touched the keyboard since her mother's death, Berniece
remains crippled by the price her parents paid for this symbol of their ancestry. After Preacher Avery (Tommy Hollis) blesses the house, restless ghosts stir themselves. Feeling the power of the past, a chastised Boy Willie reconciles with Berniece, who once again plays the piano and keeps the
bittersweet music of the family's history alive.
Bearing a great deal of symbolic weight on those keys, THE PIANO LESSON is another August Wilson folk tale about the legacy of slavery. Sadly, this particular production fails to make any psychological or ectoplasmic ghosts come alive for the audience. It is not because the dramaturgy does not
make the playwright's message abundantly clear: both Boy Willie and Berniece are wrong and right. Just as you should not sell off an heirloom that signifies family pride, you also should not shut yourself off emotionally because of what happened in the past. If Boy Willie is trapped by wanting to
grab the brass ring, then Berniece is so traumatized by her family's legacy that she only exists as an apparition of repression. The problem with this carefully mapped-out theater piece is its obviousness. Playwright Wilson labors his points, relieves the dreary soul-searching with musical
interludes, then returns to dramatic confrontations at an even higher pitch. Shouting as if playing to the balcony, the cast members do little to illuminate this tale of completing the unfinished business of one's forebears. (Violence, adult situations, substance abuse, profanity.)
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- Released: 1995
- Rating: PG
- Review: THE PIANO LESSON, a wrenching but flawed cable adaptation of August Wilson's play, is committed to conveying the experience of poor African-Americans caught in a bind between treasuring their heritage and surviving financially. Traveling up North with a t… (more)