Along with walking around as one of America's most celebrated contemporary playwrights, August Wilson is also one of its most controversial. A winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, he is an outspoken critic of multiculturalism in the theater—including color-blind casting—and an impassioned proponent of the campaign of black artists to launch their own theaters devoted to producing plays that reflect the African-American experience.
Contrast that with South Coast Repertory, which may be America's whitest major theater. Despite its deserved reputation for producing new playwrights, SCRhas never produced a black playwright on its prestigious Mainstage. That drought is now broken with Wilson's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson.
It's an interesting first choice for SCR:Wilson isn't writing for white theater audiences. His plays are effective, entertaining, absorbing, thought-provoking and important, but they're aimed at black audiences.
Like all of his plays, The Piano Lesson is part of Wilson's ambitious decade-by-decade chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century. This one covers the 1930s and is set in Pittsburgh against the backdrop of black emigration from the rural South to the industrialized North.
While there is standard history to Wilson's cycle of plays, he's far more interested in cultural history—hence the piano of the title. This piano is co-owned by Boy Willie (Victor Mack) and Berniece (Kim Staunton). Their father, Boy Charles, died in 1911 while retrieving it from the house of the white family that had owned it for generations. The piano was symbolically powerful for Boy Charles: his father and grandmother had been sold for the instrument in the 1850s; in his mind, the Charles family was still in bondage so long as someone else owned the piano.
Berniece brought the piano with her to Pittsburgh, and she clings to it as a tangible—if uncomfortable—reminder of her family's history. But Boy Willie, who still lives down South, needs to sell the piano in order to raise the cash to buy the 100 acres his family worked as slaves.
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The subject matter alone doesn't make for a "black" play. But Wilson's vernacular does. Wilson was a poet before he was a playwright, and his shining gift is his ability to elevate colloquial dialogue to the level of poetry. His use of spirituality is also steeped in African-American lore: ghosts haunt The Piano Lesson, either in stories or in the very chords of the piano.
But above all else, Wilson's reliance on storytelling sets his plays apart. His characters aren't developed so much as given fat stretches of time to tell stories—the key reason this play runs nearly three hours. Part of the African-American oral tradition is music, and Wilson, as always, pays homage to that, splendidly working an a cappella call-and-response song into Act 1.
It has taken a long time for a local professional theater to produce Wilson, but it was worth the wait. Seret Scott's direction is sure-handed, and the excellent cast delivers performances that border on brilliant. Of course, they are working with an August Wilson script. While Wilson is far more concerned with writing for black Americans, The Piano Lesson proves that all Americans can appreciate his work. The story of black America in the 20th century is one of the most crucial stories of America in the 20th century. In that respect, Wilson's plays, though owned by him, belong to all of us, as this very powerful production proves most convincingly.
The Piano Lesson at South Coast Repertory's Mainstage, 655 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 708-5555. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 & 7:30 p.m. Through Nov. 21. $18-$47.