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‘Piano Lesson’ examines slavery and difficulty of Black Americans seeking economic and social equality


Theatre Conspiracy at the Alliance for the Arts brings August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson to the Foulds Theatre stage April 20-29. The fifth play of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle that the Alliance has produced, this complex play filled with subplots conveys tremendous significance as it examines slavery and the difficulty of Black Americans seeking economic and social equality.

Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson focuses on the conflicting wills of siblings Boy Willie and Bernice regarding their family’s most important heirloom, a piano. But this is no ordinary piano. Owned by the family that enslaved them, it contains intricate carvings made by their great-grandfather depicting their great-grandmother, grandfather, and the likeness of their whole family tree along with the numerous struggles their family overcame during its long and storied history.

Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to purchase a parcel of land in Mississippi so that he can finally achieve his dream of making a living farming his own property. Bernice views the piano as an integral reminder of where they came from, who they are now, and as a legacy for their future generations.

The lesson in this Pulitzer prize-winning play is about confronting the literal and figurative ghosts of a painful past in order to be free of them. It was a recurring theme or message in many of Wilson’s plays. Having faced abandonment by his father and intense discrimination as a biracial child, Wilson wrote The Piano Lesson as a way to question how African-Americans should confront the painful past of slavery and discrimination that still lingers over a century after the Civil War ended.

“My generation of Blacks knew very little about the past of our parents,” Wilson is quoted as saying. “They shielded us from the indignities they suffered.” While many might believe it was a kind and good thing, Wilson saw it as problematic. In a way, this play is a parable which stands for the proposition that before they can conquer their past, African Americans must first embrace their history.

Sonya McCarter directs a talented cast that features Derek Lively as Boy Willie and Renee Freeman as Bernice.

The production was postponed from October due to Hurricane Ian.

October 9, 2022; revised April 10, 2023.

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