Berneice used to play the piano for her mother, but since her mother died she won't touch it. Boy Willie, her brother, has come up from the south to sell the piano. He plans to take the money and buy the plantation he used to work on. Berneice refuses.
"You ain't taking that piano out of my house," she says. "Look at this piano. Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for 17 years. She rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in."
"My heart say for me to sell that piano," Boy Willie says later, "and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way."
For Berneice, the piano cannot be sold because of the past it represents. For Boy Willie, the piano must be sold because of the future it could bring. That conflict is the subject of August Wilson's play The Piano Lesson, which opened this week at the Goodman Theatre. Wilson has won accolades for Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, and he won the Pulitzer prize and four Tony awards for Fences. Lately he's been in town to put the finishing touches on the Goodman's production of his latest play, with the help of his frequent collaborator and its Goodman director Lloyd Richards.
"Behind everything there's an idea," says Wilson. "There're actually two ideas behind The Piano Lesson. One is, can you acquire a sense of self-worth by denying your past? Two, what do you do with your legacy? How best do you put it to use? Those are the parameters of the play I was working on. Then it's a matter of finding the characters. . . . I wanted to set up a tranquil domestic situation and then have that shattered by the brother of the sister who is coming north and bringing the past with him like a tornado through the house."
Wilson is obsessed with the past. As a grade school student his favorite subject was history, and he was the kid who always had the right answer, the kind of kid with his hand raised when nobody else knew. The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s, is the fourth play in Wilson's projected historical cycle about the black experience in 20th-century America--he plans one play about each decade. Richards has directed all of the plays in the cycle.
"There should be a great reverence for your ancestors and what preceded you, because that's how you got where you are," says Wilson. "The connection with the past has been broken, and kids don't know who their grandparents were. . . . When all the old people died, nobody told these kids about their own heritage or where they came from. So I'm just trying to go back and pick up the pieces."
Denying your heritage, according to Wilson, is not a problem peculiar to black culture.
"People used to say, 'I'm not European! I'm American.'" Wilson says. "They didn't want to bring their American friends home for lunch or for dinner because their parents were from the old country and spoke Italian or Polish. The kids didn't want to speak that language. They gave up their heritage. That's not the way you acquire a sense of self-worth. If you're Polish and you want to hide your parents in a closet because they're Polish, youre trying to acquire a sense of self-worth by denying your past. I don't think you can do that. In order to define yourself, you have to embrace the past."
Part of Wilson's attempt to connect black Americans with their heritage is to accent their African roots. In the stage notes to The Piano Lesson, Wilson emphasizes that the piano must be decorated by carvings "in the manner of African sculpture"--the piano is supposed to have been carved by Berneice and Willie Boy's great-grandfather. But Wilson has found that both blacks and whites have resisted his attempts to define blacks as Africans. He says the word has "frightening connotations."
"There's no way you can dispute that we came from Africa," says Wilson. "We've been here 369 years and we've acquired certain cultural habits of the society in which we live, but we also have certain sensibilities that speak to our sense of being African, which enable us to, say, create jazz. . . . It's a simple thing, but you'd be surprised by how many people balk at it."
Although Wilson has plenty of ideas about the black experience in America, he cringes at the thought of being a "spokesman" for American blacks.
"There are 35 million blacks in America who can speak for themselves very well," he says. "The important thing for me is that I've found a platform on which I can articulate my ideas and say some of the things I want to say to blacks in America and, most importantly, have people see the plays and talk about blacks in America. All of the plays spark dialogues between people, and hopefully people will see The Piano Lesson and pick up the debate and attempt to answer some of the questions the play raises, like 'What do we do with our legacy?'. . . I think The Piano Lesson raises a lot more questions than it answers."
The Piano Lesson runs through February 18 at the Goodman Theatre, 200 S. Columbus Drive. Tickets are $17-$28; phone 443-3800 for ticket information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Osgood.