The Piano Lesson comes to a close
Last weekend, the School of Drama completed a 10-day run of African-American playwright and Pittsburgh native August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. This was the first of Wilson’s plays to be performed at Carnegie Mellon, and one of only two productions in the School of Drama’s history to feature an all African-American cast. The Piano Lesson, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1990, was as much a lesson in the history of Pittsburgh as the history of African-Americans in the 20th century.
The play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1936 and features a pair of siblings, Berniece (played on alternate performances by senior drama majors Amanda Payton and Michaela Watkins) and Boy Willie (junior drama major Jon-Michael Reese), who fight over the ownership of a piano belonging to their ancestors. The piano features hand-carvings of the family’s story that the siblings’ grandfather created while he was a slave in the 19th century; for Berniece and Boy Willie, the instrument remains a reminder of their ancestry and the hardships endured by those family members that came before them.
However, when Boy Willie and his hometown friend Lymon (drama junior Kyle Beltran) arrive at Berniece’s home in Pittsburgh from down south, the plot settles around one fundamental disagreement — Boy Willie wants to sell the piano in exchange for land, and Berniece wants to keep it. Doaker (drama senior Larry Powell), with whom Berniece shares the house, gets caught between them, while up-and-coming preacher Avery (sophomore drama major Tyree Robinson), is busy trying to secure the reluctant Berniece’s hand in marriage.
The play is one of 10 in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, each depicting the black experience during a different decade of the 20th century, and all but one set in the Hill District. (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the third play in the series, is set in Chicago.) The Piano Lesson is the only one of Wilson’s plays to be adapted for the screen to date — a made-for-TV version for the Hallmark Channel premiered in 1995, co-produced by Wilson himself.
The Piano Lesson was inspired by a collage by another former Pittsburgh resident, artist Romare Bearden, called “Piano Lesson”. The painting depicts jazz pianist Mary Lou Williams, who also spent her childhood in Pittsburgh. This painting, along with an explanation of its significance to the production, was on display in the lobby of the Purnell Center. The lobby also featured a series of photographs by Charles “Teenie” Harris depicting life in Pittsburgh during the 1930s.The display was created by Breanna Zwart, a senior BHA student specializing in dramaturgy who was also responsible for piecing together the historical elements of the show.
The display set the tone for the show, which demonstrated that the cast and crew had gone to great lengths to honor the history of Wilson’s Pittsburgh and re-create the Hill District during the 1930s — without beating the audience over the head with it. Black and white audience members alike celebrated the actors’ performances — and the very fact that the play was being performed — by turning out in large numbers and praising the actors with loud applause, particularly after spontaneous vocal and instrumental performances.
The program featured an extensive history of Wilson’s life in Pittsburgh as well as other important elements of African-American history in the 1930s, such as the blues and the Great Migration, as well as an explanation of the status of black-white relations in Pittsburgh today.
Zwart’s goal was to educate both the cast and audience members on the significance of Wilson’s work as a political protest; she wanted to challenge them to examine their beliefs about the lives of blacks in this era and the history of black-white relations.
“Theater has been used as a form of political thought. It challenges the viewer ... to remind themselves of their own beliefs and why their actions are so important,” Zwart said in a Feb. 8 Las A6 interview with Marge Myers, associate director of the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry.
Cast members prepared for their roles by visiting landmarks in the Hill District of significance in the play, and by examining their own family histories.
“I had to learn how to access a power and a passion that I haven’t had to before, and a sense of history and a connection to my ancestors and the weight of what they had to go through,” said Reese, who portrayed Boy Willie.
Reese praised Wilson’s writing style as a motivational force in learning his role and paying close attention to the historical accuracy in the details of his character.
“The way [Wilson] writes is so poetic and beautiful, but he creates real people with real needs. It’s so magically written that all I had to do was be present,” Reese said. “It’s the best play I’ve had the opportunity to be in.”
However, Zwart maintained that it is important to view the themes contained in the play as well as the writing of the play itself as more than just a pivotal moment in black history, but in American history.
“[Wilson] gave black theater a voice. But at the same time, I don’t want to put it in a microcosm of just black theater, because this is American theater,” Zwart said. “This is all of our stories. It’s universal.”