Theater Review: August Wilson’s the Piano Lesson

If you’re looking for it, it’s not difficult to see the places where August Wilson the screenwriter added on to his original script that was meant for the stage. Only a handful of times do we see a scene that doesn’t take place in the house and those scenes are hardly vital to the movie. My favorite is when Boy Willy and Lymon visit Avery at his job and are overwhelmed by the size of the building. These few scenes, while peripheral in terms of plot, are vital in giving the movie a broader visual scope. Revolutionary playwrights have begun to use the theater to its fullest extent, experimenting with sound, music and special effects. It is equally as important for screenwriters to use everything at their disposal, which includes their ability to change scenes instantly. A play that occurs in a house is fine; a movie within a house is boring.

My favorite aspect of the play is it’s rapidly shifting moods. Singing and dancing break out at the drop of a hat. A shouting match will appear out of nowhere and just as quickly disappear. Characters go from joking to fighting in seconds. This instability makes for a lively play, but it also gives the play’s supernatural twist some credibility. The appearance of Sutter’s ghost, the wind howling, the piano playing itself, all these supernatural instances make sense in the motion and the flow of the play.

The most impressive part of the play is how Wilson manages to create real emotion and display real tenderness among characters that feel only minimal connection to one another. In the entire house, almost no one is linked to another for any purpose other than their own utility. Boy Willie came to see Bernice for her piano. Lyman and Boy Willie are business partners. Wining Boy showed up to see how much money he con or beg from everyone. Bernice keeps Avery around for security, but she doesn’t love him. Even Bernice’s relationship with her daughter is very cold.

Yet emotion finds its way into this household in unexpected ways. The four men break into a song they learned in jail almost spontaneously. Bernice and Lyman share and awkward, but emotional moment late at night. The people in that house arrive with their own purposes in mind, but by the end of the play they are connected in important ways.

The play’s end, however, does not do it justice. The piano debate between Boy Willie and Bernice is a great thing to center the play around, because it is a debate without a clear winner. Both sides feel strongly that they’re right and both make convincing arguments. Just when I think I at least understand what the debate is about, I learn something new and have to rethink my position.

In the end, Boy Willie changes his mind. The extraordinary has just happened: we have received proof that there are ghosts in the house, and Bernice plays the piano that she hasn’t touched in years. The idea is that Bernice has finally shown Boy Willie how much the piano means to her, but the play would be much improved if Boy Willie was given a chance to explain that himself. Boy Willie is so talkative, so willing to speak his mind that it seems out of character that he wouldn’t explain his motives.

As a writer, a great way to write is to turn your play into a debate. ‘Night Mother is another example. Yet if the characters end up in the same place that they started, you don’t have a play, you simply have a lot of good dialogue. For so much of the play, Bernice and Boy Willie stubbornly refuse to listen to one another. The payoff when Boy Willie changes his mind is not as strong as it could be.