With a wife devoted to quinoa and Whole Foods, a husband who loves poking jabs at theWashington Post, and two kids who hate looking up from their cell phone screens, pays plenty of homage to its titular Maryland locale. But Jennie Berman Eng’s dark comedy isn’t a big-picture commentary on a place and time; it is a more microscopic story, a close-up examination of a family fraying at the edges.
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“Ultimately Wilson becomes a myth maker, recasting the amber past in the crucible of his memory. The products of his alchemy are plays that, as their characters make decisions in the light of the hard-earned lessons of their ancestors, point to the future.” –Dr. Sandra Shannon, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson
“The train don’t never stop. It’ll come back every time.” – Doaker, Act I, Scene I of The Piano Lesson
When Boy Willie and Lymon’s truck pulls up to Berniece’s house at the opening of The Piano Lesson, August Wilson seems to be coming home. The play is, after all, the fourth in the playwright’s colossal Century Cycle—ten plays that stand alone or as a series, each documenting one decade of the African American experience, and all but one taking place in Wilson’s native Pittsburgh neighborhood, the Hill District.
Although The Piano Lesson returns to Wilson’s eternal stomping grounds, it is, more than any of his other Century Cycle plays, a transitional story. As soon as Boy Willie bursts through his sister and uncle’s front door, it becomes clear that some kind of conflict is imminent; as Wilson describes it in the opening stage directions, “a coming together of something akin to a storm.” For a story that takes place entirely within the four walls of the Charles family’s cramped house, The Piano Lesson is teeming with movement—even its setting is in flux. The play takes place in 1936 in the midst of the Great Migration, the mass movement of African Americans from their Southern homeland to the urban North.