Saturday, February 07, 2015

Play: August Wilson's Ghost Story

The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, Directed by Timothy Bond, Seattle Rep through 8 Feb.

I never expected a ghost story from August Wilson. His body of work deals with the African American experience, in particular the effects of the Great Migration up from the South into northern industrial cities, in particular Pittsburgh. Yet here we have what is on one side a conflict between the rural past and urban future, and on the other a story of vengeful ghosts and protective spirits.

The play is set in 1936 Pittsburgh, in the home of Doaker Charles (Derrick Lee Weeden), a railroad cook who lives there with his niece Berniece (Erika LaVonn) and her daughter Maretha (Shiann Welch). Among the belongings is the piano in question, a venerable upright carved with the family's history as slaves in the south.

Setting the play in motion is Berniece's brother Boy Willie (Stephen Tyrone Williams) and his buddy Lymon (Yaegel T. Welch) , who arrive with a truck full of watermelons of questionable provenance and news that the owner of the land their family worked (and the descendant of the family that had owned their family in slavery) had died, fallen/pushed/disposed of in a well, and the land was up for sale. Boy Willie figures that with his current savings, the profits off the watermelons, and selling the family piano, he can afford to buy the land for himself.

Berniece will not hear of selling the piano, and that sets the plot in the motion. LaVonn's Berniece is the centerpoint of the play, resisting arguments from all sides as to why she should sell the piano. Boy Willie wants the money for the land. Berniece's suitor Avery (Ken Robinson) thinks that it would help her move on from the death of her husband. Doaker claims neutrality, but sees the parallel between Bernice's husband's death and the death of her father, Doaker's brother, and the effect it left on both women. Berniece remains resolute, through for the wrong reasons, and the depth of the character is brought out by LaVonn.

But Boy Willie was not the only thing that came up from the south. The vengeful spirit of the dead man apparently as followed as well, demanding its own compensation. So while the heart of the play is the contesting of a family relic and with it the family's heritage, the resolution comes from the ever-ratcheting haunting of the house by the descendant of the family's owners.

To be honest, the supernatural is a hard sell on the stage, where the immediacy of the audience creates a danger that it can go into farce. What grounds this particular haunting is the people and their stories. Everyone has their tales in the group, and August Wilson creates a lyrical patter for everyone, in particular Boy Willie, such that you feel after a while that the only thing that keeps him aloft if the stories he tells about himself. There is a long stretch in the final act which is effective monologue as Williams drives everyone else to silence with his nonstop chatter. And indeed, this long running of the mouth provides the perfect setup for a comeuppance at the hands of the ghost.

There is also an undercurrent of violence within August Wilson's works, and guns appear from the outset and haunt the stage with their own presence as well, as the words and tales may go too far and spill out in bloodshed. Blood is rubbing into the finish of the piano itself, with the blood of slavery that it depicts.

So the lesson of The Piano Lesson refers to both the story of the family on the piano, the story about the piano (a variant of the parable of the talents from Matthew) and a lesson of the power of the spirits of the past. I have often dinged the Rep for the shortness of their modern plays, but the past three have been three-hour powerhouses, and exercise the full potential of the stage.

More later,