'The Piano Lesson': Play Reminds Us Why We Need To Talk About Slavery Today

Oct 20, 2014

Family heirlooms serve as a reminder of family history, but they’re also fuel for arguments down the line. Who gets to keep it? And if the family needs money, should they sell it?

Cassandra Simone and Troy Dill-Reese as siblings Bernice and Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson
Credit Black Arts & Cultural Center

Playwright August Wilson tackles these kinds of questions and much more in The Piano Lesson. The Black Arts & Cultural Center will perform the play starting Friday at the Epic Center Theatre.

In it the Charles family is arguing over a very special piano that has carvings depicting the family’s rise from slavery. Bernice Charles, played by Cassandra Simone, is doing everything in her power to keep her brother from selling it.

“It’s almost like back in Africa when the slaves were not learned—they didn’t read or write—so their mode of teaching was through oral storytelling," says Simone. "And the person who would tell that story would be the griot. And so the piano is an inanimate griot for the family.”

A griot is a traveling West African storyteller.

“She played on the piano. She grew up playing on it," Simone continues. "But the piano served as a blessing and a curse because how they acquired the piano resulted in the death of her father.”

Bernice’s brother Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the land their family worked on as slaves. Troy Dill-Reese says his character sees the land as both an heirloom and his ticket to success.

“Cause he wants to build on it. He doesn’t just want to have it for the aesthetics. And that’s the only thing he knows how to do. He knows how to farm and he knows how to farm very well. And he believes that if he gets this land, he can make it into something. And he can stand up next to a white man and say…he says that he can talk the price of cotton or he can talk about the weather. And he can have that pride because he owns some land.”

August Wilson’s play takes place in the 1930s, during the Great Migration—where black men and women left the South in droves for better opportunities in the North.

Director Marissa Harrington says Wilson thought that the Great Migration never should have happened. Many black Americans were unprepared for the hardships they would face in the North. People like Lyman, Boy Willie’s best friend, played by Greg Jones.

“He wants to adventure, he wants to venture out of a place where not a lot of good has happened to him,” says Jones. “He thinks it’s more accepting, he thinks he can get a job. And he’s kind of more so excited about it, he hasn’t really hit the reality. But throughout the play he kind of does hit the reality of it.”

Director Marissa Harrington says the play teaches us that we can’t run away from the past.

"When we talk about slavery, when we talk about racism in this country, people want to sweep it under the rug. They want to act like ‘Well that’s in the past, so we don’t need to talk about that. And it’s very real, it’s still real. Your past affects your future. And if you don’t properly deal with your past and if you don’t acknowledge the past—even if it’s painful and even if it’s violent—you can’t move on. And I feel like as a country we haven’t been able to move on.”

The Piano Lesson opens at the Epic Center Theatre on Friday and runs through November 2nd.