The Piano Lesson by August Wilson

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BBC Radio 3, 27 November 2011
Recorded at the Crossroads Theatre, New Brunswick, New Jersey, Claire Grove's production had two principal objectives; to emphasize the play's unique rhythmical qualities, and underline the importance of the past to the African-American experience.
The actors spoke their lines in a series of crescendos and diminuendos, giving the play a sing-song quality faintly reminiscent of Dylan Thomas' "play for voices" - Under Milk Road. This strategy took a bit of getting used to - especially for those such as myself who are largely unfamiliar with the local Pittsburgh dialect - but eventually drew listeners into the world of the play. Wilson is not only interested in recording the African-American experience in the twentieth century, he tries to develop an idiosyncratic dramatic idiom to do so.
Grove also emphasized the play's circular rhythm, as the (mostly male cast) keep returning again and again to familiar conversational topics: their work, their shared past (and future), as well as their hopes and desires. At one level this strategy emphasized their basic powerlessness: unable to improve their situations in mid-1930s America - some three decades before the Civil Rights movement gave African-Americans equality before the law - they found solace in talk rather than action. Berniece (Roslyn Ruff) observed somewhat scornfully that "all you [the men] got goin' for you is talk." At the same time Grove stressed that non-stop talk helped to sustain the men's sense of collective well-being; if they stayed silent too long, they might end up reflecting too much on the shortcomings of their lives.
To stress the significance of the past to the characters, Grove took her inspiration from the play's title (which itself alludes to a painting of the same name by Romare Bearden). She showed how that the ancient piano, carved with African faces, represented different things to different characters. For Berniece it signified the perpetual presence of the past in her life, as represented through the experience of slavery and (limited) liberation. She would not let the dilapidated piano with its untuneful keys out of her sight, for to do so would be to deprive her of her identity. By contrast Boy Willie (John Earl Jelks) and his partner Lymon (Chris Chalk) wanted to sell the piano as soon as possible, so as to rid themselves of the dead hand of the past: Boy Willie had just finished a prison sentence and wanted to use the money from the piano to buy the land his ancestors once worked on as slaves. For both men the piano represented the capitalist future; at last African-Americans could compete with Euros on a level playing field and start making money.
The issue was resolved by Sutter's ghost (Sutter himself having met a grisly end by being thrown down a well, and Boy Willie being convicted of his murder). In a slightly surreal ending, Grove used various sound-effects, including echoes and quasi-bestial voices mumbling indistinctly in the background to suggest the ghost's presence at the head of a supernatural army of Berniece's ancestors charged with the responsibility of expelling those who contemplated selling the piano. Initially Berniece was frightened of Sutter's ghost unexpected (and unearthly) presence in her house, but she learned to trust in him, as well as her other ancestors. The production ended with her saying "Thank you," over and over again in a hoarse whisper. As she finished her dialogue, a jaunty ragtime tune could be heard on the soundtrack dating from the early 1900s (and contrasting with the play's setting in the mid-1930s). The music emphasized that the only way African-Americans could shape their future was to acknowledge their past; hence the piano had to stay precisely where it was. This was the true significance of "the piano lesson" of the play's title.
Billed as the first British radio production of the Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Grove's admirably lucid version of The Piano Lesson confirmed Wilson's reputation as a brilliant interpreter of the African-American experience.