The truths taught in “The Piano Lesson” are that family legacies can neither be repressed nor discarded. The other maxim offered by the “Hallmark Hall of Fame’s” production of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play is that there is clearly a home on commercial television for serious, literate theater.
Filmed in Pittsburgh by Signboard Hill Prods. for Hallmark Entertainment. Executive producers, Craig Anderson, Richard Welsh; producer, writer, August Wilson; based on the play by Wilson; co-producer, Brent Shields; director, Lloyd Richards; Opened up just enough to not look like a filmed play and its text edited — largely for the better — to fit the demands of TV, this production nonetheless remains faithful to Wilson’s powerful, provocative, spiritual work. As was the case on Broadway (and, previously at the Doolittle Theatre in L.A.), the playwright’s poetic words are given a spectacular performance by Charles Dutton (“Roc”) in the play’s central role.
Wilson and Dutton reunite with director Lloyd Richards (who has directed Wilson’s other plays), as well as several cast members who worked in the various stage productions.
For such a profound play, its story is remarkably simple. It’s set in Pittsburgh in 1936, in the home of Doaker (Carl Gordon), a veteran railroad man who lives with his niece Berniece (Alfre Woodard) and her daughter Maretha (Zelda Harris).
But dominating the house is the family’s heirloom piano, its surfaces covered with intricate designs that literally, as well as figuratively, have been carved in blood. Berniece’s grandfather, a slave, had carved these panels in his owners’ piano when his wife and son were sold to another family. Berniece’s husband was killed in the process of stealing the piano from the white family years later.
And it is precisely that precious piano that has drawn Berniece’s spirited brother, Boy Willie (Dutton), from Mississippi. A knock-about his whole life, he has come north with his sweet but dim friend Lymon (Courtney B. Vance), along with a truckload of watermelons. Boy Willie plans to buy the family land from the descendants of the old plantation owners with the proceeds from selling the watermelons — and the piano.
Berniece, though too haunted by the instrument’s brutal history to play it, nonetheless objects fiercely to Boy Willie’s plans, and the sparring siblings both threaten violence to get their way.
“You can’t sell your soul for money,” Berniece yells at her brother in what may be the play’s key exchange.
“I’m not talking about my soul,” he responds. “I’m talking about selling a piece of wood for some land.”
Before the issue is settled, matters of family legacy, history and memory are thrashed while ghosts — again, both figurative and literal — must be exorcised. It’s a story that speaks directly to the black experience in the U.S. — and to virtually anyone with a family heritage.
Dutton is electrifying as Boy Willie, a man who can sing with Lymon, Doaker and his n’er-do-well uncle Wining Boy (Lou Myers) one instant and howl in anger at his sister’s obstinacy the next. Woodard, usually a standout, is less successful, always seeming too modern for this character.
The rest of the cast is first-rate, as is the production. Richards is an effective small-screen helmer, aided by Paul Elliott’s dynamic camerawork.
Wilson, meanwhile, has cut out much of the verbiage that dragged down the play onstage, while adding some key scenes that expand the story and develop the characters.
As television programmers reevaluate the merits of tabloid TV movies and ripped-from-the-headlines fare, an impassioned play like “The Piano Lesson” points to an inspiring alternative. Making no concessions to the mass TV audience, this production should serve as inspiration to other ambitious producers.