To their family, it was more than a piano…it was their legacy and their future
Hoping to visit his family up north (and sell some watermelons on the side) Boy Willy and his friend Lymon travel from Mississippi to Pittsburgh. Boy Willy wants to convince his sister, Berniece, to give him the family's heirloom piano. He wants to sell it and buy the land that Mr. Sutter (descendant of the man who used to own Willy's family as slaves) has up for sale. Not exactly welcome when he arrives, his Uncle Doaker tells Willy that Berniece won't ever sell the ornately carved musical instrument. The local preacher, Avery (who is also Berniece's boyfriend), tried to get her to part with it to help fund the church and she flatly refused. When Uncle Wining Boy, a fast living con man from St. Louis stops by to borrow money and drink whiskey, he agrees. And Berniece makes it abundantly clear she will not part with it, even if she can no longer bring herself to play it. Lymon is curious as its legacy and Uncle Doaker tells the story of how, generations before, the piano was purchased for the wife of Mr. Sutter, white owner of their family. Berniece and Willy Boy's grandfather carved the family's proud African tribe/awful American slave history into its sides and cover for the master. To Berniece, selling it would be like turning her back on their people and their past. For Willy Boy, it's a chance to turn the pain into his father's dream of owning something and moving forward. With brother against sister and history competing with prosperity, it's up to the ghosts of the past to guide the decision and to teach The Piano Lesson to all involved.
It's amazing how excellent writing leaps off the screen. While most TV movie fare is dull, lifeless, and geared towards the lowest common Nielsen family demographic, something expertly crafted, filled with inordinate drama and rich, dimensional characters just blares across the airwaves, filling up your deepest, hungry cinematic aesthetic. Such is the case with the Hallmark Hall of Fame adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize winning Broadway smash The Piano Lesson. Long known for his profound, deeply moving portraits of African Americans in the United States, this author of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom and Fences understands the issues facing minorities better than most modern playwrights do. In The Piano Lesson, he addresses the issues of slavery and racism in a subtle, sly way that crawls under your skin and stays with you. Never stagy, even with its theatrical roots, Wilson (along with longtime collaborator/director Lloyd Richards) opens up the story for the small screen (he also wrote the teleplay), moving the characters outside of and beyond the humble Pennsylvania homestead and into the dark urban jungle of modern society. From the posh skyscraper where the proper Rev. Avery runs the elevator (in his near ethnic slur uniform) to the rich white neighborhoods (where buying a watermelon symbolizes something much more insidious) and ending up at the jive juke joints where Boy Willy, Lymon, and Whining Boy feel most at home, The Piano Lesson is more than just a family drama. It's an ancestral and social history.
In Wilson's brilliant analogy, each black family in America carries its own ornately carved heirloom, a scarred and chiseled legacy of how and why their ancestors were brought to these shores. Boy Willy can claim and even sell the item, but he will never redeem the price paid for his great grandparents, either in cash, freedom or dignity. Like Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison's equally evocative novel Beloved, this is a fable of magic realism, a story where spirits from the past underline and elucidate the current struggle between the family members and the minorities in the still segregated US. The specters of 400 years of forced servitude (and those who did the enforcing) fill these lives with unapologetic turmoil and shade their surroundings in a way that permanently marks them with an ethereal sadness. But no matter how dark the forces outside, there is still joy and forgiveness deep in the heart, a celebration of life through music. Song is a big part of The Piano Lesson, not just surrounding the symbolic instrument, but in how it ties the lineage of black slave history to the strides for civil rights in modern free men. A chain gang sing along that is as heartbreaking as it is exhilarating or a beautiful blues romp that brings the characters out of their momentary anger and into a dreamy world of the soothing salvation of harmony act as the ties that bind: not only of relatives, but of the ages. Spirituality and song have long been a part of the black experience in America. The Piano Lesson illustrates this wonderfully.
Relying on most of the cast from the original Broadway production, The Piano Lesson has absolutely superb acting. Charles Dutton (TV's Roc, Alien3) originated the role of Boy Willy (and got a Tony nomination for his efforts) and his performance is the cornerstone to the film. Divided down the middle between bluster and betrayal, hope and hatred, he encapsulates the tightrope walk of the early century black man in white society perfectly. While the role seems to call for a larger than life, over the top bravado, Dutton always lets you know that all this "showmanship" and "clowning" are forced, a veiled attempt to distract his family and the real world until he gets his way. Equally fine are other original cast members Carl Gordon and Lou Myers, playing Uncle Doaker and Whining Boy, respectively. Representing the opposing forces of self-respect and deception in the face of decades of race issues, each man carries a universe of experience and exasperation in their faces, their voices and their mannerisms. Alfre Woodard and Courtney B. Vance nicely slip into their roles as "newcomers" to this dramatic dance and instantly own their character's lives. Woodard's Berniece is fiery without being fierce, able to be commanding without complicated histrionics. Vance (given the least "showy" part of Lymon) is open and honest, standing in the place of the audience to help us understand the dynamic going on (and the hidden heart) in all the characters. From its claustrophobic parlor to the plantations of slaves in Mississippi, the potentially heavy-handed The Piano Lesson avoids preaching thanks in no small part to the exceptional casting and acting choices made.
Artisan does a respectable job of presenting this title to DVD. Taken from the original Hallmark Hall of Fame broadcast material, the image is bright and clean but still slightly foggy at times. This is most likely not some manner of compression or transfer defect, and it may even be something intentional (grain to suggest age?). Still, it looks much better than it would in a standard television viewing. As for the sonics, the Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround is fantastic (especially in the above mentioned musical sequences). There is good spatial relationship between the characters and when something paranormal occurs, the speakers are alive with multi-channel movement. While no video or audio extras are offered, there is a great deal of written material incorporated into the disc, allowing you to page thorough a history of Wilson's work and career, information on the cast and original theatrical work. About the only flaw, overall, in The Piano Lesson is the decision to retain the television pacing in the presentation. You can tell when a commercial break was mandated, as the screen fades to black (even as action continues) and pulls up from dead air to reintroduce the drama, post advertisement slot. It distracts from the power and the atmosphere of the piece (especially at the end) and, perhaps, could have been avoided if properly re-mastered or reconstructed. Still, any drawback is minor compared to the gorgeous writing by August Wilson and the unbelievable talent of the cast. The Piano Lesson is one of the seminal works of the modern stage and you'll be hard pressed to find a better version of it than this DVD presentation. It is remarkable.
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