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'Piano Lesson' offers insight into black culture

August Wilson created an invaluable legacy in his 10-play series about African American culture. No other playwright has offered so much insight into America's black community. "When he came on the scene, the windows of black life opened for white America to come inside, be a fly on the wall and listen to how African Americans relate to each other," said Mark Clayton Southers, who is directing American Stage Theatre Company's production of "The Piano Lesson." It is American Stage's sixth installment from Wilson's Century Cycle. Written in 1990, "The Piano Lesson" earned the Pittsburgh native his second Pulitzer Prize ("Fences" won in 1985). Wilson's play pointedly echoes the series' testament to history and tradition.
In 1936 Pittsburgh, Doaker Charles has been the custodian of his family's heirloomed piano. Their ancestor carved images into the piano that detail the family's story of enslavement under a man named Sutter. Boy Willie has the opportunity to buy Sutter's land, where his ancestors lived and died. He plans to sell the piano and use that money to purchase the property, but his sister, Berniece, objects. She insists the piano remain in the family, as it bears invaluable evidence of their past. "One of the things August does is he gives both sides to tell the stories in an honest way," said Southers. "[The piano is] not only artwork. It's family history. You walk by it and it's like opening up a scrapbook. On Boy Willie's side of the coin, he has a valid point as well. He has a chance to do something his parents or grandparents didn't. He has the opportunity to purchase land, which would elevate him in status, wealth and independence. That's major in his world. Owning that property will be liberating for him." Doaker's perspective balances that of Boy Willie's and Berniece's. While he appreciates the history the piece carries, he's also wary of its negative energy, or "bad karma," said Alan Bomar Jones. Jones will portray Doaker in the American Stage production. "[Doaker] has seen Sutter's ghost. He's seen the piano played by itself. Boy Willie comes and fights about getting it, so now the family is in turmoil. [Doaker's] brother died when they were stealing it," Jones said. "Doaker is a God-fearing man, but he also has fear and belief of devils and spiritual evil." For good or bad, it comes down to choosing whether the family will let the past benefit or sabotage the future. At what point must one legacy be moved aside to make room for another? 'THE PIANO LESSON' When: 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, through March 3 Where: American Stage Theatre Company at the Raymond James Theatre, 163 Third St. N., St. Petersburg Tickets: $29-$59, depending on date and time of performance; (727) 823-7529 or www.americanstage.org
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