After watching August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, I looked for the source of the play's name. I was puzzled because the title is not connected with any character or development in the plot. There are no piano lessons in The Piano Lesson. It is instead about a piano that a brother and a sister inherited from their father. This piano has economic and sentimental value. The brother is interested in the former; the sister is invested in the latter. The brother, Boy Willie (played by Stephen Tyrone Williams—his performance is packed with energy and flows through the bluesy language like a fish in water), has a plan to sell the piano and some potentially stolen watermelons he and a friend have brought to Pittsburgh from the South, using the little capital to buy the land of a dead white man. The sister, however, is completely resolved that the piano must not be sold, and is a living part of their family's history, blood, sweat, and tears. These differences lead to a final and even apocalyptic showdown. But why didn't August Wilson, the last great black American writer of the previous century, not simply call it The Piano?
According to Wikipedia, Wilson got his title from a painting of the same name by Romare Bearden, a mid-century black American artist. Bearden had a close relationship with Albert Murray, a mid-century black American social theorist and jazz critic who counted Ralph Ellison, Stanley Crouch, Wynton Marsalis, and even Charles Johnson among his followers. Murray and Bearden founded the black modernist movement—modernist in the sense that this group divided black culture into low and high parts, arguing that the high part had blues as its ur-stuff. So the play is called The Piano Lesson because, one, it is didactic—a lesson teaching us that culture is far more important than money. And two, it is written like a long and beautiful piece of blues—the ur-stuff of Bearden's paintings, Ellison's prose, and so on. The actors in this marvelous work are not so much recalling their lines as playing the music of black English. The best player in this production, and altogether satisfying, is Williams. He never misses a beat; he always hits the right key. Go and see this talented young man.