The Piano Lesson is the fourth play in August Wilson's Pittsburgh cycle, and one of the most renowned. If the entire ten play cycle can be seen as a living history lesson, then The Piano Lesson is the pop quiz, smashing together the legacies of various American eras and forcing them to duke it out for survival. It is, according to Clive Barnes of the New York Post, “the fourth, best, and most immediate in the series of plays exploring the Afro-American experience during this century.”
The Piano Lesson came to life through three years of extensive workshopping - a process which allowed Wilson to find the ending of the play naturally. "I didn't want to say what happened to the piano, because I didn't think it was important," Wilson recalled in a 1993 interview. "But the audience, as I discovered, wanted to know, and they felt it was very unfair to sit there for three hours and not find out what happened to the piano. I always knew what happened: it was just a question of keeping the lights on for another two minutes at the end."
Once that ending was sorted, The Piano Lesson was able to begin its produced life in 1987, at the Yale Repertory in New Haven, where many of Wilson's plays premiered. This first production included a young Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie, although he was unable to continue with the role when the production moved to the Huntington Theatre in Boston, due to his struggle with drugs. The initial production was immediately lauded, with Frank Rich of The New York Times writing of the Yale performances that the new play, though rough, was already "of a piece with the playwright's canon."
Indeed, the official commendation of the play began before it even opened on Broadway. The Piano Lesson won Wilson his second Pulitzer prize in 1990, making the playwright one of a very select handful of writers with multiple Pulitzers, and the only African American repeat winner. It was also given a New York Drama Critics' Circle award and a Drama Desk award, and the Broadway production received a nomination for the Tony.
The play opened on Broadway at the Walter Kerr in April 1990, and starred Charles S. Dutton, S. Epatha Merkerson, Carl Gordon, and Lou Myers, and was directed by Lloyd Richards, as were the previous productions. The critical praise continued, with William A. Henry III from "Time" calling the piano "the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield’s Glass Menagerie, referring to Tennessee Williams' breakout play.
The Piano Lesson did receive some negative criticism as well, largely focusing on the elaborate kitchen-sink realism of the production. But Robert Brustein at The New Republic was uniquely vicious, accusing Wilson of merely trying “to stimulate the guilt glands of liberal white audiences,” and offensively placing Wilson in a separate category from the likes of Eugene O'Neill because Wilson wrote only about "the black experience" while O'Neill tackled "the human experience. But this virulent criticism was largely drowned out in a wave of approval, and the original production ran for 328 performances.
In a 1993 interview, Wilson was asked about what he felt he achieved in The Piano Lesson. Wilson responded:
"I don't know if we achieved anything beyond raising questions: What should we do with our legacy? What would you do if this was your piano? [...] Boy Willie empowers himself. He understood that if you had a piece of land, everything else fall right up into place. You can stand up right net to the white man and talk about the weather, the price of cotton[...]. Land is the basis of independence. People all over the world fight about what? They fight about land. [...] Maybe he was right, maybe he was wrong, but I think the play stated the question clearly."
The Piano Lesson certainly stated more questions than it answered, but it did so in a satisfying, dramatically ambitious way that has pleased both audiences and critics for twenty years.