(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was to involve a family portrait. I went a little unorthodox and saw a movie heirloom as a different kind of portrait.)


Photographs fade with the passing of time.
Families usually settle for that.
But one family has a sturdier portrait:
A weathered piano where fathers have sat.

One gifted forefather made art from the wood
And carved images of his daughter and wife
And kept right on carving as long as he could,
Remembering many a long-faded life.

There that piano sits, solid as ever.
The faces hewn into its surface still stare,
And when someone plays on those ivory keys,
The faces almost seem to whisper a prayer.

Now some fail to see that piano as more
Than a heavy old relic with stale memories,
But portraits, pianos, and relics can store
Significance only their family sees.

MPAA rating: PG

The Piano Lesson is a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie adapted from the all-black Broadway play by August Wilson. Several of the actors from the play grace the screen as well, including Charles S. Dutton and Carl Gordon (who also co-starred on the ‘90s TV show Roc). Dutton plays Boy Willie, who visits his sister Berniece (Alfre Woodard) in Pittsburgh in order to sell her antique piano for land.

What The Piano Lesson has is a debate-worthy dilemma of the best kind. As I described in the poem, the piano is carved with images of their ancestors, dating back to slavery, the kind of keepsake that Berniece could never imagine parting with. Yet Boy Willie views its worth in monetary terms: if he can sell it (and the truckful of watermelons he brought along), he can return to the South and buy the very land their ancestors once worked as slaves. The piano is a gift, but is it one to be kept and admired, or used to benefit the family? Both Berniece and Boy Willie have good points, so who’s right?

The Piano Lesson is also a warm picture of African-Americans in the 1930s. At first glance, the politically correct might disapprove of the poor dialect and grammar spoken, names like Boy Willie or Wining Boy, or the sight of black people with watermelons. Yet August Wilson himself was black and included such elements for a reason. After all, Boy Willie is showing initiative and business savvy by selling the watermelons and seeks to keep on progressing away from slavery. Religion, superstition, and music are also elemental to the story, with an a cappella rendition of “Berta, Berta” being a highlight.

All of the actors give great performances, but the story itself doesn’t quite know how to resolve its provocative argument. The culmination of the dispute takes a supernatural turn that is not well visualized and ends up just confusing. Even so, I’m glad the playwright sided with my opinion on how the piano ought to be used. The Piano Lesson might have ended better, but it’s a thought-provoking portrait of African-American heritage.


Rank: Honorable Mention


© 2016 S. G. Liput

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