By SHANNON McRAE
Special to the OBSERVER
The idea that a soul or spirit can be housed in an object is common to many cultures. The generic literary term for this motif is "soul jar." In folk tales, certain sorcerers put their souls into an object - a jar, a needle, a tree, a pinecone - in order to become immortal or invulnerable. Many cultures embrace a similar principle in religious practices: the Catholic reliquary displaying the bone fragment of a saint for example, or the Jewish tefillin containing scrolls inscribed with verses from the Torah. The spirits of the beloved dead are also contained in funerary urns of ashes and memento mori such as locks of hair or photographs.
All three of these aspects of spirit containment: magical, religious, and ancestral, are most fully realized in African cultures. Benin people, for example, kept on their altars a govi jar, which contains the soul of an ancestor or an intermediary spirit called a lwa who assists them in their endeavors. People of the Kongo religion attain great spiritual power through the making of nkisi - gourds, vessels, or bundles that contain relics and objects associated with the dead. Nkisi also took the form of wooden carvings of people or animals.
Those captured into slavery brought these traditions with them to the Americas, where they mingled with Christian elements. Practiced in order to survive under the most brutal conditions, some of these traditions and beliefs persist in African-American communities to this day. The objects themselves meanwhile, particularly the carvings, became highly desirable to Western collectors as African art.
In August Wilson's play "The Piano Lesson," the nkisi is a piano. Carved by a slave with the faces of family members who had been sold so that his master could afford to purchase the piano, and stolen back at a terrible price by the artist's sons, the piano represents, for one African-American family in Depression-era America, a spiritual and artistic heritage that both defines and haunts them. The piano is haunted, possessed both by the black family immortalized in the carvings, and the white family who enslaved them.
"The Piano Lesson" involves the heirs to this blood-soaked legacy, a brother and a sister, battling over possession of the piano, and whether to preserve or abandon their haunted heritage. The young, all African-American cast of this excellent SUNY Fredonia production brings this haunted legacy to new life. The extraordinary power in these performances lies in the nuance and depth that each young actor gives to roles that could in less capable hands would lapse into stereotype. David Quinones plays the family elder, Uncle Doaker, with a quiet dignity and weariness nuanced by a largely understated struggle with his own involvement in the family's violent history. Daniel Astacio and Nakiya Peterkin as the embattled siblings Boy Willie and Berniece both accomplish the incredibly difficult task of playing characters who are equally trapped in their own opposing perspectives and struggling to do the right thing with their legacy. Astacio particularly astonishes with his ability to evolve the initially insufferable character he plays to a truly sympathetic, fully-realized individual, and Peterkin plays a woman trapped in mourning with bittersweet gravity. Peterkin shares this role on alternate evenings with Siobhan Hunter, who has given standout performances in other roles. Alex Grayson as Lymon also manages to deepen a role that could be played as a stock hustler, embodying instead a gentle if slightly lost spirit beneath his seeming amorality and passivity. Joshua Johnson as Avery plays a pastor with similar complexity, whose Christianity matter-of-factly incorporates older African practices. Johnson alternates this role with Nicholas Bernard. Eric Wilbon brings levity and comic relief as well as valuable exposition as washed-up musician Wining Boy. Dominique Kempf plays daughter Maretha with a kind of sorrowful innocence.
The stage crew deserve as much credit as the cast for the extraordinary quality of this production. The family piano, as much a character as any of the actors, has real African-style carvings. Designed by Props Master Theresa Pierce and hand-carved by Chad Healy, the work took nearly a month. Lighting, sound, and set all impeccably create and maintain just the right moodiness.
Director Tom Loughlin, Distinguished Teaching Professor, chair of the Theater and Dance Department, calls this play, the first in Fredonia to feature an all-African-American cast and to stage August Wilson's important work, "a personal highlight of my career as an artist on this campus." He, and everybody involved in this production, have every reason to be proud of what they have accomplished.
Performances are planned in Bartlett Theatre at Rockefeller Arts Center on the SUNY Fredonia campus. Remaining dates and show times are a matinee today at 2 p.m., and Dec. 6, 7 and 8 at 7:30 p.m. The play includes strong language and sexual situations, and is not appropriate for children. Tickets are available through the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office in the Williams Center, 673-3501 or www.tickets.fredonia.edu.
Shannon McRae is an associate professor of English at SUNY Fredonia.