Wilson has a knack for dialogue, on the page and off, stirring up controversy through both his writing and his public appearances. In 1997, he delivered a rabble-rousing speech, "The Ground on Which I Stand," at the Theater Communications Group's annual convention; it reverberated well outside the theater community. In it he called for increased government funding for black-run theaters and took white companies to task for producing what he considered "black" plays. The debate culminated in a public showdown between Wilson and The New Republic's theater critic, Robert Brustein, moderated by playwright Anna Deavere Smith. Though his stance has alienated some audience members and critics, Wilson's not one to back down. For the self-educated author and activist, it's crucial that his plays be directed by African-Americans.
The Hansberry, which first produced Jitney in 1998, now stages The Piano Lesson, a drama set in the '30s about a black family that remains linked to its past by an ornate, 137-year-old piano engraved with figures of the family's slave ancestors. In the drama, Wilson revisits familiar territory: his childhood neighborhood of Pittsburgh's Hill District, where he has set all of his plays except Ma Rainey. The specter of slavery haunts the Charles household, via the family heirloom as well as an actual ghost. When the chance arises to buy the plantation on which his ancestors worked, Boy Willie hatches a plan that entails selling the piano, much to his sister Berniece's dismay. Wilson's lyric, musical writing and his characters' operatic monologues are vital to this spiritual, memorable tale about letting go and moving on.
While his vocal opinions reveal a staunch vision, Wilson contends that he's still a "struggling playwright." In an April 2000 New York Times article titled "Sailing the Stream of Black Culture," Wilson writes, "I'm struggling to get the next play on the page. Eight down and counting. The struggle continues."