PART TWO Sequence for Preparing The Piano Lesson by August Wilson
Visualization is Most Important: Reading a play, or the dramatic genre, requires a lot from a reader. Since there is no narrator, you only have what the characters say, what the characters do, and what others say about the characters. Reading a play requires you to carefully translate the words into a visualization of what is happening. That is why, in reading the dramatic genre, you have to read every word carefully, even the playwright’s stage directions, and try to visualize everything as it happens in your mind.
Read the background material first so that you understand the story, historical period, style (Naturalism), and themes.
Read the section/visit the website on literary elements and make certain you know each one. There will be a quiz covering the elements when you return to school in the fall.
Begin reading the play carefully, word for word – even the stage directions contain valuable information about the character’s reaction or movement, or attitude. Complete the analytical worksheets on Berniece, who is the protagonist. What choices does she make that show her strengths, and what choices does she make that shows her weaknesses? What does she say, do, and what do others say about her?
When you’ve completed reading the play, and some parts of this play are difficult to understand so you may have to re-read at times until you have the connections in your mind, listen to the podcast by Dr. Karen Tatum from Norfolk State University on “Fearless Berniece: Female Strength and Weakness in The Piano Lesson.” As you listen, compare your own observations on your t-chart with what the professor has to say about the character.
Finally, look closely at Romare Bearden’s collage “The Piano Lesson” which inspired August Wilson’s play. Look carefully at the colors, line, and textures. Look at the relation and stance of the two people in the collage. Study carefully the setting. Then, after you’ve taken time to consider the elements of art and principles of design, write a comparison/contrast essay that analyzes the similarities and differences between the collage and the drama.
As you write your comparison/contrast essay, be sure and follow the instructions included in this packet.
Read the additional packet information that will help you understand the play, Wilson’s style, and the historical context.
Act I Summary
Act II Summary
Your comparison contrast essay can be longer than two pages. It must be either word processed or written in ink. Be sure you double space.
Look closely at the collage and the interrelationship of the two people in the setting. How do the similarities and differences surface in the play?
The Piano Lesson by Romare Bearden
Prompt: August Wilson once said that his inspiration for his play, The Piano Lesson, came from Romare Bearden’s collage entitled “The Piano Lesson”. In a two-page essay, compare and contrast this collage to the play. What are the similarities and differences?
Romare Bearden August Wilson
May 18, 2009
The Piano Lesson | Act I Summary
The action takes place in the kitchen and parlor of the house where Doaker Charles, his niece, Berniece, and her eleven-year old daughter, Maretha, live. Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, has just arrived from down South with his friend Lymon. The two men have stolen a truck and have hauled a load of watermelons in it. They plan to sell the melons and split the profits evenly. Lymon is in trouble with the sheriff back home and announces that he plans to stay in Pittsburgh, but Boy Willie insists that he will return South.
Boy Willie greets his uncle Doaker exuberantly, and although it is only five o’clock in the morning, he soon raises the whole household from sleep. Soon the audience learns that Boy Willie’s motives for driving to Pittsburgh are by no means innocent. He plans to take the family heirloom, an antique piano, from Berniece and sell it—whether she agrees or not. Boy Willie believes that the profits from this sale, together with those from the melons, will enable him to buy land from the Sutter family and set himself up as an independent farmer. He complains that Berniece never uses the piano and uses this observation to justify the sale. His complaint is crucial to later developments in the play, particularly the final scene.
During Act One, scene one, the audience meets Berniece and her daughter Maretha. Berniece is hostile to Boy Willie, who she believes is responsible for the death of her husband, Crawley, three years ago. She has just had a great shock: she claims she saw Sutter’s ghost standing at the top of the steps. The audience has just learned that Old Man Sutter fell down a well three weeks ago. Boy Willie says she is dreaming. (However, later in the play the audience learns that Doaker saw Old Man Sutter’s ghost before they arrived, just three days after he died, and in the third act Sutter’s ghost appears again.)
Berniece is being courted by an old acquaintance of Boy Willie’s, Avery, who, like him, used to work and plant the land but has now moved North. Avery has become a preacher and is trying to raise funds to build a church. Avery recounts a dream he had to Billy Willie and Lymon. Boy Willie is more interested in finding out from Avery the name of the antiques dealer who wants to buy the piano. As the scene ends, Boy Willie asks Berniece directly about the dealer, thus revealing to her his plan to sell the piano. She immediately announces that she ‘‘ain’t selling that piano. If that’s why you come up here you can just forget it.’’ The scene is set for their confrontation over their heritage.
In Act One, scene two, much of the mystery surrounding the piano is explained. The greater part of this scene is played out between Doaker and his older brother, Wining Boy, and their nephew Boy Willie. Wining Boy and Doaker reminisce about their old loves. They are interrupted by the arrival of Boy Willie and Lymon, who have been trying to sell their truck-load of watermelons. Inevitably, talk turns to Boy Willie’s schemes to buy the Sutter land (which Doaker claims ‘‘ain’t worth nothing no August Wilson more’’) and to sell the piano. Doaker decides to give Boy Willie a lesson: ‘‘See, now . . . to understand why we say that . . . to understand about that piano . . . you got to go back to slavery time. See, our family was owned by a fellow named Robert Sutter,’’ the grandfather of the recently diseased Old Man Sutter.
Robert Sutter decided to buy his wife, Miss Ophelia, a piano for their wedding anniversary. Since Sutter had no cash, he traded ‘‘one and a half niggers’’ for the piano, selling Doaker’s grandmother (also called Berniece) and his father (then a young boy). However, Miss Ophelia began to miss her slaves, ‘‘so she asked to see if maybe she could trade back that piano and get her niggers back.’’ The offer was refused. Doaker’s grandfather, also called Boy Willie, was a master carpenter; Sutter ordered Boy Willie to carve pictures of his wife and son into the piano legs, so that Miss Ophelia could have ‘‘her piano and her niggers too.’’ Boy Willie did just that: but he also carved other images from the family history into the piano—‘‘the story of our whole family,’’ as Doaker relates.
After the Civil War, the Charleses were freed and became share-croppers for the Sutters. Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, Papa Boy Charles, decided to steal back the piano, believing that ‘‘as long as Sutter had it . . . he had us. . . we was still in slavery.’’ The family managed to obtain the piano, but Papa Boy Charles was killed in retribution, burnt to death by a lynch mob in the train (the ‘‘Yellow Dog’’) on which he was attempting to escape. The murder set off a series of mysterious deaths (the latest of which is Old Man Sutter’s) that are supposedly caused by the ‘‘Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.’’
Act One, scene two, ends with Berniece and Boy Willie fighting about the piano and about Boy Willie’s role in Crawley’s death. Berniece emphasizes the pain the piano caused her widowed mother. Suddenly, Maretha screams—she too has seen Old Man Sutter’s ghost.
In Act Two, scene one, Wining Boy cons Lymon and Boy Willie, who have sold their melons and are flush with cash, into buying some secondhand clothes.
In scene two, Avery repeats his proposal of marriage to Berniece, who refuses to consider it seriously before Avery has established his church. She points out that she, as a woman, is subject to unfair standards: ‘‘You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me— without a woman—and still be a man. . . . Everybody telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man.’’ The scene ends with Berniece asking Avery to return the next day to exercise Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Avery promises to do so.
Scene three is split into two halves. In the first half, Boy Willie comes home with a woman he has picked up, Grace, but the two of them are thrown out by Berniece, who complains that their behavior is not appropriate since Maretha lives in the house. In the second half, Lymon arrives and talks to Berniece. He compliments her on her nightgown and gives her a bottle of perfume. They kiss, before Berniece departs. This scene and the previous one with Avery suggest that Berniece is beginning to put Crawley in the past and move forward. It is also a humorous contrast to Berniece’s restrictive behavior in the previous scene.
In the last scene in the play, Lymon and Boy Willie try to remove the piano from the house, but Berniece threatens them with Crawley’s gun. At this climatic moment, Avery appears. He begins his ceremony to exorcize Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Sutter’s ghost is heard, and Boy Willie starts wrestling with it. Avery despairs of healing the family, saying, ‘‘Berniece, I can’t do it.’’ Suddenly, ‘‘Berniece realizes what she must do.’’ She begins to play the piano, calling on her ancestors to help her. The song works: the ghost is exorcized, Boy Willie returns to the room. He leaves peacefully, saying as he does, ‘‘Hey Berniece . . . if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano . . . ain’t no telling . . . me and Sutter both liable to be back.’’
Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood, the Hill, where he lived with his mother and five siblings. His mother, a single parent, worked as a domestic to support her six children. Her own mother, Wilson’s grandmother, had walked from North Carolina to Pittsburgh in search of better opportunities. Wilson’s mother remarried when he was still young, and the family moved to a white suburb. Wilson met persistent racism in the schools he attended there, and at fifteen he was frustrated enough by this prejudice to leave school and educate himself at the local library. There, he read ‘‘anything’’ he wanted to, and educated himself about the Afro-American literary tradition by reading works by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps, amongst others. Their example inspired him to write poetry and short fiction.
Wilson was active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, particularly the Black Power movement, and one of his contributions to the movement and to his community was to co-found Black Horizon on the Hill, a community theater set up in 1968. Like many community theaters founded during this period, Black Horizon on the Hill aimed to increase political awareness and activism in the local community while also encouraging the development of local talent. Here Wilson premiered his first one-act plays.
In the late-1970s, Wilson moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his plays finally attracted widespread critical attention. Wilson’s serious theatrical debut was Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, a drama written in 1977 and performed in 1981. His first big hit was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), which was workshopped at the National Playwright’s Conference before playing at the Yale Repertory Theater and later opening on Broadway. This play was followed by two acclaimed dramas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences (1985) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986).
These three plays form part of Wilson’s ambitious series of dramas about African-American experience during the twentieth century (his aim is set a play in each decade of the century). The fourth play in this cycle, The Piano Lesson (1987), is set in the 1930s and explores the different attitudes of a brother and sister to their family inheritance, a piano for which their ancestors were sold and which is engraved with their ancestors’ images. The Piano Lesson’s combination of comedy and tragedy garnered Wilson another Pulitzer Prize and confirmed his reputation as one of America’s most important and innovative playwrights.
Wilson’s earliest writing was poetry, and his training in this field is still evident in his writing, which showcases the lyricism of African-American speech patterns and language and blends naturalist structure with devices that originate in black spiritualism. His social criticism also makes his writing especially rich, while his naturalism makes him heir to a tradition that includes such American greats as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—a tradition that he has adapted to include powerful representations of African-American experience.
Past and Present Wilson’s cycle of plays concentrates on African- American experience during the twentieth century, but they are all also focused—in either direct or indirect ways—upon the experience of slavery.
The Charles family in Wilson’s play is almost a textbook example of the southern black experience in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and it is certain that Wilson intended his characters to be representative of that history. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, most ex-slaves remained on the land, renting from their former masters as tenant-farmers (sharecroppers). The returns from their labor were low, the risks of natural disasters were high, and the costs of living were artificially inflated because it was mainly whites who owned the stores at which blacks bought and sold their goods. Many sharecroppers were locked into a cycle of debt to their former masters and lived in grueling poverty. This paucity and debt were compounded further by white hostility.
The promises of the Reconstruction Era were cut short, and the introduction of ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws that segregated whites and blacks confirmed the enduring influence of American, and particularly southern, racism. The accelerating industrialization of the North in the last decades of the nineteenth century promised workers higher wages, improved work conditions, and a better standard of living. Many rural blacks migrated North, and when demand for labor peaked during and after World War One this steady flow North became a torrent.
In the play, the Charles family were once owned by the Sutters and worked the Sutter land as slaves. After emancipation, they remained on the same land but became sharecroppers for the Sutters, renting the land from their former masters and working it for themselves. Finally, a part of the family migrated North to Pittsburgh, leaving only Boy Willy behind.
Boy Willie refuses to abandon the land and migrate North. His dream of finally owning, rather than renting, the Sutter land, is an extraordinary anomaly, and it reflects Wilson’s own curiosity about what ‘‘the fabric of American society would be like if blacks had stayed in the South and somehow found a way to develop [economically] and lock into that particular area.’’ His father’s desire to reclaim the piano is later paralleled in Boy Willie’s desire to remain on the land. Both father and son believe that reclaiming the heritage of slavery—and transforming it through labor and ties of affection—will alter their relationship to their family and to their history.
Boy Charles believed that the piano symbolized ‘‘the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it . . . we was still in slavery.’’ Boy Willie also tries to alter the family’s relationship to their slave history—to break the bond of master and slave, of owner and renter, by becoming an owner himself, the master of the very land that the Charles family has worked for so many generations.
The central conflict in the play, the battle over the future of the piano, is generated by Boy Willie’s desire to transform the past by altering the present. However, the battle takes place precisely because the piano’s history is so important: each family member has strikingly different responses to its past. In part, then, the piano’s lesson is a lesson about the past: history can sound dramatically different depending upon who is telling a story and why they are telling it. Understanding this lesson is crucial to understanding contemporary race relations in America and the extraordinary divide between black and white experience in the past.
Just as the play’s central conflict originates in Boy Willie’s desire to remake the past, so too can the conflict be resolved only by Berniece’s decision to return to the past. When her mother died, Berniece refused to perform the ‘‘ancestor worship’’ that her mother had demanded of her (playing the piano to invoke, and also to honor, the blood sacrificed for it). Ironically, Berniece’s attitude towards the piano is now almost as pragmatic as Boy Willie’s: both of them see it as ‘‘a piece of wood.’’
But when Avery’s Christian exorcism fails, Berniece returns to her mother’s ritual practices in order to save her brother and to exercise Sutter’s ghost. She plays the piano and calls upon the spirits of the dead to help her. Wilson describes her actions as ‘‘a rustle of wind blowing across two continents,’’ and her plea to her ancestors and her gratitude at their help recalls African rituals of ancestor worship. The piano’s lesson, then, is also a lesson that asks African Americans to value family ties and to acknowledge their personal involvement in the legacy of slavery.
The American Dream One of the themes that Wilson explores in all of his plays is the conflict between the American dream and African-American experience of poverty and racism. In The Piano Lesson each of the central characters has a different vision of their future, and the contrast between then defines Wilson’s exploration of the barriers African Americans faced in achieving the American dream.
The phrase ‘‘the American dream’’ describes the belief in the possibility of advancement in American society: an immigrant who arrives at Staten Island with nothing in his pockets can, with hard work, eventually earn and save enough to enable him to buy and own his own house and to live in reasonable prosperity. Boy Willie’s dream of owning his own land resembles the traditional American dream.
Avery also has a dream, but it differs markedly from Boy Willie’s. Avery has ‘‘been filled with the Holy Ghost and called to be a servant of the Lord.’’ He now works in his spare time as a preacher while trying to raise funds to build a church. Both Avery’s dream of becoming a preacher and ministering to a congregation, and Boy Willie’s dream of becoming a farmer and owning his own land, represent two key elements of African-American experience— religion and the land. Likewise, Avery’s ecstatic religious language is the other side of the black southern dialect in which Boy Willie speaks.
Their dreams represent two ways blacks could ‘‘make it’’ in this period; however, there were other possibilities for economic advancement. The character of Wining Boy represents another of the few avenues of advancement traditionally open to blacks: music. Wilson explored this path in the first play in his cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), and his critique of white exploitation of black musical talent in that play is echoed in his characterization of Wining Boy, a failed ‘‘recording star,’’ a piano player whose luck has run out. Not everyone, however, is lost to the lure of hope: while Berniece is pragmatic about her own position in society, she nonetheless nurtures the dream that her daughter will advance socially by becoming a piano teacher, while Lymon, too, hopes to make it in the big city.
Perhaps the most important dream in the play, however, is Papa Boy Charles’s dream that possession of the piano will alter the family’s relationship to their past. His dream of removing the piano from Sutter’s house and restoring ‘‘the story of our whole family’’ to his kin is accomplished at the cost of his life. The Sutters’s murder of Boy Charles reiterates their past violence to the Charles family. Moreover, the ‘‘liberation’’ of the piano and the murder of Boy Charles on the railway (a powerful symbol of escape and liberation for blacks, because it was one of the routes North used by fugitive slaves) occurs on the Fourth of July. Wilson thus points to the original limits of the American Revolution—in which white citizens won freedom from British tyranny while maintaining their own tyranny over black slaves— and the limits of its rhetoric for African Americans living in the segregated 1930s.
Naturalism Naturalism is often confused with realism; however, although the two styles both represent ‘‘real life,’’ there are important differences between them. Naturalist writers were influenced by scientific and evolutionary theories of human character and of social interaction. One of the central motifs of Naturalist writing is the individual’s struggle to adapt to an often hostile environment. Indeed, most Naturalist writers emphasize their characters’ environment to such an extent that it becomes an integral element in their narratives. Moreover, their protagonists usually belong to a less fortunate class than their middle-class audience or readership, and the description of their struggle to survive and succeed against all odds usually allows the writer the opportunity to make powerful social criticism.
Wilson is considered a Naturalist playwright par excellence. Although the play’s conflict is triggered by Boy Willie’s sudden appearance, the drama unfolds during the Charles family’s everyday activities. Doaker describes precisely what kind of ‘‘ham hocks’’ he wants Berniece to buy, and he shares with her and the audience his plans to cook ‘‘cornbread and . . . turnip greens.’’ When Avery arrives to propose to Berniece, she is busy heating up water for her evening bath. The final climatic argument between Berniece and Boy Willie occurs while Berniece is combing her daughter’s hair. These kinds of details are the staple of Naturalism: they foreground the everyday experiences of the characters while deepening the veracity of the characterizations.
Like many American Naturalist dramas—Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example—the action of The Piano Lesson takes place over a short period of time: from Thursday morning to Friday evening. The brevity of the plot’s span intensifies the drama of the events that unfold, while the kinds of detail described above allow the audience an extraordinarily intimate glimpse of the family’s life. The brevity of the time frame is an implicit contrast to the length of the family’s history; this contrast emphasizes the Charles’ inherent problems in relating to and narrating their family history, since, when their family were illiterate slaves, they relied upon storytelling, music, and art, rather than writing, to recite and remember their joys and sorrows.
The African Tradition: Ancestor Worship and Storytelling In the final scene, Wilson describes Berniece’s decision to play the piano as a ‘‘rustling of wind blowing across two continents.’’ The playwright himself merges two different cultural traditions within the play, the African and the American, and seems to suggest that this melding of cultures is essential to African-American identity. Ancestor worship is integral to African religious practice, and the spirits of the ancestors are believed to be able to influence people’s lives and cause good or bad events, depending upon whether the spirits are malevolent or benevolent. In fact, although ancestor worship is premised upon respecting and honoring the dead, the practice also ensures that spirits will remain benevolent and will protect the worshipers from malevolent forces. Neglect of the spirits removes their protection and may even incur their wrath.
The piano is the Charles’ family totem: it visibly records the lost lives of Berniece and Boy Willie’s ancestors, and it is the only tangible link remaining between past and present. Their ancestors’ spirits coalesce in the piano, which is precisely why Berniece’s mother, Mama Ola, polishes it, prays over it, and asks her daughter to play it. She keeps the shrine to her ancestors clean and pure and maintains her link with them by praying and playing it.
Berniece refuses to play the piano after her mother’s death because she ‘‘don’t want to wake them spirits.’’ Consequently, ‘‘they never be walking around in this house.’’ However, her refusal to honor the piano in the ways her mother has taught her means she has abandoned her African heritage and ‘‘disrespected’’ her family history. Berniece comes to realize that her neglect has allowed the Charles’ to be persecuted by Sutter’s ghost. When Berniece finally starts playing again and calls upon her ancestors’ spirits, she affirms the importance of maintaining African cultural practice and of honoring the history of slavery.
The other important African cultural practice in The Piano Lesson is storytelling. Again, this is a cross-cultural practice, but one that is particularly important to African Americans, who were denied formal education and literacy skills even after Emancipation. Slaves created or adapted songs and relied upon community storytelling to remember their heritage and history. Two scenes in particular hinge upon African-American storytelling.
Avery’s dream, which he narrates in Act One, scene one, reflects the importance of the Book of Revelations and of the scriptural promise of redemption to African-American Christianity. His narration of the story is a testimony to his conversion experience and displays the speech patterns of evangelical preachers. His dream is influenced by the New Testament story of Christ’s birth as well as by Old Testament stories of prophets being called and chosen by God. But Avery has cast these traditions in an African-American context: the pilgrimage begins in a ‘‘railway yard,’’ the three wise men become ‘‘three hobos’’ (who are reminiscent of the murdered hobos on the Yellow Dog), and he strongly emphasizes the ecstatic elements of the experience.
An even more important story is told in the next scene by Doaker, the de facto patriarch of the Charles family. Doaker uses the call and response structure that is common to African ritual practice and to evangelical preaching: ‘‘‘I’m talking to the man . . . let me talk to the man. . . . Now . . . am I telling it right, Wining Boy?’ ‘You telling it.’’’ He also uses rhythm to great effect by pausing throughout his story and repeats certain phrases to intensify its drama. Doaker’s story is the core of the play: it reveals the importance of the piano, and he is shown to be the one family member who still honors the ancestors’ spirits by telling their stories.
Many of the other characters tell stories about themselves during the play, a practice that emphasizes Wilson’s belief in the importance of the oral tradition to African-American identity. Storytelling keeps the past alive in the present, for it establishes the individual’s connection to their personal and cultural history. Survival depends upon the continuation of this practice across the generations: in the final scene of the play, Boy Willie begins to teach Maretha her family stories. He insists that if she knows about and celebrated her history, it will dramatically improve her self-esteem: she ‘‘wouldn’t have no problem in life. She could walk around here with her head head high. . . . She [would] know where she at in the world.’’
The Piano Lesson | An Eloquent Form of Social Protest and Public Education
In this essay, the author argues that
Wilson’s plays are an eloquent form of social protest
and public education.
August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his second) The Piano Lesson demonstrates that commercially successful theater can be an eloquent vehicle for social protest and public education. Wilson’s early involvement in the Black Power movement and in black community theater, and his ambitious plan to write a cycle of plays about African-American life in the twentieth century, are proof of his desire to ‘‘alter the relationship between blacks and society through the arts.’’ His representation of black suffering, coupled with his celebration of black resistance and endurance, offers his audience a new representation of African-American history.
In the late-1960s, artists involved in counterculture movements resurrected the theater as a forum for political protest and a vehicle for social change. Many artists saw community theater as a means to reach out to their community and educate and politicize them. Wilson participated in the Black Power movement in the early-1960s and, like many artists during this period, he saw writing as a means to bring about social change. In 1968 Wilson cofounded the Black Horizons Theater in his homesuburb of the Hill in Pittsburgh.
Wilson found community theater at Black Horizons and, later at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a challenging experience. Throughout the 1970s he directed and wrote short plays for both these organizations, in the process perfecting his craft. Wilson was not content to remain involved in community organizations, however. He wanted the professional advice and support of the National Playwrights Center, and, after they rejected his plays several times, he finally won them over. The Center accepted a draft of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play that became Wilson’s first commercial hit. Wilson’s shift from community theater to the comparative profitability of Broadway was either hailed as progress for black audiences and artists or seen as him selling-out to white expectations and commercial incentives. But close examination of Wilson’s oeuvre reveals that he maintained his original ideal: to educate his audience and to contribute positively to the African-American identity.
Wilson’s aesthetics are founded on a belief in the African-ness of black Americans and upon an emphasis upon reclaiming black history. He stated in an interview conducted shortly after the completion of The Piano Lesson (reprinted in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights) that he hopes a viewer will ‘‘walk away from my play, whether you’re black or white, with the idea that these [characters] are Africans, as opposed to black folks in America.’’ Such an aim is in keeping with the black nationalist movement, which emphasizes the African roots of African Americans and the importance of African culture in sustaining generations of slaves. Wilson’s inclusion of African cultural and religious practices in his plays—Gabriel’s ritual dance in Fences, Berniece’s appeal to her ancestors’ spirits in The Piano Lesson—is just one way in which he emphasizes the ethnic roots of African Americans and rewrites their history from a black perspective.
Emphasizing such an African perspective necessarily involves recovering and re-examining black history in America. But Wilson’s desire to reclaim African-American history is complicated by the fact that many African Americans were long denied the literacy and education enjoyed by most white Americans. Not only did this mean that early black writers such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass struggled against great odds to write, it also meant that until recently African- American history was mainly located in oral forms, such as spirituals, jazz songs and the blues, trickster stories, visions, conversion experiences, and folk tales. Wilson’s decision to include some of these forms in his plays evidences his commitment to valuing the diverse sources of black history and his desire to celebrate black cultural achievement.
Equally significant is Wilson’s project of writing a play about African-American experience for each decade of the twentieth century. Wilson skillfully integrates sociological research into the fabric of each play, while exploring an issue that he sees as characteristic of the decade as a whole. In The Piano Lesson, the decade in question is the 1930s, and the issues that Wilson fixes upon are the relationship of urban blacks to their past as slaves and the Great Migration of southern blacks to the cities of the North. In effect, each play is a new installment in a new history of the African-American people.
The Piano Lesson is set in a period with which many audience members are at least superficially familiar, for the Great Depression’s impact upon generations of Americans was so wrenching that to this day mention of it conjures up vivid images of gaunt faces and soup kitchens. But Wilson offers audiences a story that has not been told as often as it might have been: the story of black American experience during the Depression.
While poor blacks and whites alike experienced tremendous hardship during the 1930s, black poverty differed from white poverty in significant ways. The relatively recent resettlement of millions of blacks to urban northern centers during and after the First World War had produced enormous upheaval in kin networks, tension that was exasperated by the fact that almost all migrants moved into urban slums in the inner city. Nonetheless, the promise of steady income and improved living conditions in big cities like New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh continued to draw black migrants North.
The Piano Lesson dramatizes the moment of migration and represents the city’s temptations: Lymon is attracted to Pittsburgh because of the possibility of finding good work, meeting attractive women, and living the ‘‘good life.’’ Avery’s decision to abandon the South and his subsequent success in Pittsburgh exemplifies a successful migration. The play is subtly didactic: it encourages the audience to re-think American history by asking them what might have happened if more blacks had stayed on the southern land, and it encourages black Americans to value their own history of suffering and resistance under slavery. Wilson believes, as he stated in In Their Own Words, that ‘‘blacks do not teach their kids . . . that at one time we were slaves.’’ This history must be told: ‘‘It is the crucial and central thing to our presence here in America.’’ To this end, in the play the Charles family come to accept the burden of the past that the piano represents. The faces of their ancestors carved into the piano represent the family’s loss and suffering, but the artistry of the carvings also testifies to their ancestor’s achievements. Similarly, the terrible loss that Boy Charles’s death brings to the family is balanced by the beauty of the music that the stolen piano gives the family.
While Wilson never sounds a strident call to arms, his representation of the history of black protest encourages the audience to value it and supports contemporary black protest. The examples given above, for instance, are testimony of the family’s endurance of hardship and of their maintenance of their identity, but they are also testimony to the family’s resistance to their bonds: Doaker’s grandfather, Boy Willie, breaks his master’s orders and creates an artwork that is testimony to his bonds of affection, rather than his mistress’s, and Boy Charles’s decision to steal the piano strikes another blow against the Sutters’s—and white—oppression. Indeed, the play includes several important examples of blacks carving (literally and figuratively) out their own space in a hostile white world, such as Avery’s attempt to found his own black church and Boy Willie’s attempt to reclaim the land on which his ancestors slaved.
Wilson’s essentially positive project of valuing black history, even its most terrible and painful elements, is also apparent in his representation of the richness of African-American culture. The Piano Lesson is typical of his plays in that he touches upon all of the central elements of African-American culture. Avery’s character speaks to the importance of religion in African-American life, ‘‘our saving grace,’’ while Berniece’s call to her ancestors speaks to the continuing influence of African belief in ‘‘ancestor worship . . . ghosts, magic, and superstition.’’ Wining Boy represents the black tradition of the blues, while Berniece’s management of her household acknowledges women’s role in the black family’s resilience in the face of great adversity. Last but not least, the dialect in which the characters speak is not only realistic but also a showcase to the unique contribution African Americans have made and continue to make to American English.
Wilson’s journey from community theater in the Hill to commercial success on Broadway has been a long one, but The Piano Lesson shows that his original belief in the playwright’s potential to ‘‘alter the relationship between blacks and society’’ remains unshaken. He still seeks to reach out to and educate his audience, to encourage them to re-think their present and their past and to offer black audiences voices with which they can identify.
Not only does Wilson continue to use the theater as a form of public education, he also continues to use it as a form of social protest. The Piano Lesson mourns black suffering under slavery and its impact three generations later on the descendants of those slaves. But, like all social protest, the play harnesses the energy of anger and grief in order to change the present: the play’s conclusion asks black Americans to honor their ancestors’ history and their own painful inheritance.
Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Ifeka is a Ph.D specializing in American and British literature.
Directions: Visit the website below and get to know the literary elements listed there. There will be a quiz over these elements when you return in the fall!
Summer 2009 AP Literature and Composition Assignments
There are literary elements, and there are elements of art and the principles of design. Below is a list of those elements and principles for art, design, and literature.
Elements of Art The elements of art are the building blocks of an artistic creation, a "visual language" or "visual alphabet" used by the artist.
Line – a continuous mark made on a surface
Shape – two-dimensional (circle, square, rectangle, triangle) and encloses space
Form – three-dimensional and encloses and takes up space
Color – that which is perceived when light hits and reflects off an object. Three properties of color are Hue (name of a color), Intensity (strength of a color) and Value (lightness or darkness of a color)
Texture – the surface quality or feel of an object
Space – the illusion of space is created through light and shadow
Principles of Design The ways in which the Elements of Art are organized are referred to as the Principles of Design.
Rhythm and Movement – the visual flow through a work of art, incorporating repetition
Variety – the use of different or contrasting elements to add interest
Emphasis – used to make something stand out, like dark next to light
Unity – how all the aspects of a work of art work together
Literary Elements: Plot, Characterization, Point of View, Conflict, Foreshadowing, irony, Tone/Mood, Symbolism, Theme, Imagery, and Figurative Language.
Considering the literary elements of conflict, tone/mood, setting, symbolism and theme, compare and contrast August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, with Romare Bearden’s collage, The Piano Lesson, that was the inspiration for the play. Use the Venn Diagram to organize your thoughts and points of differences and similarities. The final essay should have an introduction, five developmental paragraphs, and a conclusion. In each developmental paragraph you should discuss both works of art.
Essay Structure and Organization:
Introduction with Thesis Statement
Body Paragraph #1 – Compare and contrast conflict in both the play and collage
Body Paragraph #2 – Compare and contrast tone/mood in both the play and collage
Body Paragraph #3 – Compare and contrast setting in both the play and collage
Body Paragraph #4 – Compare and contrast symbolism in both the play and collage
Body Paragraph #5 – Compare and contrast theme in both the play and collage
Conclusion of how the strength of the collage inspired the strength of the play
* Be sure to follow the MLA format instructions for quoting within the text of your essay, as well as the overall final product.
The Piano Lessonby August Wilson
Vocabulary Directions: Complete the vocabulary words below by doing the following: 1) Write the sentence containing the word, 2) from the context, make an educated guess as to what it means, and 3) write the definition that pertains to the way it is used in the sentence. Page numbers are included in the parentheses to help you find and underline the words.