Art work, clockwise from the upper left corner: Matisse, The Piano Lesson; Bearden, The Piano Lesson; Matisse, The Music Lesson; Bearden, The Piano Lesson.
August Wilson called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” his favorite play, but he referred to The Piano Lesson as his best play. I haven’t come across any explanations but my own observation is that this play contains a richer variety of symbols and rituals than the other plays we have studied so far, though each was unique in its display of ritualistic behavior.
The Berniece/Boy Willie interface is reminiscent of the Jacob/Esau birthright conflict as well as the King Solomon cutting the baby in half suggestion. The four men at the table drinking and singing old prison songs until they work themselves into a near frenzy reminds me of a type of communal seance where distant spirits inhabit and emerge from the interplay between the participants. The piano combines the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant mythologies (we’ll spend more time on this later in this discussion. Avery’s failed blessing of the house is a type of exorcism, again that ultimately fails. Berniece is the high priestess who finally emerges to make a sacrifice to appease the family ancestors (gods). All this richness!
I am calling the the prison work song scene the first climax of the play because of all the action and discussion leading up to it and the falling action/discussion after it. After the song was completed, all four men opened up and spoke freely together, so it was also an “equalizing” event, similar to the Eucharist with bread and wine (note: drinking had occurred, but it was whisky, not communion wine. Anyway, you get the point.). Very moving scene. The prison work song, I propose, not only identified their common experience with incarceration in the South, but, much deeper, identified a spiritual basis or background they shared connecting them to their African roots and origin. The “sacrament” was ended with Whining Boy playing on the piano (the altar, the shrine). Berniece’s arrival changes the mood completely. She will have a separate cataclysmic event.
This is the second Wilson play based on a painting. The first one was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Both were based on or inspired by paintings by Romare Bearden. So already there is an organic relationship between the two plays.
Who is the Wilson Warrior in this play? Is it Berniece, determined to hold on to the family keepsake (a shrine, altar and a surrogate archive)? Or is it Boy Willie, who’d prefer to sell the piano and use the money to buy the family plantation land down south (capitalism and wealth building)? I contend they are both Wilson Warriors per the Riley Temple definitions, characters who
- “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. And in so doing they must have the strength and the courage – the faith – to revisit the past in all its several guises and heaviness, to set down the burdens of that past, and become free. The faith is needed to know that the outcome will be as God intends, despite the difficulties attendant to the journey.
- “These men (and Berniece Charles) are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”
- those who fight – sometimes foolishly as Levee has just done, and who should and will pay dearly for such a tragic mistake.
- “like the others: Solly “Two Kings” in Gem, who freed slaves and who turned to helping abused factory workers; Herald Loomis; Boy Willie of Piano Lesson who has to fight off ghosts of the past to help his sister unlock herself….Troy Maxson, of Fences, who battles death and the compulsion to save his son from racial humiliation…”
- “Each one had who they were right within their reach – their song was in their throats – they had to be guided to the soul’s destination to sing it.”
- “He (Boy Willie) is, after all, one of Wilson’s warriors….(his) mistakes have been bad, some not so smart – even stupid. But he’s paid for them, he is struggling to walk upright and is determined to do so.”
- [He] is no victim. He is a fully redeemed soul. He knows who he is and how he got to where he is. He knows his history; he has called on his ancestors; he knows on whose shoulders he stands; and he is comfortable and free. He remembers his past, and he engages in it – like the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as God directs, remember who delivered them.
Here is a Youtube video of the entire play:
Berniece is on a parallel development track. She is pursued by men and told she can’t be whole without a husband. She is pursued by fears, of ghosts, of what happened to her mother and father and husband. But she overcomes those fears when she plays the piano and calls out to her ancestors (reminiscent of Toledo’s African conceptualization in Ma Rainey) for help after her primary suitor Avery’s Christian exorcism attempt failed. Berniece is the High Priestess/Warrior in the myth story but she has developed a fear of performing her function as High Priestess. Only when she succeeds in overcoming her fear is she able to quell the Sutter’s ghost issue.
The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. The Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the archive of the family history through the generations. Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.
I wonder if the back and forth between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano was a sort of distraction, albeit a necessary one, to get to the real plot and character development in the play, the family united in purpose at the play’s end? In the end, the play highlights the family unit, resilient and purposeful.
Genealogy and provenance of the piano.
1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.
2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.
3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged them for the piano.
4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.
5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her sold slaves.
6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.
7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.
8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.
9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Berniece later joined him after her husband was killed.
postscript. The use of art (especially Romare Bearden) as inspiration for drama began with Joe Turner and continues with The Piano Lesson. But in The Piano Lesson, we are faced with two works of art under the same title, Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and Bearden’s The Piano Lesson. Further, the juxtaposition of the two works of art force us to consider, what is art?
As an aside, the French Impressionists were considered outside the dominant school of French art at the time, the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The more traditionalist school considered them anti-establishment painters, many of whom failed the entrance exam for the Ecole, as pretend painters, and their work, merely an impression of art, and not art itself. Hence, they became known as Impressionists.
In March of 1931, nine young African-American men were accused of raping two white women on a train. The African-American men ranged in age from thirteen to nineteen. Each young man was tried, convicted and sentenced in a matter of days.
African-American newspapers published news accounts and editorials of the events of the case. Civil rights organizations followed suit, raising money and providing defense for these young men. However, it would take several years for these young men’s cases to be overturned.
Bethune is appointed Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. Bethune is the first African-American woman to receive a presidential appointment and is the highest-ranking African-American official in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. His achievement defies Adolf Hitler’s plan to use the Olympics to show the world “Aryan Supremacy.”
The first medical textbook to be written by an African-American is entitled Syphilis and Its Treatment. The author is Dr. William Augustus Hinton.
The first African-American federal judge is appointed by Roosevelt. William H. Hastie is appointed to the federal bench in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids signs a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.
Joe Louis wins the heavyweight championship against James J. Braddock.
The Negro Dance Group is founded by Katherine Dunham.
Zora Neale Hurston publishes the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
The work of Jacob Lawrence debuts in an exhibition at the Harlem YMCA.
Crystal Bird Fauset becomes the first African-American woman elected to a state legislature. She is chosen to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.