Some notes on The Piano Lesson 04.05.2020

Toni Morrison’s Foreword

Toni Morrison’s foreword, first of all, left me breathless. Too bad it was not included in her last collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard. In the foreword she writes,

“It was in reading the text that I was struck by the beauty and accuracy of August Wilson’s language, as well as the richness waiting to be mined from the interstices between performance and text, between stage and the readerly imagination.”

She goes on to point out the “narrative threads” that figure most prominently the the unravelling of the plays central plot, the life of the truck that Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in and constantly go back to throughout the play, and the fear (and suspense) that animate the play.

The truck barely makes it to Pittsburgh with breakdowns, loss of breaks, failure of the radiator, etc., then throughout the play it reminds us that although the truck provides mobility, it only barely does so. There are the watermelon selling escapades (an inside joke) off the back of the truck, and there is Grace as a willing passenger for both Boy Willie (one night) and Lymon (another day). Ultimately the truck is to be the vehicle that takes the piano to its new owner (although it never happens) and alternately, the vehicle that Lymon uses to resettle in Pittsburgh since Boy Willie aims to return by train.

I’ll stop here so as not to spoil for you the reading. If anybody doesn’t have the version that has the Morrison foreword, I’ll send it out separately.


The weird end of the play.

A mixture of weird events marks the end of the play, presenting what is bound to be a super challenge for any stage director. In a few pages at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, we go from Boy Willie’s wrestling with Sutter’s ghost, to Avery’s failed attempt to bless the house, to Berniece’s calling on the ancestors as she plays the piano which finally puts the ghost’s expressions to rest. There is a type of time collapse that takes place that can only be attributed to and explained by Borgesian magical realism.

We have mentioned that Wilson cites his top influences as the 4 B’s, Baraka, Bearden, Borges, and the Blues. On the surface, we are aware of Bearden’s immediate influence. His collage, The Piano Lesson, provides the primary inspiration for the play. We find in Borges magical realism a possible explanation for the appearance and reappearance of Sutter’s Ghost as well as the rapid recovery from an intense spiritual experience at the very end of the play.

This passage comes from an earlier blog post.

The repeated appearance of Sutter’s ghost and the whole yarn about the Ghost of the Yellow Dog are vital elements in the unfolding of the play’s various plots. Every time Boy Wille and Lymon try to move the piano, they hear the sounds of Sutter’s ghost. Berniece sees Sutter’s ghost at the top of the stairwell, holding his head. Doaker sees the ghost but remains silent about it. Maretha sees the ghost upstairs and is traumatized. Avery fails at expelling the ghost from the house, Boy Willie has an actual physical altercation with the ghost and gets thrown down the stairs (better than the well, I’d say!), and ultimately, Berniece returns to playing the piano, calls on all the ancestors (a la Toledo’s African conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Altogether, this represents Borgesian magical realism at its finest, one of Wilson’s top influences. I mentioned magical realism in an earlier post, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” It serves as motive force for internally pushing the plot forward, but it also tells its own story.


Wilson addresses issues in The Piano Lesson in several interviews. He refers to Boy Willie as the heroic figure in the play, yet he calls his character development static as opposed to dynamic: Boy Willie enters with a firm plan, reflected, not coincidentally, in the play’s epigraph, lyrics to a blues song by Skip James that becomes a sort of mantra that Boy Willie recites throughout the play. He lets on in conversations that he admires Boy Willie’s intention to return to the south and buy land, farm that land, and secure financial independence. Yet he says Berniece is the star of the play and that the play is about Berniece, not Boy Willie. It is Berniece’s character that develops and evolved, and at the end she breaks through and does what she must to quiet Sutter’s ghost. He mentions that in the first write, he gave Berniece some very “feminist” lines that were eventually removed as it would have been out of place for 1936. When Wilson is asked whether or not Berniece and Avery eventually get married, he expresses doubt, explaining that Avery’s accomodationist tendencies are unlike character traits of other men in her life, her father, her first husband and her brother, for example.

Wilson refers to The Piano Lesson as his best play.


The relationship between Boy Willie and Beniece

There are several clues in the play that give us important information about the brother sister relation. A few facts are important. Berniece is five years older than Boy Willie. Following the murder of their father, Papa Boy Charles, their mother was essentially so emotionally impaired (there are subtle hints of this) that she was no longer able to effectively parent her children and Berniece more or less took over at Boy Willie’s mother figure. This became very apparent in the scene where Maretha is having her hair ironed and Boy Willie criticizes the way Berniece speaks to her daughter (as if she may have spoken to him like that in his childhood (my interpretation)). This tension overrides their relationship throughout the play.


Finally the question of the hour. Does Lymon sleep with Berniece?

**********

During our group discussion we talked about how the idea to divide the proceeds from the sale of the piano was a concept that seemed to have evolved during the course of the play. Someone mentioned that in the case of a dispute like this over jointly held family property, the proper recourse would have been to sell the property and split the proceeds across the heirs or family members with a claim on the property. When Boy Willie first arrived, he was dead set on selling the piano and taking the proceeds to buy the property down south. Later on he modified his position to share the proceeds with Berniece, half and half.

Another discussion we had was the three part or tripartite religious spiritualism that ranged from the otherworldliness of magical realism, to elements of African spirituality, to more traditional Christianity and how issues and events moved back and forth on that spectrum, perhaps positing that the African Spiritualism in the middle was somehow the golden mean. Avery, then, represented the traditional Christian faith, Berniece ended up representing the African spirituality, and Boy Willie wrestling with Sutter’s ghost represented the Borgesian magical realism and otherworldliness clearly distinct from anything else mentioned.

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes

Background notes 03.08.2020

1. There was some mention after last Monday’s meeting of the famous Wilson/Brustein “debate.” It is worth listening to this conversation and NPR archived it for us here:
https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1109529and on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Dfc_u3Xdyf8 (saved to playlist)

2. This article may be more appropriately introduced prior to Fences, but it has great background material worth knowing up front: America’s Most Undefeated Playwright –
https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/

3. Finally, I cannot “not” share this article with you. It is a discussion that we should not avoid.
https://forward.com/culture/356896/the-secret-jewish-history-of-fences-author-august-wilson/

I will save these on the blog for future consideration.

p.s. I remain intrigued by Wilson’s identification of C.K. Williams as his favorite poet and of Kurt Weil as one of his favorite composers. Would love to do some research and discuss.

March 2 start of the August Wilson American Century Cycle at OLLI-dc.org

We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!

first draft of a proposal for the 2020 August Wilson Society Colloquium

To preserve and make accessible the human record: the archivist as storyteller and facilitator in the pedagogical ecology of the American Century Cycle

Whether one goes to a bookstore or a theater to “buy” a particular August Wilson play, one is not merely purchasing entertainment for the evening in the traditional sense of going to a movie or a play, or taking part in a temporal event. My experience of leading discussions of the American Century Cycle plays in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, one by one, over several sessions, has convinced me that each play in the Cycle, and all the plays in the aggregate, represents a collection of human records (I am an archivist and manuscripts librarian on my day job). These records, in the continuous and dramatic form of each play, contain encoded items and documents that tell us a history of a people at a critical juncture in their evolution as a people. Moreover, they present us with a learning system for understanding human existence, theirs and ours, on the page, on the stage and screen, and in our lives. Exposure to this encoded learning system, whether consciously or unconsciously, is what in my opinion accounts for the continued popularity of August Wilson’s plays.

In this paper, I will analyze these learning system features, this pedagogical ecology as set forth in a couple of plays, defining terms along the way. I will include in the discussion the learning aids we developed in our discussions, YouTube playlists, outside readings, and works of art. These aids smoothed the bumps in the learning process, obstacles I contend the playwright intentionally placed to aid the student, the reader or the playgoer in achieving the mastery he intended for us to achieve. In our study groups we discuss the Cycle as a voyage, a journey, and an initiation into a mystic order. In this paper we begin the process of unmasking the process, revealing the aspects of the Cycle’s inherent learning system so that it becomes universally accessible and applicable.

Warm-up reading list for the Cycle

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Essays on each play and on recurrent themes. All the top Wilson scholars are represented.

Bloom, Harold. 2009. August Wilson (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Another collection of essays on Wilson plays and themes.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Professor Borges: A Course in English Literature. New addition to the list. A posthumous collection of lectures Borges gave at the University of Argentina spanning the history and range of English literature.

Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C., eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Interviews and conversations that provide enlightening background on the plays. I loved this collection!

Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages inspired at least two plays in the cycle.Wilson often cites Bearden’s influence.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People. One of Wilson’s major influences, along with Bearden, Borges, and the Blues itself.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Wilson credits Muhammad with supplying the first mythology (origin myths)  for black Americans.

Nadel, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Essays by leading Wilson scholars on plays and cross-cutting themes.

Nadel, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. A continuation of essays on the later plays.

Nadel, Alan. 2019. The Theatre of August Wilson. Next on my list. The major themes and motifs that unite Wilson’s ten-play cycle about African American life in each decade of the twentieth century.

Schwartzman, Myron. Romare: His Life and Art. Full length study of Romare Bearden, from his birth in North Carolina to his youth in New York and Pittsburgh, his student days in Paris, and his return to New York. Forward by August Wilson.

Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Extensive essays on the first six plays in the order written, plus an unabridged interview with August Wilson makes this volume a plus! I reference this volume often in discussions.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. A dictionary-type listing of all the characters and themes of the first nine plays (published prior to the completion of Radio Golf) along with a multi-generational timeline of all the events in the plays. Very helpful.

Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Short critical analyses of each play in chronological order. Highlights religious perspectives and themes in each play. Recommended for the course but not required.

Whitaker, Mark. The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pittsburgh. Lots of context for the plays in the cycle.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Places the migration to Pittsburgh and to the Hill District in historical context.

A beginning rhizomatic schematic of the August Wilson American Century Cycle

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 11.57.24 AM

The decades of the 20th century covered by each play are listed clockwise, beginning top and center with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. The blue lines with arrows indicate the order in which the plays were written, beginning with Jitney. Still working on the meaning & frequency of lines that cross.

Characteristics of the rhizome related to August Wilson’s plays (hypothetical).

1. Connections. The connections between plays/decades is just as important as the plays/decades themselves.

2. Heterogeneity. Any play can be connected to any other play or any series of plays.

3. Multiplicity. There is no original order for the plays, no prior unity.

4. Assignifying rupture. Connections between plays fail, rupture and remake themselves in various combinations.

5. Cartography and decalcomania. Discussions of themes can be entered via any play, mapped to any other play, and can conclude at any play.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted at #clmooc, but I haven’t forgotten you (or it). My work has taken me out of the classroom, but my volunteer activities have all been involved in various settings of adult education.

Most recently, I led a study group reading and discussing the plays of August Wilson that comprise his #AmericanCenturyCycle. Fiddling around, I came up with a rhizomatic approach to the plays, one for each decade in the 20th century.

Wilson’s plays all depict life in the black community (mostly in Pittsburgh), decade by decade. But here is the question. Can one deconstruct and reconstruct the order of a community’s history (through its surrogates, the plays) to find new meaning? In effect, is there a rhizomatic approach to history itself which we normally think of in linear terms? And what does this portend for teaching (and learning)?

Just beginning to arrange thoughts. Would love to hear ideas from the community.