pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

I enjoy slightly retelling the stories in these August Wilson plays. It somehow helps me understand them better. My favorite thing is renaming each play. For example, I renamed Gem of the Ocean “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” The rename for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is “The Return of Deacon Herald Loomis,” though it could also named “Bynum Walker’s Fulfillment. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was easy, “It’s All About Levee,” though “August Wilson on Playwriting and Play Production” is running a tight second and may win the race overall. The renaming of this week’s play, The Piano Lesson, is a bit complex, but I think I have figured it out: “Sutter’s Ghost in the Archive.” Let me explain.

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 teh 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.

It’s 5:55 and I need to get ready for a 6:55 departure to work. Tonight I’ll finish with the explanation of “The Archive.”

OK. The Archive. One normally thinks of archives in terms of written records, and normally, these days though it hasn’t always been, on paper. Let me change your thinking. The piano is a worthy museum piece, with the carvings and all, an artifact, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as an archive. But this piano has carvings that represent several generations fo the Charles family, births, marriages, transactions, deaths, etc. Those representations qualify it to be an archive itself, the images mere surrogates of actual events in the lives of actual people. Doaker and Wining Boy tell Boy Charles, “Bernice is not going to sell that piano,” because they know she recognizes the power of the record, of the representation.

I wrote in an earlier set of notes, “The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin 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. It’s 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 a 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.

Here is a link to the YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Notes from Session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/

Notes from Session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/some-notes-and-takeaways-from-two-trains-running/?wref=tp

Supplementary notes that Carole Horn and I collaborated on in the 2nd session: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/#comment-1154

Some notes on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Wilson’s 4 B’s

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, based in part, or at the least, influenced heavily by Romare Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, presents us an excellent opportunity to introduce and talk about August Wilson’s four biggest influences – Bearden, Borges, Baraka and the Blues.

We’ll save Bearden for last.

Borges
Wilson says of Borges (in a conversation with Mark William Rocha),
It’s the way Borges tells a story. In Borges, it’s not what happens, but how. A lot of times, he’ll tell you what’s going to happen up front, as in [“The Dead Man”] in which we’re told at the beginning that a nobody from the slums will be shot in the head as a leader of his people. All of the interest is in how the story is going to be told.”

He further elaborates on Borges with Professor Shannon,
One of his techniques is that he tells you exactly what is going to happen.He’ll say gaucho so-and-so would end up with a bullet in his head on night of such and such. At the outset the leader of an outlaw gang with a bullet in his head would seem improbable. When you meet the guy, he’s washing dishes, and you go, “This guy is going to be the leader of an outlaw gang?” You know he’s going to get killed, but how is this going to happen? And he proceeds to tell the story, and it seems like it ’s never going to happen. And you look up, without even knowing it, there he is. He’s the leader of an outlaw gang.

The experts call this Borgesian technique magical realism, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” In Wilson, we have seen it so far in both Gem of the Ocean, in the voyage to the City of Bones, and in Joe Turner, in both Bynum’s vision of his meeting with his father and the Shiny Man, and in Loomis’ dreamlike state describing the bones emerging from the ocean and taking on flesh, and life. As an aside, Borges credits Edgar Allan Poe as one of his top influencers and one of Poe’s more obscure poems in his “A Dream Within a Dream.

I’m rushing a bit. We can discuss later in greater depth.

Baraka
While Wilson includes Amiri Baraka as one of his top four influences, his actual description of that influence is slightly muted. In several conversation and interviews, Wilson makes passing reference to Baraka’s espousal of black nationalism as something he “found value in.”

Baraka speaks in similarly muted terms about Wilson. In a conversation with Pittsburgh actor Sala Udin, Baraka says,

“August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.

He continues, Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.

What neither Baraka nor Wilson mentions is the personal and professional “catharsis” both experienced in the year 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated. Wilson was 20 and Baraka was 31. Both had undergone conversion-to-Islam experiences within the organization that “produced” Malcolm X, and both decided, independently, shortly after his death to devote themselves to writing and the arts (Rocha/Elkins). That convergence is hardly insignificant.

Both began as poets. While it can be argued that Wilson’s dramatic work was somewhat less in-your-face about racial problems than was Baraka’s, Wilson was both a fan of Baraka’s Four Black Revolutionary Plays and a disciple of the Baraka manifesto, the Black Revolutionary Theater, as evidenced in his work in Pittsburgh in the early 70’s. See also Afrosurrealism.

A lot more to be said there.

The Blues
It’s not an overstatement to say that all Wilson’s plays are infused with blues music. And Wilson makes it clear that the blues are his top influence. Where do we see the blues in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone? The title itself is a W.C Handy blues song title. And everything Bynum says about finding one’s song, is, in effect, about the blues, singing it and living it

We will spend more times with the blues as a music genre in week 3 when we study Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But every play (and every playlist) is chocked full of blues music.

Bearden
This is getting a bit long for a blog post, but we are almost done.

August Wilson attributes Bearden’s collages as the primary inspiration of two of his plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. Here is a link to Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, a collage from Bearden’s Pittsburgh Memories collection, and the inspiration for Joe Turner: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/asset/aug15_img_bearden/. Look closely and you can see Seth and Bertha’s boarding house and four of its tenants.

As a young poet in the early 70’s, Wilson found inspiration in another Bearden collage collection, The Prevalence of Ritual, pieces of which Wilson saw featured in a National Geographic magazine follow the opening of the exhibit at MoMA.

There is a lot more to be said about Bearden, his connections to Pittsburgh, his involvement in the Black Arts Movement that spawned the Black Revolutionary Theater, his ties to the New Negro Movement and its extension, the Harlem Renaissance.

Tomorrow I will post pre-class notes on Joe Turner.

References

Campbell, Mary. 2018. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. 1994. August Wilson: A Casebook.

Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.

Bryer, Jackson and Mary Hartig, eds. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.

Fine, Ruth and Jacqueline Francis, eds. 2011. Romare Bearden, American Modernist.