The Lesson the Piano Teaches: August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and the African-American Experience It Illuminates

Author: William S. Lewis


Communications Technology High School

Year: 2007

Seminar: 20th Century American Literature

Grade Level: 8-12

Keywords: African American History, August Wilson, griot, History, Literature, personal history

School Subject(s): English, Literature, African American Literature

The Piano Lesson takes place in Pittsburgh in 1937 with The Great Depression as a backdrop and hints at the black migration from south to north then occurring. The play concerns a dispute between a sister who has moved to Pittsburgh and her brother who still lives in Mississippi. The brother wants to sell a family heirloom – the piano – to buy land down south, but the sister wants to keep it in the family because of its familial and tragic associations. The piano has carvings on it done by her great-grandfather which depict important events in the lives of the Charles family under slavery. There is the ghost of John Sutter – of the Sutter family who owned the Charles family in slavery times – which hovers over the piano and which does not want the piano to be disturbed. The central conflict is between Boy Willie and his sister, Berniece, and what will happen to the piano. The play is rich with symbolism. “This play is the story of the Charles family and its efforts to exorcise the ghosts that haunt it” (Pereira 87).

August Wilson was meticulous in his representations of the times. So this play serves as a window into the African American experience of that time period. By reading the play the reader can see into the past, and by making the various aspects of the play a subject of study the student can get a real sense of what the times were like for the characters. This study of the times through the experience of the characters in The Piano Lesson will be the focus of this unit.

My students are low-income mainly African American with little motivation to study and read. This unit will try to make this play and its background come alive by showing that the lives of the characters in the play have a dimension which makes their experiences have a very personal resonance for my students. The history in this play is after all their own personal history.

To make this experience meaningful and personally enriching I will assign to students various aspects of this play and its backdrop. Students will research and report to the class on what they have found. Students will give their reports while the class is reading the play together as well as after the reading of the play. The subjects of these reports can be limitless, limited only by the creative imagination of the teacher and students. Topics could be the experience of slavery, the breaking up of families in slavery, racism, southern prisons, the tradition of art in Africa and in America, the blues, blues musicians, slave-master relationships, migration from south to north, symbolism in the play, railroads and railroad workers, the church, jobs in the ‘30s and on and on. The Piano Lesson is indeed very much a window into the past.

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Full Unit Text

August Wilson planned to write a ten-play cycle that would illuminate the African American experience in this country. He assumed the role of a tribal griot whose duty it was to preserve the legacy and history of his culture: “… the role of the griot is significant since it is with him we mark the beginning of African literary tradition as we know it” (Freeman 1).        In order to do that he embarked on his ten-play cycle which would present the African American experience to his people and to the world. “In Blackburn’s assessment, Wilson is a playwright-historian whose ‘memory embraces the Middle Passage, enslavement, torture, economic deprivation, pseudo-freedom, and human ability to endure’” (Snodgrass 157). One of his central concerns was the correct and accurate representation of the African-American experience. “The inability to suppress, control, manipulate, and right histories of race has repeatedly affected the social and cultural dynamics of African American life” (Elam x). His contention was that only African –Americans should have the last word in accurately and completely depicting the African-American experience. What he called “foreign”, that is non-African Americans representations of their experience represented a big problem for him.

Wilson’s task, one shared by many black American writers, is a simultaneously reactive/constructive engagement with the representation of blacks and the representation of history by the dominant culture…. In this sense, the transmission of history becomes a binding ritual through which his characters obtain an empowering self-knowledge, a tangible sense of their own worth and dignity (Morales in Nadel 105-06).

So in his ten-play cycle he wanted to present an interpretation of African American history by one who was an inheritor of and product of that history and therefore able to present a first-hand account of the results of that long history.

Wilson writes that his ‘blood memory’ is a guide for his creation. Blood memory – the idea that there are some intrinsic experiences, some ontological knowledge that blacks remember just because they are black – also has the potential to seem essentialized (Elam xvii).

According to Harry J. Elam, August Wilson’s blood memory was not a biological entity, but a “…representation that dramaturgically blurs the lines between figurative and real…. Central to Wilson’s dramaturgical project is the idea that one can move forward into the future only by first going back” (xviii-xix).

The issues of baggage or treasure from the past and their integration into contemporary life are the backbone of Wilson’s fourth play, The Piano Lesson, inspired by (Romare) Bearden’s painting of the same name.

When Wilson saw Bearden’s painting in an art gallery, he turned to a friend and said, “This is my next play” (Fishman in Nadel 143-44).

“Wilson writes: ‘I never had the privilege of meeting Romare Bearden…. I’m sorry I didn’t, for I have never looked back from that moment when I first encountered his art’” (Fishman 147). Romare Bearden’s vision and art had a profound impact on August Wilson: “In Bearden I found my artistic mentor and sought, and still aspire, to make my plays the equal of his canvasses” (quoted in Herrington 21). Wilson admired and strove to imitate the method of Bearden using a normal scene like an elder teaching a young child to play the piano as a way to imply African-American lifestyle and values. He, as well, admired and tried to emulate Bearden’s collage-style of artistic creation (Fishman 137-38).