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Audience Context Guide for August Wilson’s


Learning from August Wilson


t the cornerstone of August Wil- the social and economic effects of the son’s artistic philosophy was the Great Migration, turn to Page 6; to unconcept of taking ownership of one’s derstand how the characters in The cultural heritage. With each decade in Piano Lesson fit into this important his Century Cycle, Wilson brought to historical landmark, turn to Page 12; light an entire world of people, events, to learn about the cultural influences and places that characterized landmark that sparked Wilson’s imagination, turn moments in African-American history. to Page 14; and to hear Wilson’s own Although his characters and stories are voice, read the various quotes included entirely fictional, they are set against throughout this Context Guide. specific cultural and historical backFor even more insight into the world drops, highlighting the various ways of the play, including pictures, videos, black Americans responded to and and articles, visit our blog at olneypilived within these shifting landscapes. If you have The aim of this Context Guide is to any questions or comments about this give you the tools to understand Wil- Context Guide, the blog, or the producson’s rich, nuanced world as compre- tion itself, please send us a message at hensively as possible. To learn about

Table of Contents

Introduction The Playwright Biography Interview World of the Play The Great Migration The Hill District The Charles Family Characters Influences Romare Bearden Music Religion Artist Spotlight Jamil Jude, Director


2 4 6 6 8 10 12 14 15 16 17

The Playwright N

ow considered he continued his edthe quintessen- When your back is ucation informally at tial African-American the Carnegie Library pressed to the wall playwright, August of Pittsburgh and on Wilson’s epic entrance you go to the deepest the streets of the Hill into the American theDistrict of Pittsburgh atrical canon did not part of yourself, and which later became begin until the 1970s; the backdrop for there’s a response– until then, he explored many of his plays, heritage and history It’s your great soaking in the lanthrough a variety of guage of its people lenses—as a Black ancestors talking. It’s and the culture of his Power activist, direccommunity. blood memory.” tor, and poet. The artIn 1962, Wilson enist who went on to win listed in the U.S. Army two Pulitzer prizes, among dozens of othfor one year of service, then worked odd er awards, tapped into his wealth of expejobs as a dishwasher, porter, cook, and riences growing up in the Pittsburgh Hill District, and his stories reflect the politi- gardener to support himself. Around the cal and social perspectives he developed same time, he changed his surname to Wilson as an homage to his mother and during his formative years. his cultural heritage. In 1965, Wilson purEARLY YEARS chased his first typewriter for $20 and began writing poetry. ugust Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to Daisy In the late 1960s, at the threshold of the Wilson, a domestic worker who primarily Black Arts Movement, Wilson joined a cared for August and his five siblings in group of poets, educators, and artists a two-bedroom apartment above a gro- to form the Centre Avenue Poets Thecery store. Wilson’s father was largely ater Workshop. In 1968, he co-founded absent from his childhood, and when Dai- the Black Horizon Theater, a communisy remarried and moved the family to a ty-based, Black nationalist theater compredominantly white neighborhood in the pany in the Hill District. Wilson served as 1950s, August became astutely aware of the self-taught resident director until the the racial and social prejudices within his company disbanded in the mid-1970s; own native city. until then, it produced several plays from and inspired by the black canon, a colIn 1960, at age 15, Wilson dropped out lection of literature and artwork by Afof high school after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper. Undaunted by his troubled high school experience, Continued on Page 4



Continued from Page 3 rican-American artists, assembled and celebrated to raise awareness about the African-American experience.

THE CENTURY CYCLE In 1978, Wilson moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he concentrated more on playwriting and became a company member of the Penumbra Theatre. In 1979, Wilson wrote Jitney, which he considered

Wilson’s Five Beliefs According to Dr. Sandra Shannon in her book The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, the playwright had five primarily beliefs by which he stood, all of which are evident in each of his ten Century Cycle plays. The beliefs are: 1.The original sin committed by African Americans may be traced back to their massive postwar exodus from the South and their decision not to cling to the land. 2. African Americans do not sufficiently acknowledge and celebrate their cultural differences. 3. The salvation of today’s African Americans rests with renewing ties with Africa and acknowledging their African heritage. 4. Mainstream histories have systematically and consciously excluded and misrepresented African Americans. 5. The only venues that traditionally have offered African Americans limited acceptance have been sports and music.


his first real play. Wilson’s third Century Cycle play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which premiered at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in 1982, was the first to gain him widespread recognition. In the same year, Wilson met Lloyd Richards, the African-American artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre who would direct Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway. In 1990, Wilson transitioned to Seattle, Washington, where he continued to work on his Century Cycle. Seven Guitars made its way to the Broadway stage two years later; King Hedley II made its Broadway debut in 2001 and Gem of the Ocean premiered in Chicago roughly a year later. Wilson continued working until his death in October of 2005.

WILSON’S LEGACY Among his dozens of honors and awards, some of the most notable include: New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1985); Fences (1987); Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988); Seven Guitars (1996); Jitney (2000) American Theatre Critics’ Association Award: Fences (1986) Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play: Fences (1987); The Piano Lesson (1990) Pulitzer Prize for Drama: Fences (1987); The Piano Lesson (1990) Tony Award for Best Play: Fences (1987) On October 16, 2005, the former Virginia theater located on West 52nd Street in New York City was renamed August Wilson Theatre. It marked the first time in history that a Broadway theater has been named for an African-American. On February 17, 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially announced its new name: the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

In Own Words: An In His His Own Interview Words with August Wilson Dr. Sandra Shannon is one of the nation’s leading August Wilson scholars. Currently a professor of African-American literature at Howard University, she has a prolific publication record, including three book-length studies and dozens of articles. Dr. Shannon conducted the following interview with August Wilson after the 1991 premiere of Two Trains Running at the Kennedy Center. The interview, was published in Dr. Shannon’s book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Sandra Shannon: Early in your career you made a gradual shift from writing poetry to writing plays. How has being a poet affected your success as a playwright?

that is in some way represented—some more than others in the plays, which I think gives them a fullness and a completeness—that this is an entire world.

August Wilson: Well, I think that it has been important to my writing. It’s the bedrock of my playwriting. Primarily not so much in the language as it is in the approach and the thinking—thinking as a poet, one thinks differently than as a playwright. The idea of metaphor, which is a very large idea in my plays...So it’s been very helpful. I think I write the kinds of plays that I do because I have 26 years of writing poetry underneath all of that.

SS: What is your reasoning behind writing a 400-year-old autobiography in ten plays? At what point did you decide upon this strategy?

SS: I’m fascinated by the combination of memory, history, and mythmaking and the blues in your work. Do you perceive your role as a historian, as a prophet or healer, or perhaps as something else? AW: Well, I just say playwright. Of course, I use history. I use the historical perspective. My work benefits from looking back because we can look and see—for instance, in The Piano Lesson, you can see the actor, the character going down the road that, given the benefit of a 50-year historical perspective, we can see whether that is the correct road or not because we’ve learned. We know how all this turned out. So, history is certainly an important part of my work, and I try to actually keep all of the elements of the culture alive in the work, and the myth is certainly a part of it. Mythology, history, social organizations—all of these kinds of things that are part of the culture, I purposefully go through and make sure each element of

AW: Well, actually, I didn’t start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney! set in ‘71 and a play called Fullerton Street that I set in ‘41. Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I set in ‘27, and it was after I did that that I said, “I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue to do that?” Also, the assumption everyone makes is that any writer’s work—it’s not just my work—they assume it’s autobiographical, that you’re writing about yourself. None of the characters, none of the events in the play are events in my life. None of the characters are modeled after me. Because I feel if you write your autobiography, you don’t have anything else to tell. So I thought when people would ask me that I’d say, “Well, you know I got a 400-year-autobiography.” That’s what I’m writing from. There’s a whole bunch of material. You never run out of stories. SS: But you’re part of that story? AW: Oh, absolutely. I’m definitely a part of the story. It’s my story. I claim it—all 400 years of it. I claim the right to tell it in any way I choose because it’s, in essence, my autobiography; only it’s my autobiography of myself and my ancestors.


World of the Play



The Great Migration

dissolved in 1869, it he Great Migration, or We uprooted ourselves continued its practices of violence the relocaand attempted to and violence undertion of more than 6 ground throughout million African Amertransplant this culture the Jim Crow era. icans from the rural to the pavements of the South to the cities When World War of the North, Midindustrialized North. I broke out in Euwest, and West from in 1914, urban 1916 to 1970, had And it was a transplant rope areas in the North, an enormous impact Midwest, and West that did not take.� on urban life in the faced a sudden United States. Driven shortage of industrial laborers. With war from their homes by unsatisfactory ecoproduction kicking into high gear, recruitnomic opportunities and harsh segregaers enticed African Americans to come tionist laws, the conditions these migrants faced up North were hardly the respite north, to the dismay of white Southerners. from economic and social struggle they Black newspapers published advertisehad anticipated; despite adversity, African ments touting the opportunities available Americans created a new place for them- in the cities of the North and West, along selves in public life, actively confronting with first-person accounts of success. economic, political and social challenges LIFE IN THE NORTH and creating a new black urban culture that would exert incredible influence in the These stories enticed hundreds of thoudecades to come. sands of African Americans to leave their rural homeland, usually traveling CONTEXT AND CAUSES by train, boat or bus; a smaller number After the post-Civil War Reconstruction had automobiles or even horse-drawn period ended in 1876, white supremacy carts. Many new arrivals found jobs in was largely restored across the South, factories, slaughterhouses and foundries, and the segregationist policies known where working conditions were arduous as Jim Crow soon became the law of the and sometimes dangerous. Aside from land. Southern blacks were forced to make competition for employment, there was their living working the land as part of the also competition for living space in the insharecropping system, which offered little creasingly crowded cities. While segregain the way of economic opportunity. Al- tion was not legalized in the North, racism though the Ku Klux Klan officially and prejudice were widespread. After the Supreme Court declared racially based 6

housing ordinances unconstitutional in 1917, some residential neighborhoods enacted covenants requiring white property owners to agree not to sell to blacks. The Migration slowed considerably during the Great Depression and picked up speed again after World War II. During the severe economic turmoil of the 1930s, Northern life was particularly difficult for African-Americans. According to Richard Barksdale and Keneth Kinnamon: “Blacks suffered sooner, longer, and more profoundly than whites the disastrous effect and the vast economic dislocation of the 1930s. In the South, the cotton economy was hit so hard that the number of black tenant farmers and sharecroppers decreased by some 200,000 from 1930 to 1940. Industrial workers in the North and South were laid off or displaced by whites. By 1932, 56 percent of blacks were unemployed.”

IMPACT As a result of housing tensions, many blacks created their own cities within big cities, fostering the growth of a new urban African-American culture. The most prominent example was Harlem in New York City, a formerly all-white neighborhood that by the 1920s housed some 200,000 African Americans. The black experience during the Great Migration became an important theme in the artistic movement known first as the New Negro Movement and later as the Harlem Renaissance, which would have an enormous impact on the culture of the era. The Great Migration also began a new era of increasing political activism among African Americans, who after being disenfranchised in the South found a new place for themselves in public life in the cities of the North and West.

WILSON’S PERSPECTIVE August Wilson regarded this mass ex-

By the Numbers • In 1910, nine out of every ten blacks lived in the South, and three out of four lived on farms. • By the end of 1919, some 1 million blacks had moved up North.

• Between 1910 and ‘20, the black population of major Northern cities grew by large percentages, including New York (66 percent) Chicago (148 percent), Philadelphia (500 percent) and Detroit (611 percent). • By the 1970s, which marked the end of the Great Migration, only 25 percent of African-Americans lived in the South. odus of African-Americans from the cotton and tobacco fields of the South as an enormous mistake: “We’re still victims of discrimination and oppression in the North. The real reason that the people left was a search for jobs because the agriculture, cotton agriculture in particular, could no longer support us. But the move to the cities has not been a good move. Today…we still don’t have jobs.” To some extent, each installment of Wilson’s ten-play cycle underscores lingering ramifications of this mistake. Many of his transplanted Southern characters are tormented, restless nomads who desperately try to escape their traumatic past, only to make their way North—where they suffer from a host of psychic and physical wounds, even death. Set in either Pittsburgh or Chicago, each play captures the bluesy impulses of the Southern African American’s initiation into the Northern way of life. 7

World of the Play

The Hill District T

he ten plays with which August Wilson conquered the American theater are sometimes called his Century cycle, since each is set in a different decade of the twentieth century. But they are better called the Pittsburgh Cycle, since nine are set in a square mile or so of that city’s Hill District and all ten are rich with the voices and places, stories, and passions that Wilson absorbed in the years that he spent walking its streets and listening to the talk in its diners, barbershops, numbers joints, and jitney stations. The Hill is an active character in the Century Cycle, as well as a literal crossroads and a metaphoric microcosm of black America. By 1904, the real Hill District had become a multi-ethnic melting pot. Roughly onethird black, one-third Eastern European Jews, and one-third everything else, it grew to hold some 55,000 people. For blacks, who were not always welcome in the adjacent downtown, it was a city within a city, its commerce and entertainment spiced with music (a dozen native jazz greats), sports (baseball’s Josh Gibson and the Negro National League teams the Crawfords and the Grays), and journalism (the Pittsburgh Courier, once the nation’s largest black newspaper). But at mid-century the aging Hill was torn apart by urban renewal, followed by the fires that protested the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Wilson, who was born in 1945, witnessed this decline. He had dropped out of school at 15 after bouts with racism, then educated himself at the Carnegie Library before doing his graduate studies in culture and poli-


The fuel and the father for all my work.”

tics on the streets of the Hill. By the time he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota in 1978, the Hill was broken, its population having shrunk to less than 15,000. In recent years it has started to come back. But, as if in cosmic compensation for history’s cruelty, it already lives in Wilson’s art. The result is that we now speak of August Wilson’s Hill, a gritty urban landscape transformed by art into something mythic, like Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Friel’s Ballybeg. Writing from the distance of St. Paul and later Seattle, Wilson said that he heard more clearly the voices from the street corners and cigar stores of his youth. And he kept coming back to Pittsburgh to dip the ladle of his art into this crucible of memory and inspiration, using history much as Shakespeare did—as raw material to mold and shape. The outcome is stories rich in the “love, honor, duty, and betrayal” that he has said are at the heart of all his plays. Along the way, Hill names, shops, streets, and even addresses are adapted, hinted at, or disguised. First comes 1727 Bedford Avenue, where Wilson lived with his family in two back rooms, later four, until he was 13—a family that grew to include six children. His memories of the gossip and the card playing in that

backyard mark it as the setting for Seven Guitars. In front was Bela’s Market, run by Eastern European Jews, and next door was the watch and shoe-repair shop of Italian brothers, making the two houses an epitome of the early-mid-century Hill. Wilson soon realized that Pittsburgh could stand for all America. He was often furious with Pittsburgh, of course, an anger that came from its streets, along with hope. But all is transformed when Wilson welds comedy and tragedy to speak with

prophetic passion across the American racial divide. Reprinted with the kind permission of the author. Christopher Rawson is former chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and serves on the boards of the Theatre Hall of Fame and the Best Plays Theater Yearbook. Now senior theater critic for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, he has reviewed, interviewed, and chronicled August Wilson since 1984.

August Wilson’s Century Although Wilson’s 10 plays are not connected in the manner of a serial story, various characters, locations, and themes are woven throughout each decade. The plays are listed below in order of their historical setting, not the year in which they were written.

Gem of the Ocean (2003) – 1900s: A spiritually tormented

young man who pays a visit to Aunt Ester, a former slave, on the eve of her 287th birthday, making discoveries about guilt, duty, and redemption.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1988) – 1910s: Released from

many grueling years on a plantation chain gang, Herald Loomis journeys north in search of a new life.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – 1920s: Chicago blues

legend Ma Rainey sets out to record her latest album in the only one of Wilson’s ten plays set beyond Pittsburgh.

The Piano Lesson (1990) – 1930s

inequities with wanting the best for his family’s future.

Two Trains Running (1991) – 1960s: Upon learning that their fa-

vorite gathering spot is about to be demolished, regulars at Memphis Lee’s lunch counter contemplate where next to seek salvation.

Jitney (1982) – 1970s: At a ram-

shackle taxi depot, the men who drive gypsy cabs, or “jitneys,” strive to find honor and accomplishment in a harsh world.

King Hedley II (1999) – 1980s: An ex-con tries to rebuild his life, but grand dreams for his wife and unborn child are threatened by an unjust system.

Seven Guitars (1995) – 1940s: Radio Golf (2005) – 1990s: Through flashbacks, seven friends and neighbors face the sobering reality of mortality and the pain of losing those they love.

Fences (1987) – 1950s: Once a famous baseball player, Troy Maxson must reconcile his anger at past racial

Harmond Wilks’s revitalization project will make him Pittsburgh’s first black mayor, and his radio host partner advocates golf as deliverance in the era of Tiger Woods. But a hold-out on their real estate dealforces them to question their methods.


The Charles Family—G Mama Esther

Papa Boy Charles

b. 1802

b. 1795

Papa Willie Charles

Enslaved carpenter for the Sutters b. 1819

Mama Nellie

Papa Boy W

Sold for piano at b. 1847

b. 1855


Fled to New York


Railroad cook B. 1881

Can one acquire a sense of self-worth by denying one’s past?”


Wining Boy Mam

Cleotha d. 1896

d. 1880


b. 1 d. 1


b. 1896 d. 1933 Killed in police ambush

b. 1901

Maretha b. 1925


The Silent Characters Along with the dozens of on and offstage characters in The Piano Lesson, two of the most important figures never speak, but wield incredible power: THE PIANO


Sold for piano b. 1826


age nine

ma Ola

1876 1928

Boy Charles

b. 1879 d. July 4, 1911 Killed after rescuing the family piano

Boy Willie b. 1906

“The very validity of the word ‘inanimate’ is called into question in this play, especially as it pertains to the large, soundproducing, dominant physical object that is the piano. If the root word anima refers to that which has breath, spirit, or life, then the piano that plays on its own is animate, not inanimate. Its alive qualities are what keeps Berniece from touching it, for fear of waking the spirits.” — from Marian Wolbers’ “Nomos, Mysticism, and Power Objects in August Wilson” THE TRUCK

“This truck full of watermelons is not just the play’s mobility–it is also a kind of offstage character with its own colorful personality and multiple roles. The truck bears a heavy weight as symbol and dramatic glue. Integral to the action, it sits offstage but not off page, where it stokes the imagination. What color is it? What make? What is its mechanical problem? What is its future? Like a magic carpet it arrives, solves problems, and disappears.” —from Toni Morrison’s introduction to The Piano Lesson 11

Characters T

he multiple threats to the preservation of this black family—the Depression, the migration north, and the resulting damage in their connection to the past—may be measured indirectly by examining both the various jobs Wilson assigns the characters and their respective work ethics.” — Dr. Sandra Shannon in The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson

Along with populating the world of August Wilson’s Hill District, the characters in his Century Cycle also serve instrumental symbolic roles. Each character in these ten plays is representative of larger themes, roles, and perceptions within the African-American experience—and The Piano Lesson is no exception. The Charles household is a microcosm of the Great Migration, and the characters within it represent different members of this society, each with his or her own reaction to and opinions of this historical context. Listed on this page are the six characters who most directly embody these historical concepts.

BERNIECE “[Berniece] believe in anything if it’s convenient for her to believe. But when that convenience run out then she ain’t got nothing to stand on.” Wilson wrote almost exclusively male-centric plays; like most of his female characters, Berniece’s role is contingent


on the men around her. Also in the same vein as other Century Cycle plays, however, she dually conforms to and defies societal expectations. Developing into the family matriarch, she resists pressure to remarry, focusing instead on raising Maretha to be an upstanding, self-sufficient young woman. Berniece represents the migrants who were unable to release themselves from their ancestors’ suffering. Despite her resistance, however, Berniece is the Charles family’s bridge between continents; like many of Wilson’s female characters, she wields the ability to connect with her African ancestors.

BOY WILLIE “I’m living at the top of life. I ain’t gonna just take my life and throw it away at the bottom.” Boy Willie’s relationship with the North is in contrast with that of many African Americans during the 1930s: he views it not as a relief from hardship, but as a surrender of the justice his family deserves. Representative of the African-Americans who resisted the temptation to migrate North and chose instead to hold onto their Southern roots, Boy Willie appears at Berniece’s doorstep with a definitive, short-term mission in mind. Desperate to acquire the land he so vehemently believes he deserves, Boy Willie is blind to the spiritual enormity his family’s heirloom embodies; because he utilizes the only resource available to him, however, many

critics interpret him as the embodiment of the African warrior spirit.

Currency Conversion


Lymon’s Truck: 1936: $120 2014: $2,039 100 Acres of Land: 1936: $2,000 2014: $34,000 Wining Boy’s Silk Suit: 1936: $5 2014: $85 Offer for Doaker’s piano: 1936: $1,150 2014: $19,550

“If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.” Much like the African griot, Doaker is the family storyteller, a reservoir of knowledge about the Charles family history. For him, the North has been a refuge: a fulltime railroad cook, he has one of the most respectable and well-paying jobs available to African-American men. Despite the transient nature of his job, 27 years of work have left him perfectly content. He is one of Wilson’s surrogate father figures, the level-headed patriarchal stronghold that keeps the Charles family at peace.

WINING BOY “Much as I loved Cleotha I loved to ramble. Couldn’t nothing keep me still.” One of Wilson’s many minstrel characters, the North has failed to fulfill Wining Boy’s dreams. Dissatisfied with everyplace and everyone he has encountered on his journeys through both the North and South, he is caught in a remorseful limbo. The oldest character in the play, he has witnessed how injustice and prejudice are prevalent everywhere, and he relies on alcohol to cloud the many regrets that haunt him.

LYMON “They work you too hard down there. All that weeding and hoeing and chopping down trees. I didn’t like all that.” Instead of embracing his past, Lymon chooses to sever all ties to his roots, representing the naiivite of migrants who sought better lives up North. He also embodies and then subverts various African-American stereotypes: driven by lust, he is actually kind and respectful to the women he meets; seemingly lazy, he

helps Boy Willie with his labor-intensive watermelon selling scheme; although he is running from the law, he asserts that he earns his money honestly. Like many African-American men in Wilson’s plays, Lymon has the potential to be fully productive, but the oppressive and stifling environment in which he was raised has limited his aspirations and opportunities.

AVERY “It come to me in a dream. God called me and told me he wanted me to be a shepherd for his flock.” One of the more overtly symbolic characters in the play, Avery is representative of Christianity’s role in the African-American experience (see page 16). From his perspective, the Northern migration has served him well: an elevator operator for a downtown skyscraper, he is proud of the life he has made for himself. Although he seems in control of his life, however, Avery’s job requires a large degree of subservience to his white employers, making him representative of the many migrants who surrendered their black heritage in exchange for what they hoped would be financial security.

Pictured on Page 12: Jonothan Peck, (Doaker Charles)



Romare Bearden R

omare Bearden a volume which ( 1 9 11 – 1 9 8 8 ) In Bearden you’ve got all had a catalyzing grew up at the height on Wilson. these pieces...It’s like that effect of New York City’s Wilson describes Harlem Renaissance with me. I’ve got all these the moment as a and was influenced young struggling images, and the point is by such family friends poet when he as Langston Hughes, how I put them together, first encountered W.E.B. DuBois and Bearden: the relationships between Duke Ellington. Al“What for me had though he was a suc- them that counts.” been so difficult, cessful painter and Bearden made dedicated civil rights activist, Bearden is seem so simple, so easy. What I saw best known for his vibrant collages fusing was black life presented on its own depictions of Harlem life with images and terms, on a grand and epic scale, impressions of the American South. with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, Although Bearden and Wilson remained made attendant in everyday life, enstrangers until their death, they were unitnobled it, affirmed its value, and exed in their common interest of expressing alted its presence.” through their artistic medium the journey of the African-American. Along with serving as the explicit inspiration for at least Wilson was immediately inspired by two of Wilson’s plays—Joe Turner and Bearden’s 1984 piece, “Homage to Mary The Piano Lesson—Bearden also served Lou (The Piano Lesson)” (see picture on Wilson as a kind of father-figure (both page 15). In the same way that Wilson’s grew up in Pittsburgh), a personification of play melds together old and new generthe ideal for a black artist. Bearden offered ations, Bearden’s collage is a melding of Wilson a new visual language that creat- materials, a collage of various papers with ed a world populated by conjure women, paint, ink and graphite on a fiberboard trains, guitar players, birds, masked fig- medium: ures, and the rituals of baptisms, funerals, “So I got the idea from the painting dinners, and parades. that there would be a woman and a The life Bearden knew best was characterized by “The Prevalence of Ritual,” the title of a series of collages that 14 were collected in a volume in 1971,

little girl in the play. And I thought that the woman would be a character who was trying to acquire a sense of selfworth by denying her past.”


Music T

he Piano Lesson has been described as Wilson’s “noisiest play,” filled with shouts, chants, and drum beats; like most of his stories, it is heavily influenced by the style of the blues, but it pulls from various other musical genres as well.

THE BLUES The blues can be traced back to African rhythms, African-American slave songs, spirituals, and dance tunes known as “jump-ups.” Wilson’s enamoration with the genre began in 1976 when he discovered a recording of Bessie Smith’s “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Jelly Roll Like Mine.” “I was stunned,” he later said. “It was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. I thought, ‘This person is talking to me. This is mine.’” He frequently cited the genre as his strongest artistic influence, and his stories are replete with knowledge from what he called his “sacred book of the blues.” As he once described it: “The music is a specific cultural response of black America to the world, the circumstances and the situation in which they’ve found themselves. If you didn’t know anything about African people and nothing about black people in America, and someone gave you blues records, you could listen and find out what kind of people these were, their symmetry, this grace. You’d be able to construct their daily lives.”

PRISON WORK SONG In January 1901, the state of Mississippi purchased land in Sunflower County for a prison. The Mississippi State Penitentiary, also known as Parchman Farm or simply Parchman, became the main hub for Mississippi’s penal system. Parchman Farm was in many ways reminiscent of a gigantic antebellum plantation. Convicts worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and slept in long, single-story buildings. Folklorists came to Parchman beginning in the 1930s to document the pre-blues musical forms of field hollers and work songs, which survived due to the prison’s relative isolation from modern cultural influences. Folklorist Alan Lomax observed that such songs “revived flagging spirits, restored energy to failing bodies, [and] brought laughter to silent misery.”

THE BOOGIE-WOOGIE The first and only exclusively piano music to issue from the blues, boogie-woogie, thrived roughly between the years 1920 and 1945. A highly popular style in tenements, the very name Boogie was another name for the “house rent party,” a social event that served the dual purpose of providing music for guests while accepting donations to pay off housing costs. The style is characterized by an up-tempo rhythm, a repeated melodic pattern in the bass, and a series of improvised variations in the treble.



Religion B

oy Willie and Berniece are two of many characters in Wilson’s canon who are forced into a battle between Christianity and African spiritualism. For Wilson, these two forms of faith were emblematic of the entire African-American experience: forced to abandon their traditional religion, African slaves crafted their own form of spiritualism, or as Eugene D. Genovese described it, “a religion within a religion in a nation within a nation.” Wilson’s own personal relationship with religion was contradictory: the child of a white father and black mother, he endured a personal struggle to define his own heritage, and by extension, his characters grapple with these two opposing forces as well. According to Mary Ellen Snodgrass in her literary companion to August Wilson, religion plays various thematic roles in his works: sin pricks the consciences of characters and causes them to reflect on their relation to God and faith; the degree to which worshipers successfully adapt to their African roots reflects Christianity’s ability (or inability) to nurture and satisfy black Americans; his characters find humor in demythologizing religion; religion works as the source of heated discussion among characters; and Wilson incorporates church-going with escapism from domestic misery. With each of his Century Cycle plays, Wilson asserted that he was “more and more concerned with pointing out the difference between blacks and whites, as opposed to pointing out similarities. We are a different people. We do things differently”;


I have to satisfy the audience that is myself. I don’t write for a black or white audience beyond that.”

in The Piano Lesson, Wilson uses religion as a symbol for African identity and resilience within a historically dominant white culture. Wilson was astutely aware of the core differences between these two faith systems. He infused his stories with elements of African traditionalism and folklore In most of his plays, and the two polarized forces with which Wilson’s characters must contend are usually embodied in a specific object or character. In The Piano Lesson, these symbols are the piano for African traditionalism, and Avery for Christianity. Wilson weaves elements of both faiths into their respective symbols: Christianity is highly literate, with a long history of written expositions, and African traditionalism is historically preliterate, usually reliant on oral storytelling techniques; where African traditionalism is symbolic and abstract, Christianity takes a more literal approach; and where Christianity depends on a hierarchy of divine leaders, African traditionalism believes that all people can be spiritual messengers. In all of Wilson’s plays, but The Piano Lesson especially, tenets of both faiths play heavily in the characters’ struggle for cultural resilience.

Pictured above: “Genesis Creation Sermon I: In the Beginning All Was Void” 1989” by Jacob Lawrence.

Artist Spotlight

Jamil Jude, Director Maegan Clearwood, Dramaturg: You have a strong background in new play development as opposed to classics, so can you tell me about how you came to this position as a director? Jamil Jude, Director: Jason [Loewith] has known me for about five years through National New Play Network. I think he’s seen me as a young director, a young theater artist through NNPN, but also as someone who had a deep interest in telling stories, especially people from African diaspora. During my time at Arena Stage, I got the opportunity to work with a lot of people who are interpreting August Wilson’s work, and I found a connection inside of it. It’s like one of those life-affirming moments: I was in a rehearsal hall, surrounded by people who had worked on August Wilson’s plays, and in that moment I felt like, “Oh, okay, my stories are important to American theater.” MC: What are some of the themes that you really like to explore as a director?

JJ: I’m all into character relationships. I try not to say that I like love stories, but I do, I can’t get away from that. Anytime there’s a play where two warring factions both have equal voice, those are my favorites. I read a historical play yesterday, so obviously you know who wins, but the playwright did such a good job at making the loser inevitably be the loser that it just wasn’t fun. So I love issues of ambiguity, so that when I walk out, I wasn’t told whose side I should be on; I was told to

think about these issues in maybe a way I never thought about before. MC: That’s definitely prevalent in The Piano Lesson, certainly with Bernice and Boy Willie. Can you talk a little bit about their relationship and why you find it so compelling? JJ: One of the things that we’re finding in rehearsal is that obviously they’re brother and sister, but they lost their father when Boy Willie was five and Bernice was ten, and their mother, they kind of lost her at that time too. Berniece had to be both mother and father to her younger brother, and she had a younger brother who had it in his mind at an early age about how the world wasn’t going to get him many things. With Bernice, it’s been all about, “How do I protect my family members?” She grows up and her husband is ripped from her doorstep, her father, in much the same way, left and never came back, and that caused her mother a lot of grief. So she’s trying to build up these walls to keep people inside. With Boy Willie it’s all about, “How can I go out and bring something back?” So they just have this ideological difference. All one-in-the-same—they all want what’s best for their family—but the way they go about it just could not be more different. And I think there’s a strong sense of love that they have for each other. There’s a lot of love and a lot of miscommunication. This play wouldn’t make sense if they didn’t love and care for one

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Continued from Page 17 another. At least it wouldn’t be as fun to watch, or fun to participate in. MC: Can you talk a bit about what it’s like directing something that is a period piece for you? What kind of challenges and rewards does it yield? JJ: What is really cool to see, and also not so cool to see, is how much and how little has changed, especially for black life, as August Wilson is describing it…But what’s been the challenge is trying not to put too much of a contemporary lens on the point of view and the character stylings as we find out who these characters are. How do we keep our contemporary knowledge, and how do we use it to understand our character a little better, but not in the playing of it? That’s been a unique challenge, to not try and make The Piano Lesson: 2014 Version, just with period clothes. We want to make sure that it feels like we are being transported back to the ‘30s. MC: Can you talk about why this needs to be set in the ‘30s, aside from the fact that it’s part of the Century Cycle? Is there something special that this background brings to the family and that makes it really important? JJ: They’re definitely not the first people to come up North from the Great Migration, but it is a very interesting time in black life: Just that difference of what it means to be “from the North” or “from the South.” I mean, that thing still permeates today—I’m from the South, and when I went to school in New York, and it was very clear: “You are from the South.” But what does that mean? What does it mean to be black and from the South, and your relationship to racism, Jim Crow, sexism, cultural identities and norms, as opposed to being from the North? I think, in the ‘30s, coming out of the Harlem Renaissance, that those distinctions, that dividing line was starting to get pretty wide. So, this play, we’re talking about ideological differences, and here, in the ‘30s, we were starting to see those foun-


It’s a proud history that often isn’t told in a proud way. I think we talk about the Great Migration in a very broad way, but I don’t think we get the chance to investigate how all those things affected families.”

dations really establish themselves as a difference. It’s a really fun and interesting time thing for me, as a black American, now living in both places. MC: This is a backtracking question, but can you talk about when you first discovered August Wilson, and do you have a favorite of his plays? JJ: This play was given to me by my tenth grade English teacher, Miss Ivy Walkins. I didn’t like her at the time, but she was my first black English teacher, so there’s something cool about that. She made it a point to give us all this African American literature, and I have all the books to this day. At that moment, I do remember falling in love with the story, I remember falling in love with the pace at which the characters spoke, and it felt very familiar, it hit my ear in ways that I understood. Being able to read August Wilson, and being able to stay in my own voice...even in tenth grade, I knew that there was something special about that. I loved books, I read everything, but up until that point I had been reading in another voice. For a long time after that I didn’t really learn too much about August Wilson, it just got put on a shelf. It wasn’t until years later that I was reintroduced to his work in college...I think my favorite play is The Piano Lesson. I think it’s my favorite play ever. MC: What would you like audiences to come away with? JJ: I want people to walk away with the

strength of conviction to do what they feel is right, to lean on the knowledge of others, people from your past, whatever your spiritual beliefs are. When confronting something, if you don’t tackle it head on, you’re going to have to deal with those ghosts at some point.

MC: In the first rehearsal you had the cast do an exercise where they had to finish the sentence, “This is a world in which.” Were there any answers to that that you think are really important? JJ: The exercise lays the groundwork for

what things are possible in this world and what things are not possible. We talked about the fact that ghosts exist, not that we can feel their forces, but that they are here in this house, and I definitely think that can contextualize the conversation. We also talked about the importance of family and that this is a world in which family members can pull a gun on one another and still come to some semblance of reconciliation at the end. We can move on now that we agree that nothing’s going to tear this family apart, even though it seems like they’re literally being ripped

from each other; ultimately they’ll come back together, which is super important.

MC: Why is it important that we still tell this story? JJ: I think this play is important because

it’s a proud history that often isn’t told in a proud way. When we think about the ‘30s, we usually think about the Great Depression, and when we think about the Great Migration, we think about just the blacks escaping segregation and Reconstruction and its failed attempts, but I don’t think we get to explore the personal effects. I think we talk about it in a very broad way, but I don’t think we get the chance to investigate how all those things affected families….I think a lot of people will see themselves too, regardless of race or gender. I think a lot of people will see examples of Boy Willie inside themselves. I think a lot will see Berniece, too, and maybe they’ll understand what it’s like to be so blocked that you can’t see the possibilities of one that’s right in front of you. There’s a lot of hope in this play too. There’s hope for the future, and it’s a great feeling.

Pictured above: Set rendering by scenic designer Daniel Ettinger. 19

Still curious? Read, watch, and listen more at www.olneypianolesson. This context guide was created by Maegan Clearwood, Dramaturgy Apprentice, and edited by Jason King Jones, Associate Artistic Director and Director of Education, 2014. Cover image is from artist Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series.

Context Guide for The Piano Lesson  

Olney Theatre Center, by Maegan Clearwood