The Piano Lesson
Dramaturgy Actor Packet A supplement to Olney’s virtual exploration of the play: www.olneypianolesson.wordpress.com
Compiled by Maegan Clearwood Dramaturgy Apprentice, 2014
Table of Contents Introduction .......................................................................................................... 3 Part I: About the Play August Wilson .................................................................................................. 4 Production History ........................................................................................... 5 The Century Cycle............................................................................................ 6 Influences: “The Four B’s” ............................................................................. 7 Romaire Bearden .................................................................................... 7 Amiri Baraka ............................................................................................ 8 Jorge Louise Borges .............................................................................. 9 The Blues ................................................................................................. 9 African American Theater ............................................................................. 10 Part II: The world of the play Pittsburg: The Hill District ............................................................................ 11 The Great Migration ....................................................................................... 12 Parchman Farm .............................................................................................. 14 African Traditionalism ................................................................................... 16 The Charles Family ........................................................................................ 16 Part III: Glossary of Terms ................................................................................ 17
INTRODUCTION A Message from Your Dramaturg Greetings from the Olney Theatre Center Education Office! As dramaturg for this production, I am your resource for any and everything you need to know going into this exiting artistic process. A dramaturg’s responsibilities vary depending on each production and director’s needs, but the following is a broad definition of the role, courtesy of the Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas: “Dramaturgs contextualize the world of a play; establish connections among the text, actors, and audience; offer opportunities for playwrights; generate projects and programs; and create conversations about plays in their communities….They work with their other artistic collaborators to hone their vision, focus their goals and find outlets for their creative work on new and classical plays and dance pieces. [They] serve the field as experts on our dramatic past and as advocates for writers of today and the important work of the future.” Along with determining how to best contextualize this story and introduce the audience into its world, I am an advocate for the artists throughout the rehearsal process. I aim to facilitate conversation among the performers and production team and challenge them with the everimportant question, “Why this play now?” Hopefully, this packet will be the start of this dialogue. It is not meant to overwhelm you with facts; rather, it should inspire you to look at the musical through a fresh, nuanced lens. I intend to continue the conversations sparked from this packet throughout the rehearsal process, through an image and idea board in the Actors Hall, as well as individual discussions and notes. Also on the image board are printed copies of two articles which address significant dramaturgical elements to the play that are not covered in this context guide: • •
Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "The Piano Lesson," by Amanda M. Rudolph August Wilson as Teacher, by Dr. Sandra Shannon
If you have any questions throughout this process—about the world the play, the musical itself, or a particular word or phrase you find in the text—please do not hesitate to contact me. I will try to make myself as available as possible throughout rehearsals, but if you need to reach me, my email address is email@example.com. Feel free to stop by the Education Office in Crawford during the weekday to see me in person. I also encourage you to follow my dramaturgical blog, which will be made available to interested audience members as well. Any comments or suggestions for further exploration are welcome. You can find the blog at www.olneypianolesson.wordpress.com. – Maegan Clearwood OTC Dramaturgy Associate
PART II: ABOUT THE PLAY August Wilson August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945, to Daisy Wilson, a cleaning lady who primarily cared for August and his siblings, and Frederick August Kittel, a German immigrant and baker. August Wilson was the fourth of six children and the oldest son. In the era of Jim Crow laws and stark prejudice against AfricanAmericans, Wilson faced hostility and harassment that forced him to transfer to two other high schools during his freshman year. In 1960, at age 15, Wilson dropped out of high school after a teacher accused him of plagiarizing a paper on Napoleon. Undaunted by his troubled high school experience, Wilson continued his education informally at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh and on the streets of the Hill District of Pittsburgh which later became the backdrop for many of his plays, soaking in the language of its people and the culture of his community. In 1962, Wilson enlisted in the U.S. Army for one year of service, then worked odd jobs as a dishwasher, porter, cook and gardener to support himself. In 1965, Wilson purchased his first typewriter for $20, using money paid to him by his sister Freda for writing a term paper for her. At this time, Wilson began to write poetry. In the late 1960s, at the threshold of the Black Arts Movement, Wilson joined a group of poets, educators and artists who formed the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. Wilson met friend and collaborator, Rob Penny, through this group, and in 1968, they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater, a community-based, Black Nationalist Theater Company in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. Wilson served as the self-taught resident director, and Penny was the playwright-inresidence up until the mid-1970s when the company dissolved. Penny and Wilson produced several plays from and inspired by the black canon, a collection of literature and artwork by African American artists, assembled and celebrated to raise awareness about the African American experience. 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 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 1987, Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Fences, and in 1990, The Piano Lesson earned Wilson his second Pulitzer. In 1990, he 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. According to August Wilson scholar Dr. Sandra Shannon, his works reflect his five main artistic and political beliefs: 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.Tthe only venues that traditionally have offered African Americans limited acceptance have been sports and music.
Production History Yale Repertory Theatre, 1987: The Piano Lesson was initially presented as a staged reading at The Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s 1987 National Playwrights Conference as the fourth play in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. It premiered at the Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, CT, on November 26, 1987. “The black and white ghosts of racial genocide are palpable forces in the play – perhaps too palpable in Lloyd Richards’s staging, which employs hokey horror-movie sound and pictorial effects before arriving at its truly supernatural final curtain. As catalyzed by a go-getting aspiring preacher (Tommy Hollis) working temporarily as a skyscraper elevator operator, the religious spirit of ”The Piano Lesson” is a fascinating mixture of the Old World and the new, of Africa and Dixie, of mystical ritual and Bible-waving Christianity – a mysterious force that eventually merges explosively with the secular family saga at center stage. But even as Mr. Wilson confronts all sorts of big issues – from fratricidal black violence to the collapse of the agrarian South – his play finds its verbal music, emotional heat and considerable humor in the small details of its canvas.” -- Original New York Times review Directed by Lloyd Richards Doaker: Carl Gordon; Boy Willie: Samuel L. Jackson; Lymon: Rocky Carroll; Berniece: Starletta DuPois; Maretha: Chenee Johnson and Yloonda Powell; Avery: Tommy Hollis; Wining Boy: Lou Meyers; Grace: Sharon Washington Huntington Theatre Company, 1988: The Yale Repertory Theatre production of The Piano Lesson opened on January 9, 1988, at the Huntington Theatre Company, again directed by Lloyd Richards. Many of the cast members reprised the roles at Huntington. Doaker: Carl Gordon; Boy Willie: Charles S. Dutton; Lymon: Rocky Carroll; Berniece: Starletta DuPois; Maretha: Jaye Skinner; Avery: Tommy Hollis; Wining Boy: Lou Meyers; Grace: Sharon Washington Walter Kerr Theatre, 1990: The Piano Lesson opened on April 16, 1990, at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway in New York City. It was again directed by Lloyd Richards. “Although the second act contains its dead ends, repetitions and excessive authorial announcements – an O’Neill-like excess in most of this writer’s plays – Mr. Wilson prevents the central conflict in ”The Piano Lesson” from becoming too nakedly didactic by enclosing it within an extended household of memorable characters. The ebb and flow of diurnal activity in Berniece’s home thickens the main theme while offering a naturalistic picture of a transitional black America in an era when movies, skyscrapers and airplanes were fresh wonders of the world. A Wilson play feels truly lived in – so much so in Lloyd Richards’s supple production that activities like the cooking of eggs, the washing of dishes, and the comings and goings from an audibly flushed toilet never seem like stage events, but become subliminal beats in the rhythm of a self-contained universe.” -- Original New York Times review Doaker: Carl Gordon; Boy Willie: Charles S. Dutton; Lymon: Rocky Carroll; Berniece: S. Epatha Merkerson; Maretha: Apryl R. Foster; Avery: Tommy Hollis; Wining Boy: Lou Myers; Grace: Lisa Gay Hamilton
TV Film, 1995: Directed again by Lloyd Richards, many of the cast members returned in their original roles for the film. Nominated for 1995 Emmy Award for Outstanding Made for Television Movie and1996 Emmy Award for Outstanding Television Movie or Mini-Series. Signature Theatre, 2012: Directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Avery: Eric Lenox Abrams; Wining Boy: Chuck Cooper; Boy Willie: Brandon J. Dirden; Lymon: Jason Dirden; Maretha: Alexis Holt; Grace: Mandi Masden; Berniece: Roslyn Ruff; Doaker: James A. Williams The off-Broadway production garnered numerous awards, including four Lucille Lortel Awards for Outstanding revival, Outstanding Lead Actress (Roslyn Ruff), Outstanding Featured Actor (Chuck Cooper), and Outstanding Director (Ruben Santiago-Hudson). It was also nominated for various Drama League and Outer Critics Circle Awards, and won two 2013 Obie Awards and a 2013 Off-Broadway Alliance Award for Best Play Revival.
The Century Cycle August Wilson’s legacy lives on through his cycle of ten plays chronicling the African American experience, each set in a different decade of the 20th century. The plays are not connected in the manner of a serial story, but characters do repeatedly appear at different stages of their lives and the offspring of previous characters also feature. 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: This is the haunting tale of a spiritually tormented young man who pays a visit to Aunt Ester, a former slave, on the eve of her 287th birthday. On his way to the mythic City of Bones, he makes startling 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. With his young daughter, he struggles to find his place–and his long-lost wife–while staying in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse. 1988 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play 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 10 plays set beyond Pittsburgh. As generational and racial tensions escalate among her band and producers, the studio soon explodes in violence and tragedy. 1985 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play; 1986: Whiting Writers' Award The Piano Lesson (1990) – 1930s: Bearing the carved faces of her enslaved ancestors, Berniece’s antique piano is her family’s most treasured heirloom. Though it sits unused, the option to sell it for land sparks a fierce debate with her brother Boy Willie, a Mississippi sharecropper. 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play; 1990 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play; 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama Seven Guitars (1995) – 1940s: “Everybody got a time coming,” says one of the central characters in this exploration of life and death. Through flashbacks, seven friends and neighbors face the sobering reality of mortality and the pain of losing those they love. 1996 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play Fences (1987) – 1950s: Once a famous baseball player, Troy Maxson is a proud garbage collector, father, and husband. When his youngest son is offered a football scholarship, Troy must reconcile his anger at past racial inequities with wanting the best for his family’s future. 1986 American Theatre Critics' Association Award; 1987 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play; 1987 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play; 1987 Pulitzer Prize for Drama; 1987 Tony Award for Best Play; 1987: Outer Critics Circle Award. Two Trains Running (1991) – 1960s: Regulars at Memphis Lee’s lunch counter gossip, sermonize and wax poetic on the stories of the day. Learning the city is to demolish their favorite
gathering spot in the wake of urban renewal, these colorful souls contemplate where next to seek salvation. 1992 American Theatre Critics' Association Award; 1992 New York Drama Critics Circle Citation for Best American Play Jitney (1982) – 1970s: At a ramshackle taxi depot, the men who drive gypsy cabs, or “jitneys,” strive to find honor and accomplishment in a harsh world. When the station owner’s estranged son returns from prison, their reunion unleashes two decades of brutal, raw emotion. 2000 New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play; 2000 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Play; 2002 Olivier Award for Best new Play. King Hedley II (1999) – 1980s: An ex-con tries to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators and robbing the neighborhood jeweler so he can buy a video store. But grand dreams for his wife and unborn child are threatened by a system that’s not about to play by his rules. Radio Golf (2005) – 1990s: 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 deal forces them to question their methods.
Influences: “The Four B’s” (The following entries are excerpted from Mark William Rocha’s essay August Wilson and the Four B’s) “In terms of influence on my work, I have what I call my four B’s” Romare Bearden; Imamu Amiri Braka, the writer; Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine short-story writer; and the biggest B of all: the blues.” –August Wilson “In Africa a man I judged not by what he has but by what is owed to him.” –August Wilson Romare Bearden “In Bearden you’ve got all these pieces. There’s an eye here, a head over there, a huge oversized hand on a small body. It’s like that with me. I’ve got all these images, and the point is how I put them together, the relationships between them that counts.” Romare Bearden (1911–1988) grew up at the height of New York City’s Harlem Renaissance and was influenced by such family friends as Langston Hughes, W.E.B. DuBois and Duke Ellington. Although he was a successful painter and dedicated civil rights activist, Bearden is best known for his vibrant collages fusing depictions of Harlem life with images and impressions of the American South. This sense of a cultural narrative spanning generations and expressing the African-American experience is also a hallmark of Wilson’s plays. One black way of confronting the conundrum of life with passion is through ritual, and it is on this ground that Wilson met Romare Bearden, the African American artist best known for his collages of black life created during the 1960s and 1970s. Wilson held Bearden in reverential esteem, for Bearden not only served as the explicit inspiration for at least two of Wilson’s plays– Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson–Bearden also served Wilson as a kind of father-figure (both grew up in Pittsburgh), a personification of the ideal for a black artist. Indeed, Wilson adopted Bearden’s credo as his own: “I try to explore, in terms of the life I know best, those things which are common to all cultures.” The life Bearden knew best was characterized by “The Prevalence of Ritual,” the title of a series of collages that were collected in a volume in 1971, a volume which had a catalyzing effect
on Wilson. Wilson describes the moment as a young struggling poet when he first encountered Bearden: “What for me had been so difficult, Bearden made seem so simple, so easy. What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant in everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence...I was looking at myself in ways I hadn't thought of before and have never ceased to think of it since." (Payne) Bearden offered Wilson a new visual language that created a world populated by conjure women, trains, guitar players, birds, masked figures, and the rituals of baptisms, funerals, dinners, parades. It was Bearden’s 1984 piece Homage to Mary Lou (The Piano Lesson) that directly inspired Wilson’s 1990 play: “So I got the idea from the painting that there would be a woman and a 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…” Amiri Baraka “From Amiri Baraka, I learned that all art is political, although I don’t write political plays.” –August Wilson Amiri Baraka (1934–2014) was born Everett LeRoi Jones in Newark, New Jersey, but changed his name in 1968 to reflect his African heritage. A passionate advocate of black culture, he achieved wide acclaim for his play The Dutchman, which presented a racially-charged confrontation between a beautiful but cruel white woman and a naïve black man in a New York City subway car. Wilson was drawn to Baraka’s political poetry and plays and helped found a theatre where he mounted several works by Baraka. Despite the fact that in 1987 he told the Los Angeles Times that he is “sitting in the same chair as Shakespeare, confronting the same problems as Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill,” Wilson has insisted many times that he has never read any of the canonical Western playwrights. In 1988 he commented, “I haven’t read Ibsen, Shaw, Shakespeare…I am not familiar with Death of a Salesman. I haven’t read Tennessee Williams. I very purposefully didn’t read them.” Wilson’s obvious desire to “get over on” the Western tradition is first and foremost what bonds him so strongly to his brother-poet Baraka, who in his quest for a post-white, postAmerican, post-Western form is the discoverer of the African American literary landscape in which Wilson has found a place. Baraka has spent his entire career “facing” the Western tradition, no clearer instance of which comes from his autobiographical novel, The System of Dante’s Hell (1965), when the Prodigal asks, “Who is T.S. Eliot? So what?” Without Baraka posing this question, August Wilson would not be possible. Jorge Louis Borges “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.” Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) is one of the most prominent writers and intellects of the 20th Century. Although he became an influential Spanish language writer, Borges’ first language was English. In his early life in Buenos Aires, Argentina, he nurtured a deep knowledge and love of American and European literature that would later influence his own work. His short stories, poems and translations are considered world classics. Among other things, Borges’ fiction is
characterized by fantastical elements; his influence is felt in Wilson’s stories with the presence of ghosts, trips to the past and other magical moments. Where does Jorge Louis Broges fit into Wilson’s family? Possibly as a learned Latin cousin from whom Wilson has taken lessons in aesthetics. Wilson’s debt to the Argentinian fabulist has been the least explored of the four B’s, but he was no less emphatic about the influence of Borges (see above quote). Reading has also taught Wilson the ethics of listening which are so important in the black communities in his plays: “With Borges you’ve got all these wires carrying electrical impulses, but they don’t all connect up. When you encounter one of these little breaks, I think he wants you to stop and say, ‘Now wait a second, how does that connect?’ That’s why so many of his stories are about writing stories.” WIlson’s interest in storytelling is the basis of his strongest bond with Borges. Mary Lusky Friedman has recently identified a “Borgesean Paradign” that may be usefully applied to Wilson: “Reduced to its most schematic outline, the fantasy that informs each one of Borges’ tales tells the following story: A mishap sets into motion a protagonist, who responds to the calamity by setting out on a journey. In the course of this journey Borges’ hero travels through surroundings that are progressively more impoverished and irreal until at last he arrives at a structure that walls him in. Immured there, his is privy to a marvelous but blighting experience, an experience that blasts his selfhood and annihilates him.” Many other lines can be drawn from Borges to Wilson: the primacy of myth, the principle of irreality in which magic is viewed in anthropological terms as a complete system, the humor that equips one to face absurdity, and the postmodern stance that all significant human experience is textual. The Blues “Contrary to what most people think, it’s not defeatist, ‘Oh, woe is me.’ It’s very lifeaffirming, uplifting music. Because you can sing that song, that’s what enables you to survive.” –August Wilson The Blues is a musical form that can be traced back to African rhythms, African American slave songs, spirituals, and dance tunes known as “jump-ups.” Blues performers such as Bessie Smith and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey helped popularize this musical continuation of the oral tradition. The blues remain a strong influence in many other popular forms, including jazz, country, rock and soul music. For Wilson, each character’s ideas and attitudes are rooted in the blues; the philosophies in the music teach the characters how to live their lives. The 20-year gestation period of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom dates back to the day in 1965 when Wilson was transfixed and transformed by his discovery of Bessie Smith and came to an understanding of her coded message…Wilson has often recounted how he bought a record player and a pile of old 78’s for a few dollars and then found Bessie Smith’s “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Jelly Roll Like Mine.” He played the record 22 times in a row: “I was stunned. It was one of the most beautiful songs I’d ever heard. I thought, ‘This person is talking to me. This is mine.’ I began looking at people in the rooming house where I lived differently. I had seen them as beaten. I was 20, these were old people. I didn’t see the value to their lives. You could never have told me there was richness and fullness to their lives. I began to see it.” Wilson’s plays are replete with knowledge from his sacred book of the blues. The title of Joe Turner comes from W.C. Handy song, Ma Rainey is of course about the real-life “Mother of the Blues,” and Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Two Trains Running each contain numerous epigrams, allusions,
and lyrics drawn from specific blues songs. In Wilson’s plays, the blues are what Baker identifies as “the expressive site where American experience is named” (64), and constitute an ontology that is the very idea of America itself: that the sign “America” signifies the broken promise of presence. All blues songs begin from the ontological awareness of the American tradition as the sign of an absence, a broken promise–usually the specific premise is “my lover’s gone”–and the blues is the form blacks invented to mediate this absence. So when August Wilson discovered the blues, he discovered America. In Wilson, the blues is the American language for telling and confronting the tragic reality of an America that is always already absent. Any American history is as much about our future as it is our past, and Wilson’s American history in the current cycle asserts that the sign of “America” itself can only be read into the future as a tragedy, as an experiment that must fail because it was committed to the impossible from the beginning. As James Baldwin first pointed out 30 years ago, Americans do not wish to face the reality expressed in the blues that life is tragic and the only face we have is the final absence of death. Wilson’s ‘blues plays’ may be taken together as an enactment of Baldwin’s prescription that “one ought to rejoice in the fact of death–ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life”
African American Theater Initiated from black storytelling, ring chant, pulpit call-and-response, and plantation juba dances, African American theater first developed sophistication through traveling minstrel shows, which survived by actors and viewers passing the hat for donations. The transformation of oral culture to written plays began in the early twentieth century, when blacks first realized the value of written lore as a source of history and strength for a struggling race. Following the theatrical budding of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, black stage presentations burst into full flower with the explosive works of Amiri Baraka and other angry young playwrights of the 1960s, who fought blatant racism in American society. Audiences began sampling black drama for its ties ancient Africa, its culture, and its issues. Chief among professional concerns for a lasting theatrical effort was the fact that black people did not support their own dramas enough, either with financial contributions for their presence in the audience. The climate of support for black drama improved after Lorraine Hansberry’s Pulitzer Prize for A Raisin in the Sun (1958). A decade later, lone elder achieved the first Pultizer prize nomination to a black author for Ceremonies in Dark Old Men (1968). A new era of acceptance saw the recognition of Charles Gordone, the first black Pulitzer winner for No Place to be Somebody (1970), seven Tonys for the all-black cast of William F. Brown and Charlie Small’s musical The Wiz (1975), and Charles Fuller’s Pulitzer for A Soldier’s Play (1982). The ensuing success of August Wilson’s stage works helped to establish a ink in American minds between black lore and meaty, enjoyable stage plays. In 1997, he noted that younger people had turned away from the theater: “The hip-hop generation has carved out their own thing: if they saw where the theater could be a viable means of expression then I think more people would get involved.” He declared that the role of the theater is not to engineer political change but “to make sure the story is told. Write about history, and the truth will be clear.”
PART II: THE WORLD OF THE PLAY Pittsburgh: The Hill District The 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 market above which Wilson lived with his family in the Hill District. The market above which Wilson lived with his family in the Hill District.
The Hill is an active character in the cycle, as well as a literal crossroads and a metaphoric microcosm of black America. By 1904, the real Hill District had become a multiethnic melting pot. Roughly one-third black, onethird Eastern European Jews, and one-third everything else, it grew to hold some fifty-five thousand people. For blacks, who weren’t 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, with nationwide circulation). 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 fifteen after bouts with racism, then educated himself at the Carnegie Library before doing his graduate studies in culture and politics on the streets of the Hill. By the time he moved to St. Paul., Minn., in 1978, the Hill was broken, its population having shrunk to less than fifteen thousand. 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 thirteen—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 PostGazette, he has reviewed, interviewed, and chronicled August Wilson since 1984. The PostGazette’s extensive Wilson coverage is available by Googling: site:post-gazette.com August Wilson Rawson [plus any date or play title]
The Great Migration "We were land-based agrarian people from Africa. We were uprooted from Africa, and we spent 200 years developing our culture as black Americans. And then we left the South. We uprooted ourselves and attempted to transplant this culture to the pavements of the industrialized North. And it was a transplant that did not take. I think if we had stayed in the South, we would have been a stronger people. And because the connection between the South of the 20's, 30's and 40's has been broken, it's very difficult to understand who we are." –August Wilson The Great Migration, or the relocation of more than 6 million African Americans from the rural South to the cities of the North, Midwest and West from 1916 to 1970, had a huge impact on urban life in the United States. Driven from their homes by unsatisfactory economic opportunities and harsh segregationist laws, many blacks headed north, where they took advantage of the need for industrial workers that first arose during the First World War. As Chicago, New York and other cities saw their black populations expand exponentially, migrants were forced to deal with poor working conditions and competition for living space, as well as widespread racism and prejudice. During the Great Migration, African Americans began to build a new place for themselves in public life, actively confronting economic, political and social challenges and creating a new black urban culture that would exert enormous influence in the decades to come. August Wilson regarded this mass exodus of African Americans from the cotton and tobacco fields of the South as a huge mistake. In the wake of the South’s failing economy, deceptive advertising campaigns fueled wild rumors about the North having plentiful and better paying jobs as well as excellent opportunities for an overall improvement in the quality of life. Such lies enticed hoards of skilled and unskilled laborers to join the human highway going North. Unfortunately, many would wind up homeless, poor, hungry, and out of work. Wilson told one journalist, "We came to the North, and 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. The last time blacks in America
were working was during the Second World War, when there was a need for labor, and it did not matter what color you were." 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 Negro’s initiation into the Northern way of life. Context and Causes After the post-Civil War Reconstruction period ended in 1876, white supremacy was largely restored across the South, and the segregationist policies known as Jim Crow soon became the law of the land. Southern blacks were forced to make their living working the land as part of the sharecropping system, which offered little in the way of economic opportunity, especially after a boll weevil epidemic in 1898 caused For more of artist Jacob Lawrence’s series The Great Migration, visit the massive crop damage across dramaturgy blog. the South. And while the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) had been officially dissolved in 1869, it continued underground after that, and intimidation, violence and even lynching of black southerners were not uncommon practices in the Jim Crow South. Around 1916, when the Great Migration began, a factory wage in the urban North was typically three times more than what blacks could expect to make working the land in the rural South. After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, industrialized urban areas in the North, Midwest and West faced a shortage of industrial laborers, as the war put an end to the steady tide of European immigration to the United States. With war production kicking into high gear, recruiters enticed African Americans to come north, to the dismay of white Southerners. Black newspapers–particularly the widely read Chicago Defender–published advertisements touting the opportunities available in the cities of the North and West, along with first-person accounts of success. The Great Depression “Blacks suffered sooner, longer, and more profoundly than whites the disastrous effect sod 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 200,00 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." – Barksdale and Kinnamon
By the end of 1919, some 1 million blacks had left the South, usually traveling by train, boat or bus; a smaller number had automobiles or even horse-drawn carts. In the decade between 1910 and 1920, 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). Many new arrivals found jobs in factories, slaughterhouses and foundries, where working conditions were arduous and sometimes dangerous. Female migrants had a harder time finding work, spurring heated competition for domestic labor positions. Aside from competition for employment, there was also competition for living space in the increasingly crowded cities. While segregation was not legalized in the North (as it was in the South), racism and prejudice were widespread. After the U.S. Supreme Court declared racially based housing ordinances unconstitutional in 1917, some residential neighborhoods enacted covenants requiring white property owners to agree not to sell to blacks; these would remain legal until the Court struck them down in 1948. Rising rents in segregated areas, plus a resurgence of KKK activity after 1915, worsened black and white relations across the country. The summer of 1919 began the greatest period of interracial strife in U.S. history, including a disturbing wave of race riots. The most serious took place in Chicago in July 1919; it lasted 13 days and left 38 people dead, 537 injured and 1,000 black families without homes. Impact As a result of housing tensions, many blacks ended up creating 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 theHarlem 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. Black migration slowed considerably in the 1930s, when the country sank into the Great Depression, but picked up again with the coming of World War II. By 1970, when the Great Migration ended, its demographic impact was unmistakable: Whereas in 1900, nine out of every 10 black Americans lived in the South, and three out of every four lived on farms, by 1970 the South was home to less than half of the country’s African-Americans, with only 25 percent living in the region’s rural areas.
Parchman Farm 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 and operated on the basis of a plan proposed by Governor John M. Stone in 1896. By 1917, Parchman was separated into twelve male camps and one female camp, and racial segregation was considered of paramount importance.
The convicts worked ten hours a day, six days a week, and slept in long, single-story buildings commonly called "cages" that were constructed of bricks and lumber produced on site. Most male prisoners were employed in farming, but some also worked in the brickyard, sawmill, cotton gin, and prison hospital. Because of the remote location and vast size of Parchman Farm, a sophisticated system of walls and fences was considered unnecessary. Prison officials would employ convicts they considered trustworthy as armed guards. These prisoners were known as "trusty guards" or "trusty shooters" and were separated from the general prison population. Folklorists from the Library of Congress and other institutions 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.”
African Traditionalism Amanda M. Rudolph’s full article, Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone, " is available in the Actor Hall: Wilson sets up a dichotomy between the role of Christianity and the African traditional religion (ATR) (defined by belief in ancestors, belief in spirits, and the practice of magic and ritual) in two of his plays, Joe Turner's Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. In fact, although these same concepts may be used in other plays by Wilson, they are an integral part of the structure of these two pieces. The plays are structured so that, in the end, one religion must be accepted to resolve the conflict in each play. Wilson illustrated these two polarized religions by creating images that reflect the tenets of ATR and Christianity in Joe Turner and The Piano Lesson. Wilson's ideas are applicable to the religious struggle going on in America and in his plays. Wilson also talked about Christianity and stated: "The Christianity that black have embraced, they have transformed with aspects of African religion, African style, and certainly African celebration. The church is the only stable organization in the black community, and the community is organized around the church" (Lyons, 1999, p. 5). On the other hand, Wilson contended that churches have been the source of the Ku Klux Klan and still promote inequality today (Lyons, 1999). Wilson seems to have a contradictory nature that is not so pronounced in his plays. Not only is the philosophy behind the religious dichotomy important, but the intended audience of the plays influences the interpretation. According to Wilson, “I don't write for any particular audience, but the idea of audience is built into the craft of playwriting. In terms of what that audience may specifically look like, it looks like me. I have to satisfy the audience that is myself. I don't write for a black or white audience beyond that.”
PART III: GLOSSARY Arkansas (pg 47): Wining Boy sings Arkansas, a blues song by musician Henry Thomas. Thomas Thomas was born into a family of freed slaves in Texas, where he traveled and sang throughout his career. His music covered a variety of styles and genres, including gospel, country, ragtime, and the blues, and he was especially popular among railroad workers. Boogie-Woogie (Page 21): Boogie-Woogie was the first and to date the only exclusively piano music to issue from the blues. Boogie-Woogie, a term used to describe the blues piano playing that thrived roughly between the years 1920 and 1945, was a highly popular music in tenements. The very name Boogie was another name for the "house rent party"—a party given by a tenant as a way of raising his rent. Some of the more famous boogie-woogie players were Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, Cripple Clarence Lofton, Jimmy Yancey, and Sugar Chile Robinson. Some of the characteristics of boogie-woogie are: It was born in gin mills, lumber camps and rent parties; volume was produced by physical strength; form was always a blues; songs had no real beginning or ending, much like African music; emphasis on rhythm rather than melody; return to breaks to create tension and to rest the left hand; the left hand ostinato (repeated figure) served as a forerunner of rhythm and blues; percussive and rugged; uneven and unpredictable. Clarksdale (pg 18): Another city in the Mississippi Delta, about 60 miles from Sunflower County. Daniel and the lion’s den (63): From Daniel 6.23: “My God has sent his angel and closed the lions’ mouths so that they have not hurt me.” Fifty-Five dollar suit (pg 60): Currency conversions, 1936 to 2012: Lymon’s Truck: $120 in 1936; $1,987 in 2012 100 Acres of Land: $2,000 in 1936; $33,125 in 2012 Wining Boy’s Silk Suit: $5 in 1936; $98 in 2012 Offer for Doaker’s piano: $1150 in 1936; $19,047 in 2012 Florsheim shoes (pg 62): A shoe company founded out of Chicago in 1892. Gulf Building (pg 23): Built in 1932, the Gulf Building was constructed as the headquarters for the Gulf Oil Company. At 582 feet and 44 stories, it remains one of the most distinctive buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. It remained the city’s tallest building until 1970. Hot comb and hair grease (pg 87): African American hairstyles have a complex history. As slaves were brought over to colonize America in the 1700s, the non-European texture of their native hair was referred to as "wool." While their native culture was systematically erased, smoother textures of Caucasian and mixed-heritage hair textures was seen as more favorable. The phrase "good hair" made its way into the lexicon and the cultural stigma continued, even after slavery ended in 1865. Hot combs, also known as "pressing combs," were created by the French in 1845 and arrived in
America in 1880. The combs were heated on stoves and gas heaters and used to temporarily straighten and smooth black hair. In the 1900s, Madame C.J. Walker developed a line of hair-care products for African-American hair. She revolutionized the press-and-curl style, and in 1910, The Guinness Book of World Records listed her as the first female American self-made millionaire. It was not until the mid 1960s that natural hair gained a significant degree of popularity.
Irene Kaufman Settlement House (pg 10): Founded in 1893 as the Columbian Council School in an effort to accommodate the Hill District’s growing Jewish population, the Irene Kauffman Settlement House welcomed the African American community that emerged during the 1920s and ‘30s as well. It was part of the reformist social movement, which aimed to develop interdependent communities that bridged the social gap between the rich and poor. Middle-class settlement workers moved to urban areas and established settlement houses like the Irene Kauffman to provide free services to immigrant, Jewish, and African American populations, including Immigrant services, healthcare programs, Americanization and enrichment classes, art, music, and sports. Ham hock (pg 26): The joint where the foot is attached to the hog's leg, neither part of the ham proper nor the foot or ankle, but rather the extreme shank end of the leg bone; these are essential ingredients for the distinct flavor in soul food and other forms of American Southern country cooking. Jaundice (pg 31): Yellowing of the skin and eyes, usually symptomatic of liver failure. Jerusalem (pg 24): According to the New Testament, the city in which Jesus was crucified. Nazareth (pg 24): According to the New Testament, the childhood home of Jesus Christ. Lazareth (97): Lazarus, who was raised from the dead by Jesus; see John 11.1–44. Old Ship of Zion (pg 71): A Christian Hymn written by M. J. Cartwright sometime around 1889 and played to a tune written by Daniel B. Towner. Polecat (100): The common name for a group of small animals that give off a bad smell to defend themselves.
Railroad Cook (pg 1): The value of the railroad to black is a common element in August Wilson’s plays, in which iron rails symbolize freedom and a life’s journey. He depicts trains as cheap and reliable transportation, a ready egress from difficult situations, a source of jobs, and a standard element of storytelling and blues lyrics. In The Piano Lesson, this symbolism is most heavily represented through Doaker Charles. As a railroad cook, Doaker is a member of a very honorable group of black men: the Pullman porters who serviced various railroads during the Depression. According to a recent study based on interviews with black former railroadmen, “Black men, from their point of view, saw the Pullman Company as a way up and a way out of poverty. Many men say it was ‘the only game in town,’ and it was a relatively prestigious game. As one porter remembers it, ‘It was a good job for a black man.’ Although Doaker’s particular assignment is to cook, others are responsible for a wide range of duties, including shining shoes, making beds, and generally catering to the all-white passengers’ every need. Since the supply of black railroad employees was originally taped from slave labor, there was a lingering tendency among the white passengers these black men encountered to act like masters. Yet given the choice between standing in breadlines to feed themselves or their families and acting the part of obsequious servants, numerous black men chose the latter while adopting various means of deflecting the racism that seemed an inevitable part of the job. Rhumba Theater (pg 61): A popular black-owned club in the Hill District, it was one of a number of popular night spots in the 1930s through ‘50s. Skyscrapers (pg 23): The history of skyscrapers in Pittsburgh began with the 1895 completion of the Carnegie Building; this structure, rising 13 floors, was the first steel-framed skyscraper to be constructed in the city. Squirrel hill (pg 29): A residential district east of downtown Pittsburgh. Staggerlee (pg 62): In African American folklore, a legendary pimp (also called Stagger Lee, Stagolee, Stagalee, Stackolee, Stack O’Lee, Stack-o-lee) who murdered the man who stole his Stetson hat. The story is frequently retold in song. Popular versions include field hollers and other works songs as well as recorded blues versions by Ma Rainey and Louis Armstrong. Sugartit (pg 18): A baby pacifier that was made by placing a spoonful of sugar or honey in a small patch of clean cloth, then gathering the cloth around the sugar and twisting it to form a bulb. The bulb was then secured by twine or a rubber band, and the baby's saliva would slowly dissolve the sugar in the bulb.
Sunflower County (page 3): About 900 miles south of Pittsburgh, Sunflower County is considered part of the Mississippi Delta. Sociologist Rupert Vance wrote in the 1930s of the "cotton obsessed, Negro obsessed" Mississippi Delta as "the deepest South." Across several decades after the Civil War, African Americans migrated to Sunflower County to work in the Mississippi Delta, and by 1870, 3,243 black people lived in Sunflower County. This increased to 12,070 in 1900, making up 75% of the residents in Sunflower County. Between 1900 and 1920, the black population almost tripled. Tangleye (pg 40): One of the prisoners field-recorded at Parchman Farm by Alan Lomax in the 1930s and ‘40s. Water boy (pg 39): a boy employed in traditional farming or industry to provide water for farm workers or machinery Yazoo Delta Railroad (pg 85): A branch that opened in 1897 and stretched between Moorhead and Ruleville, Mississippi. It inspired various theories on the origin of its name, as well as various blues and folk songs.