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Study Guide Contents Timothy Bond Producing Artistic Director Syracuse Stage and SU Drama

3.) Production Information 4.) Introduction 5.) Letter from the Director 6.)

820 E Genesee Street Syracuse, NY 13210 www.SyracuseStage.org

About the Author

7.) About the Play 9.) Glossary 10.) Context and Discussion 12.) Elements of Teaching Theatre 14.) Topics for Discussion and Resources 16.) References

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Director of Educational Outreach Lauren Unbekant (315) 443-1150

Manager of Educational Outreach Kate Laissle (315) 442-7755

Group Sales & Student Matinees Tracey White (315) 443-9844

Box Office (315) 443-3275






William Bloodgood

Helen Huang

Geoff Korf

Michael Keck




Kyle Bass

Laura Jane Collins*

Harriet Bass

Timothy Bond

Jeffrey Woodward

Producing Artistic Director

Managing Director


The Piano Lesson is presented by special arrangement with Samuel French, Inc. Originally produced by Yale Repertory Theatre, Lloyd Richards, Artistic Director. The video and/or audio recording of this performance by any means whatsoever are strictly prohibited. The videotaping or making of electronic or other audio and/or visual recordings of this production is a violation of United States copywright law and an actionable federal offense. October 22 - November 9, 2014


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audience etiquette BE PROMPT Give your students plenty of time to arrive, find their seats, and get situated. Have them visit the restrooms before the show begins! RESPECT OTHERS Please remind your students that their behavior and responses affect the quality of the performance and the enjoyment of the production for the entire audience. Live theatre means the actors and the audience are in the same room, and just as the audience can see and hear the performers, the performers can see and hear the audience. Please ask your students to avoid disturbing those around them. Please no talking or unnecessary or disruptive movement during the performance. Also, please remind students that cellphones should be switched completely off. No texting or tweeting, please. When students give their full attention to the action on the stage, they will be rewarded with the best performance possible.

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As you take your students on the exciting journey into the world of live theatre we hope that you’ll take a moment to help prepare them to make the most of their experience. Unlike movies or television, live theatre offers the thrill of unpredictability.

GOOD NOISE, BAD NOISE Instead of instructing students to remain totally silent, please discuss the difference between appropriate responses (laughter, applause, participation when requested) and inappropriate noise (talking, cell phones, etc).

With the actors present on stage, the audience response becomes an integral part of the performance and the overall experience: the more involved and attentive the audience, the better the show. Please remind your students that they play an important part in the success of the performance!

STAY WITH US Please do not leave or allow students to leave during the performance except in absolute emergencies. Again, reminding them to use the restrooms before the performance will help eliminate unnecessary disruption.



AUGUST WILSON “I write for myself, and my goal is bringing that world and that experience of black Americans to life on the stage and giving it a space there.” - August Wilson


orn Frederick August Kittel in 1945, August Wilson grew up in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the sixth child of white German immigrant and Daisy Wilson, an African American cleaning woman from North Carolina. His parents separated in the late 1950’s, and Daisy remarried, moving with her children from the Hill District to Hazelwood, a predominantly white working class neighborhood, where they encountered racial prejudice.

When he moved from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis in 1978, Wilson began to clearly hear the voices of the Hill District for the first time. An early draft of the play Jitney won him a $200 a month fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. In 1982, his next play, Ma Rainey’ s Black Bottom, was accepted by the Eugene O’Neill Playwriting Conference, where he met Lloyd Richards, who directed Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway.

When a high school teacher accused him of plagiarizing a twenty page paper on Napoleon, Frederick dropped out of school and continued his education on his own at the public library, devouring the works of such authors as Langston Hughes, Ralph Ellison, and Arna Bontemps.

Wilson’s work has assumed an important position in American culture. Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1989) both won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The original production of Fences, starring James Earl Jones, received the Tony Award. Denzel Washington starred in an acclaimed 2010 Broadway revival.

In 1965, his father died and young Frederick changed his name to August Wilson in honor of his mother. When, in the same year, he purchased his first typewriter, the twenty-year-old declared himself a writer. After dabbling in poetry, he started writing plays, and in 1969 co-founded the activist theatre company Black Horizon on the Hill with playwright Rob Penny.

In 2005, shortly after the premiere of Radio Golf, the tenth play in his Century Cycle, August Wilson was diagnosed with liver cancer. He died on October 2nd of that year in Seattle, Washington.


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DOAKER CHARLES Forty-seven years old. He’s Boy Willie and Berneice’s uncle. Berneice and her daughter live in his house in Pittsburgh. He works as a railroad cook.

BERNEICE: Boy Willie’s sister. She holds him responsible for the death of her husband, Crawley, whom she still mourns after three years.

BOY WILLIE: Thirty years old. He’s brash and crude. He’s planning to sell the piano with the carvings to buy the land on which his family were slaves.

MARETHA: Berneice’s eleven year old daughter. She is learning to play the piano.

LYMON: His buddy and partner in money-making schemes. He’s fleeing the law and plans to stay up North. He’s twenty-nine.

AVERY: Berneice’s suitor. He’s an honest man with some ambition. He has become a preacher and is working to secure a storefront church.


WINING BOY: Doaker’s older brother. He’s fifty-six. He’s a musician and a gambler, but most of his success is in the past. GRACE: A woman who Boy Willie and Lymon have picked up in a bar.


It’s 1936 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Boy Willie Charles and his friend Lymon Jackson arrive at the doorstep of Boy Willie’s uncle Doaker. They have driven up from Mississippi in a broken down truck full of watermelons to sell. Boy Willie explains to his uncle that the money from selling them will be half of what he needs to buy the farm where his family members were slaves. Sutter, the descendant of the man who had owned them, has recently fallen into a well and died.. Boy Willie attributes Sutter’s death to the vengful Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, the ghosts of men killed by an angry mob. The other half of the money Boy Willie needs would come from the sale of the piano that sits in Doaker’s living room. The history of the piano, intricately carved in the manner of African wood sculpture, is deeply intertwined with the history of the Charles family. In the time of slavery, Sutter’s grandfather had wished to purchase the piano as a gift for his wife

on their anniversary. Unable to pay for it in cash, he bargained with the owner and gave him one and a half slaves as payment. The man chose Doaker’s grandmother and his father who was a child at the time. Although she loved the piano, Sutter’s wife was lonely for the two slaves who were gone, so her husband asked Doaker’s grandfather, Papa Boy Willie, to carve their portraits on the piano. He did, but did not stop there, adding images from the history of the family as slaves.

Boy Willie’s sister Berniece, who along with her daughter Maretha lives in Doaker’s house, won’t let him sell the piano. She also claims to have seen Sutter’s ghost in the house, and is sure that Boy Willie pushed him into the well. Berniece, who moved to Pittsburgh after the death of her husband, Crawley, also blames her brother for Crawley’s death. It’s been three years since he was killed, and she is being courted by Avery, a man from down home who has become a preacher in Pittsburgh.

After slavery ended, Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, grew obsessed with the piano, believing that his family’s slavery wouldn’t end as long as the Sutter family owned it. He and his brothers stole it. In retaliation, his house was burned down by a mob. He escaped into a boxcar of a railroad line called the Yellow Dog. The mob set it on fire, killing him and four hobos. They are the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog and are believed to have pushed many of the perpetrators down wells.

A few days pass. Doaker is visited by his brother Wining Boy, a washed up recording artist and gambler. Boy Willie is still determined to sell the piano, and Berneice is determined to stop him. Although she fends off Avery’s marriage proposals, she asks him to bless the house in an attempt to get rid of the ghost.


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The Hill District The Hill District is a predominantly African American neighborhood within walking distance of downtown Pittsburgh. It is August Wilson’s birthplace and the setting for the majority of his plays. The Hill District was always a diverse area. Generations of Jewish and Irish immigrants called this area home in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Starting from approximately 18801900, African Americans began migrating from the South and many settled in “The Hill.” The area quickly established itself as one of the important African American communities in the nation, with a strong emphasis on art, literature, and music. Business districts along Wylie and Bedford Avenues and Logan Street thrived, and it was a hotbed of Jazz at places like the Crawford Grill. The Hill was also the home of the Pittsburgh Crawfords, a Negro League baseball team featuring Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige.

Over time, the population grew and the neighborhood deteriorated. In 1955 the Lower Hill Redevelopment Program was approved, which included construction of a new Civic Arena. The project cleared ninety-five acres and displaced 1,239 African American families and 312 white families. Following the redevelopment project, the downward spiral continued. The area was hard hit in the 1980s by illegal drug use. These events caused the population to plummet from over 50,000 in 1950 to about 15,000 in 1990, with a large percentage living in public housing.

The century cycle Wilson’s Century Cycle, also referred to as his Pittsburgh Cycle, consists of ten plays--nine which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Each play is set in a different decade and aims to reveal the Black experience in the Twentieth Century. Although the plays are not connected to the degree of a serial story, some characters appear at various ages in more than one play. 8 |


The Hill District continues to struggle to this day. At present, the area does not even have a grocery store. What it does have, however, are residents who care deeply about their homes and are trying to improve the area.

1900s - Gem of the Ocean (2003) 1910s - Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984) 1920s - Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) 1930s - The Piano Lesson (1989) Pulitzer Prize 1940s - Seven Guitars (1995) 1950s - Fences (1985) Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award 1960s - Two Trains Running (1990) 1970s - Jitney (1983) 1980s - King Hedley II (2001) 1990s - Radio Golf (2005)

August Wilson and Romare Bearden The artist Romare Bearden (1912-1988) honored the enduring cultural signposts and traditions of African American experience in collages and paintings memorializing the experiences of the Great Migration, Jazz sessions, religious occasions and the habits and occurrences of everyday family life. Bearden, who was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, moved with his family to Pittsburgh where he attend high school before moving on to study art in New York. August Wilson found his work inspiring, and two of his collages directly influenced Wilson’s work. Millhand’s Lunch Bucket provided the spark for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson which inspired the play of the same name.




In the Introduction to the book Romare Bearden, His Life and Art by Myron Schwartzman, August Wilson wrote: What I saw [in his work] was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and full ness, in a language that was vibrant and made atten dant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its values and exhaled its presence.

The plays of August Wilson are suffused with a sense of the spiritual and supernatural. From Aunt Ester, the “washer of souls,” who is seen in Gem of the Ocean and referred to in Two Trains Running and Radio Golf to the holy fool Gabe in Fences, who believes he is the angel Gabriel trumpeting his brother into heaven, Wilson’s play are filled with figures that reference a particularly African American amalgam of Christianity and African religions. In The Piano Lesson, the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, vengeful spirits who push their oppressors down wells are an example of slave tradition brought from Africa. We don’t know if they are real or a symbolic projection of the anger in the black community. The Piano Lesson never tells us who really killed Sutter. Sutter’s ghost is an example of the traditional ghost of western literature, stuck in a place with a mission to carry out. The sound of a train—the Yellow Dog Ghost itself—is heard during his exorcism, melding the two traditions together. SYRACUSE STAGE EDUCATION

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The Piano Lesson is infused with music. How do the songs meld with dialogue to help tell the story? Does the music have another function here? Although the characters in The Piano Lesson are dealing with difficult family problems, the play is full of humorous moments. What does the humor tell us of the characters and how does it inform the narrative? In The Piano Lesson, storytelling rather than action drives the plot. In the film version of the play some of those stories are shown as action with narration. Which method do you prefer? Why? Although we hear the rush of a train and see the effects of Sutter’s ghost on the Charles family, we never see the ghosts. What affect does this have? Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy the land where his family was held in slavery. Berniece wants to keep the piano because of the suffering it represents. Who is right? Why? The title, The Piano Lesson functions on more than one level. Discuss its literal and symbolic meanings. Who is teaching lessons? Who is receiving them?

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The Piano Lesson focuses on the meaning of a family heirloom. Students may bring to class either an object or a photo of an object from their homes and express in a presentation, poem, or creative writing the importance of this object. Two potential companion pieces to The Piano Lesson are The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, a nonfiction account of the African American migration to the North and the novel Beloved by Toni Morrison, which also deals with supernatural themes and the painful lessons of slavery. Students may read and discuss these works for further insight into different aspects of The Piano Lesson.


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elements of design LINE can have length, width, texture, direction and

curve. There are 5 basic varieties: vertical, horizontal, diagonal, curved, and zig-zag.

SHAPE is two-dimensional and encloses space.

It can be geometric (e.g. squares and circles), man-made, or free-form.

FORM is three-dimensional. It encloses space

and fills space. It can be geometric (e.g. cubes and cylinders), man-made, or free-form.

COLOR has three basic properties:

HUE is the name of the color (e.g. red, blue, green), INTENSITY is the strength of the color (bright or dull), VALUE is the range of lightness to darkness.

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TEXTURE refers to the “feel” of an

object’s surface. It can be smooth, rough, soft, etc. Textures may be ACTUAL (able to be felt) or IMPLIED (suggested visually through the artist’s technique).

SPACE is defined and determined

by shapes and forms. Positive space is enclosed by shapes and forms, while negative space exists around them.

elements of drama PLOT

What is the story line? What happened before the play started? What does each character want? What do they do to achieve their goals? What do they stand to gain/lose? THEME

What ideas are wrestled with in the play? What questions does the play pose? Does it present an opinion? CHARACTER

Who are the people in the story? What are their relationships? Why do they do what they do? How does age/status/etc. affect them? LANGUAGE

What do the characters say? How do they say it? When do they say it? MUSIC

How do music and sound help to tell the story? SPECTACLE

How do music and sound help to tell the story?

Other Elements: Conflict/Resolution, Action, Improvisation, Non-verbal communication, Staging, Humor, Realism and other styles, Metaphor, Language, Tone, Pattern & Repetition, Emotion, Point of view.

Any piece of theatre comprises multiple art forms. As you explore this production with your students, examine the use of:



At its core, drama is about characters working toward goals and overcoming obstacles. Ask students to use their bodies and voices to create characters who are: very old, very young, very strong, very weak, very tired, very energetic, very cold, very warm. Have their characters interact with others. Give them an objective to fulfill despite environmental obstacles. Later, recap by asking how these obstacles affected their characters and the pursuit of their objectives.


How are each of these art forms used in this production? Why are they used? How do they help to tell the story?


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REFERENCES: http://www.ardentheatre.org/media/2008_pianolesson_sg.pdf augustwilson.net http://www.augustwilson.net/Romare_Bearden.htm http://www.courttheatre.org/pdf/guides/Piano_Lesson_Study_Guide.pdf http://www.shmoop.com/the-piano-lesson/the-supernatural-theme.html http://www.gradesaver.com/the-piano-lesson/study-guide/section6/ http://ocw.mit.edu/courses/literature/21l-486-modern-drama-spring-2006/study-materials/piano_lesson. pdf http://www.shmoop.com/the-piano-lesson/questions.html http://plays.about.com/od/plays/a/pianolesson.htm http://pittsburgh.about.com/od/famous-locals/p/august-wilson.htm http://plays.about.com/od/plays/a/augustwilson.htm http://theatreworks.commercialmedia.com/media/studyguide.radiogolf.pdf Morrison, Toni. Beloved. New York:Knopf, 1987. Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. New York:Vintage Books, 2011.

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Dear Educator, Live theatre is a place for people to gather and experience the joys, triumphs, and sorrows life has to offer. The Syracuse Stage Education Department is committed to providing the tools to make learning in and through the arts possible, to address varied learning styles and make connections to curriculum and life itself. It is our goal in the education department to maximize the theatre experience for our education partners with experiential learning and in-depths arts programming. Thank you for your interest and support! Sincerely,

Lauren Unbekant Director of Educational Outreach



yracuse Stage is committed to providing students with rich theatre experiences that explore and examine what it is to be human. Research shows that children who participate in or are exposed to the arts show higher academic achievement, stronger self-esteem, and improved ability to plan and work toward a future goal. Many students in our community have their first taste of live theatre through Syracuse Stage’s outreach programs. Last season more than 30,000 students from across New York State attended or participated in the Bank of America Children’s Tour, artsEmerging, the Young Playwrights Festival, and our Student Matinee Program. We gratefully acknowledge the corporations and foundations who support our commitment to in-depth arts education for our community.


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Profile for Syracuse Stage

The Piano Lesson Study Guide  

The Piano Lesson Study Guide  

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