Opening today’s notes with a short video on Romare Bearden, whose collage, The Piano Lesson, provided inspiration for this Wilson play.
So, what is “The Piano Lesson?” It’s a question I ask myself. Is it what it appears on the surface, the not-unsubstantial question of preserving an artifact which is also an archive and a family heirloom, versus using the proceeds of the sale of said artifact to buy the farm where generations worked during slavery and Reconstruction. Which one has more practical and economic value? Which one has more spiritual and perhaps cultural value? Or is it a false dichotomy, an irony created to force us to take a closer look at the story?
- Mass incarceration had by 1936 become a rite of passage for African American men. The thing that united all four male characters in the story is the time they spent incarcerated at Parchman Farm, thanks to that 13th Amendment cut-out.
- The crossroads where the Southern (vertical, North-South from Washington, DC to New Orleans) meets the Yazoo Delta (aka, the Yellow Dog, horizontal across Mississippi) is a recurrent theme in oral folklore, music and literature. The God of The Crossroads, is known as Papa Legba in West Africa, Elegua in Cuba and Brazil. he is a trickster who will speak to you at the crossroads (decision-making moment) and allow you to sell your soul for quick fame and riches.
- August Wilson includes the lyrics to three whole blues/gospel songs in the play. Think he’s trying to tell us something? Berta, Berta. I’m a Ramblin Gamblin Man. I Want You to Help Me.
- Boy Willis has a unique rhythm to his speech in a couple of places. Almost like a mantra, a recipe he has memorized (sounds curiously like the Skip James epigraph):
In Act 1, Scene 1: “Sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved. Walk in there. Tip my hat. Lay my money down on the table. Get my deed and walk out. This time I bet to keep all the cotton. Hire me some men to work it for me. Gin my cotton. Get my seed. And I’ll see you again next year.”
Then in Act 1 Scene 2: “I sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved.”
- Avery, now a preacher, seeks Berniece’s hand in marriage. He has his eye on the piano for his future church and congregation, and his eye on Berniece as a future deaconess. By his stated estimation, Berniece has no value except as a wife. Berniece rejects that estimation. Avery fails in his attempt to bless the house and rid it of Sutter’s ghost.
- Speaking of which, who/what is Sutter’s ghost attached to? Is it the piano? I laid out the “provenance” of the piano in a previous post:
- Genealogy and provenance of the piano.
1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.
2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander his choice of two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.
3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged the for the piano.
4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.
5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her long lost sold slaves.
6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.
7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.
8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.
9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Berniece later joined him after her husband was killed.
Conclusion. But there is more to discuss. I wrote in a previous posting the following:
The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. The Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the archive of the family history through the generations. Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.
Here is the YouTube playlist: