Notes on The Piano Lesson (10.19.2018)

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:

Glossary of play

One thought on “Notes on The Piano Lesson (10.19.2018)

  1. I did not get Carole Horn’s notes up in time, Here they are, without links and annotations:
    Notes on The Piano Lesson, October 22:

    Some name sources—Wining Boy Blues was a Jelly Roll Morton song recorded in 1938. And Blues Boy Willie was an electric and harmonica player born in 1946 who tried to revive the blues played in Memphis in the 30s-50s. His dad played in Ma Rainey’s band; he himself became more prominent in the 1970s, so Wilson was likely to know his music. August Wilson credits Wining Boy in the play with calling the names of the men at the crossing of the Southern and the Dog railroads, and his calling, Wilson says, is like the calling of the African gods’ names—when you do, they talk to you, as the ghosts of the murdered men then did to Wining Boy. Lymon might be Frankie Lymon of “Why do Fools Fall in Love” which is what the character is busy doing.

    Wilson liked the way that Jorge Luis Borges, considered by some to be an early magical realist, and one of Wilson’s “four B’s,” could tell you forcefully early in his stories what was going to happen, but leave the reader not quite getting it till the denouement. Another critic pointed out that Borges’ pattern in his gaucho stories is frequently to send a character out on the road, have him encounter a crisis and have him find his identity in confronting it. Is this applicable to Boy Willy? who would seem to be Wilson’s warrior in this play. WC Handy, and later in the 1930s, Big Bill Broonzy both did Yellow Dog Blues renditions, with YD for Yazoo Delta train a popular explanation of where the term came from—but the early railroad contracts apparently also had a “yellow dog” clause saying you had to promise not to join the union if you signed up. Emphasis on “crossing” suggests the crossing places (and also Jesus’ cross) where the living meet the dead, in folklore or prior to resurrection.

    Berenice is a black woman who, since her mother died and her husband Crawley and her father were killed, has denied her ancestry, and understandably, since it has resulted in such pain. She tells her daughter not to “show her blackness” and refuses to play the piano that represents both loss of those beloved people and sundering of the Charles family, and the strength and capacity for vengeance of those ancestral ghosts who are, ultimately, the only ones who can break the otherwise impossible impasse between Boy Willy and Berenice over the piano’s fate. The ghosts can do as well what Avery, the reverend, cannot, and banish Sutter’s ghost.

    Cleotha Staples was one of the Staples singers, the famous gospel group; she came kes their be and from Mississippi and was born in 1934. Could Wilson have been tipping his hat to her in choosing that name for Wining Boy’s spouse? Regarding the music the men sing and perform in this play, it is earthy, life and prison inspired, and when they sing you get a sense of the masculinity and solidarity associated with their experiences, from Parchman Prison to “rambling and gambling” to tilling the fields. It makes them seem very real and makes their recognition of and belief in Sutter’s ghost more believable to me as a result. A word about the infamous Parchman—in addition to perpetuating slavery through the forced labor of black men often arrested for no more than minor infractions during Jim Crow times, it also became the site of imprisonment of many of the 161 Civil Rights era Freedom Riders in June, 1961; they were initially put to work on chain gangs, and at one time 300 Freedom Riders were imprisoned there. Wilson would have been well aware of these prisoners and the effort to “break their spirits” by the Mississippi governor.
    Wilson said The Piano Lesson was an attempt to consider what happens when “acquiring a sense of self-worth by denying one’s past”—it’s a very different kind of piano lesson than the ones that focus on the notes and keys.

    More Piano Lesson notes: Skip James was a Jazz piano player who first recorded for Paramount in 1931, then nothing happened till he was rediscovered 30 years later—“Gin my cotton” is from Illinois Blues. His is the brief musical prologue that starts the play.

    The play itself takes its title from another Romare Bearden collage, “The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou Williams, the Jazz pianist who moved from the South to Pittsburg—who died in the 1980s and was know as the First Lady of Jazz piano. Wilson said he wrote the play based on a short story he’d created much earlier.

    Carvings on the piano legs represent African sculpture, totems—whatever the piano means to the different characters in The Piano Lesson, it is firmly grounded in African culture. And the images are powerful metaphors—on the one hand, they comforted the white woman whose slaves were traded away for it (likely because she never did see them as human beings, only as human images behind slave presences) and they became beloved homes for the spirits, homes polished and shined (with metaphoric blood and real tears) every day by Mama Ola, before Berenice brought the piano north after her mother’s death.

    Doaker means (according to Urban Dictionary) a person with no common sense, it could also refer to a whore, neither of which seem to refer to Wilson’s character Doaker Charles. But “John Doakes” in the 1920s and ‘30s was another way of saying Everyman in America, and maybe he borrows that image for Doaker. This play is dedicated to his siblings, the only one so far, and while the public references to the time frame I could find do not seem so relevant—end of Great Depression, Pittsburg great flood. there may be private or family ones that we don’t know about which made Wilson choose 1936 as the year in which it is set.

    The Irene Kaufman Settlement House was real; in it’s heyday, Anna Perlow taught music there, and was a revered Pittsburg figure. the Ikes ( settlement house workers) helped clear up typhoid in Pittsburg, provided milk, food and support and gave a music scholarship each year in Anna Perlow’s name—this seems to be the one very positive reference to white people in this play.

    Of the names of the men who set the box car on fire and were eventually killed by falling in wells (there is some symbolism to that but I haven’t quite figured it out), there is one Ed Saunders. Wilson, in the middle to late 1960’s, envisioned himself as some sort of beat poet (hence his attraction to Baraka/Leroi Jones). A name he would have been familiar with in the same period is Ed Sanders (without the ‘u’) a beat poet and social activist who later (within Wilson’s life, though), began work on a 9-volume “America, A History in Verse.” Looks like he has three volumes in print, covering 1900 to 1970, a sort of epic poem in the manner of Homer or Virgil, and another two volumes on CD. I can see where Wilson may have considered Sanders a rival. Of course, this is all speculation that we can’t investigate until the estate releases Wilson’s papers.


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