Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, represents the first decade in the Century Cycle. It is also the play in the cycle that gives us the full portrayal of Aunt Ester, who is more of a myth in earlier plays (2 Trains, King Hedley), a spirit presence that never actually reaches the stage but lurks in the background.

Gem of the Ocean, we learn in Act 2, is an imaginary boat, a document folded in the shape of a boat, Aunt Ester’s Bill of Sale (Sail) from Guilford County, NC. But the document that becomes a model of a boat serves as a prop during the staged journey to the City of Bones.

But what was that voyage? Was it a seance? Was it an exorcism? Or was it just a dramatic ritual? It seemed that Citizen Barlow believed something out of the ordinary was happening. But it also seemed like Eli, Solly, Black Mary, and Aunt Ester had all done this thing before, had practiced every aspect and had it down cold. I think it was a type of ritualistic exorcism. But it works for Mr. Citizen, a recent arrivee from Alabama with a heavy burden on his soul.

Garrett Brown’s obituary is the saddest thing I have heard in an August Wilson play. But I’m so happy Wilson included its text in the play:

BLACK MARY (Reads): “Garret Brown of Louisville, Kentucky departed this life on September 30, 1904, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at midday, in the midst of a life of usefulness and in the fullness of his powers. He was born of slave parents June the 29th 1862, in Charleston, South Carolina. At an early period in his life, interested parties hurried the mother and three children northward, without the protection of a husband and father, to begin a long siege of poverty. Mr. Brown leaves to mourn his unfinished life, a wife and three children, and a host of family and friends.”

Solly Two Kings is another interesting character. He changed his name from Uncle Alfred to Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon from the Bible) after he escaped from slavery in Alabama and fled to Canada, but he missed his family, so he returned as worked as a “dragman” in the Underground Railroad. He now collects dog feces, called “pure,” and sells it to tanners for money.

Feces – Wikipedia
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feces
Dog feces were used in the tanning process of leather during the Victorian era. Collected dog feces, known as “pure”, “puer”, or “pewer”, were mixed with water to form a substance known as “bate.” Enzymes in the dog feces helped to relax the fibrous structure of the hide before the final stages of tanning.

Caesar Wilks, the community constable, has been through his own transformation, having been a bit of a thug in his younger days. Through illegal means, he raises enough money to purchase a small commercial property, but not before he gets selected by the crime bosses (politicians) uptown to run their operation and maintain order on the Hill. He let’s it all go to his head under the guise of “respectability politics.”

Then there is the dynamic relationship between Aunt Ester and Black Mary, Wilks’ sister  by a different mother. Wilks’ father was a rascal too. And we will see his grandson, along with Citizen’s son, in the next and final play, Radio Golf.

There are many songs in the play, but these two stand out:

Finally, doesn’t this underwater sculpture remind you of the City of Bones? It is not intended to depict the Middle Passage, but its intended message speaks to us still.

Vicissitudes

p.s. 1839 Wylie Street is the residence of Aunt Ester. 1839 was the year of the Amistad mutiny. And William Cullen Bryant’s poem, Thanatopsis, was cited in Act 2 Scene 2 and at the very end of the play, although his later poem, The Death of Slavery also foretold the era of this play and of the entire century cycle. Bryant was a noted 19th century newspaper editor, poet, and abolitionist.

 
Events of the 1900’s

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was constitutional through the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Immediately local and state laws were created and in some cases, enhanced to prohibit African-Americans from participating fully in American society. However, almost immediately, African-Americans began working to prove their worth in American society. The timeline below highlights some of the contributions as well as some tribulations faced by African-Americans between 1900 and 1909.

An estimated two-thirds of landowners in the Mississippi Delta are African-American farmers. Many had purchased land following the Civil War.

Since the end of the Civil War, an estimated 30,000 African-American men and women have been trained as teachers. The work of these educators assists the African-American population throughout the United States learn to read and write.

1901

George H. White, the last African-American elected to Congress, leaves office.
Bert Williams and George Walker become the first African-American recording artists. They recorded with Victor Talking Machine Company.
Booker T. Washington becomes the first African-American to eat the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House for a meeting. At the end of the meeting, Roosevelt invited Washington to stay for dinner.
Washington publishes his autobiography, Up From Slavery.

1903

W.E.B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folks. The collection of essays explored issues concerning racial equality and denounced Washington’s beliefs.
Maggie Lena Walker establishes the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va.

1904

Mary McLeod Bethune establishes Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fl.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller becomes the nation’s first African-American psychiatrist. Fuller trained at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich.

1900

Week 8 – King Hedley II

First play named for a character.

First true tragedy. But was it really? King is sacrificed, the blood spills on the buried cat that belonged to Aunt Ester, and the curtain falls with the sound of a meow. The cat has one more life? Has Aunt Ester been resurrected perhaps? And does that signal a redemption of sorts?

First play with continuation of characters from previous play (Seven Guitars):
1. Canewell becomes Stool Pigeon
2. Red Carter’s son: Mister
3. Ruby continues
4. King Hedley II is son of Ruby and Hedley (and Leroy)
5. Aunt Ester, still unseen, dies
6. Louise raises Ruby’s son King in absentia.

Speaking of Ruby, here’s a you-tube version of a song she sang twice in the play. “Red Sails in the Sunset”

A few things caught my interest in King Hedley II. First of all the Greek Chorus that Wilson has Stool Pigeon provide in the opening of the play. From Wikipedia:

Greek choruses sometimes had a leader known as the coryphaeus. He sometimes came first to introduce the chorus, and sometimes spoke for them if they were taking part in the action. The entrances and exits of the coryphaeus and his chorus served the same way curtains do in a modern theatre.

So Stool Pigeon, who was Canewell in Seven Guitars, now doubles as Seer, Spirit Guide, Supporter of Aunt Ester (like Holloway in Two Trains) and coryphaeus in Wilson’s attempt to connect to Greek classical drama (my spin). Canewell did say in Seven Guitars, “If I could put the music down I would have been a preacher. Many times I felt God was calling. But the devil was calling too, and it seem like he called louder. God speak in a whisper and the devil shout.”

Additionally, Stool Pigeon gets his Bible quotations wrong everytime…unless he represents the promotion of a new synthesis of religion/mythology, a blending of Christian concepts with local African American spiritualism and all combined with African ideas of philosophy and religious belief, which puts it in line with previous plays in the series that touted African concepts (Turnbo in Jitney, Toledo in Ma Rainey, Bynum in Joe Turner, ultimately Berniece in Piano Lesson, and Holloway in 7 Guitars).

Tonya has the longest single speaking role (end of Scene 2). It’s a very memorable speech made even more famous because it was spoken by a then relatively unknown Viola Davis, a role for which she won the Tony for best actor.

King signals early on that he is the one “annointed” to make a sacrifice. He asks Mister, and again, asks Stool Pigeon, “Can you see my halo?”

The conversations with King (Act 2, Scene 2) and with Elmore (Act 2, Scene 4) where they describe the choices they made in the taking of human life, both sub-climaxes in the play, are troublesome to say the least. The casual brandishing of weapons, even including Ruby with the palm-sized derringer, is a bit troubling. And all the petty premeditated criminal acts, selling stolen refrigerators, robbing the jewelry store, all signal a community in the final stages of decay . . .

Interesting point raised in class. What if Stool Pigeon really is the Greek Chorus? And what if he is speaking to a specific audience or saying things that no one else could say and preserve their theatric credibility. Taking it a step further, what if Ruby represents the Greek Siren, luring unsuspecting sailors to shipwreck on a rocky course? Could August Wilson be using these classical “motifs” subconsciously to establish his chops and links to the classical and neoclassical tradition? Wouldn’t that be something?

The death of Aunt Ester is an additional climax in the play, as is the accidental death of King at the play’s end. The play has overlapping and intersecting climaxes, in fact. Here is a performance by a younger and relatively unknown Viola Davis:

Events of the mid-1980’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446

1984

W. Wilson Goode becomes the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia.
The Cosby Show makes its debut on NBC. It will become the most successful series featuring an African-American cast in television history.

1985

Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead.
Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first African-American to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate.

1986

Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday is celebrated across the United States.
Six crew members die when the Challenger space shuttle explodes after it launches from the Kennedy Space Center. One of the crew members is African-American astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair.
The Oprah Winfrey show becomes a nationally syndicated talk show.
Producer and director Spike Lee debuts his feature film, She’s Gotta Have It.
Mike Tyson becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick.

1987

Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Reginald Lewis becomes the first African-American CEO of a billion dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods.
Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurosurgeon leads a team of seventy surgeons at John Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating Siamese twins. · ·
Dr. Johnetta B. Cole becomes the first African-American woman to preside over Spelman College.
Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Novelist and essayist James Baldwin dies from stomach cancer.

Too cool not to include: August Wilson’s Poem for my grandfather

And the transcription (HT to Jeannie McClem)

This is a poem I wrote for my grandfather.
Since I never knew my grandfather, I am speaking
in a generational sense, a generational grandfather.
This is your grandfather, my grandfather,
all of us’s grandfather.

Poem for my grandfather

His chest stripped open
to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.

Bynum Cutler.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.

Bynum Cutler,
who spread his seed
over the nine counties
in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind,
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton
planted in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season
welcoming its architects
and ennobling them
with gifts of blood.

week 7 – Seven Guitars

Week 7 – Seven Guitars (some notes)

References to seven: The seventh play written in the cycle. Seven characters. Seven non-existent guitars. Seven years of bad luck. Red Carter used to have seven women. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Floyd’s seven ways to go. Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedly’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). and finally, From Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” the seven characteristics of his mother worthy of art.

Found poetry from Notes From the Playwright:

I have tried to extract
some measure of truth
from their lives as they struggle
to remain whole in the face
of so many things that threaten
to pull them asunder.

I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
her myths,
her superstitions,
her prayers,
the contents of her pantry,
the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
her thoughtful repose
and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.

Hence, Seven Guitars.

Hedley is the seer and spirit guy/guide, like Holloway, Doaker, Bynum (especially), Bono, Toledo, and Becker.  Root tea drinker (also alcoholic, it appears). Jamaican, maybe, but could be Haitian. Speaks with an accent, a patois. Recalls Toussaint and Marcus Garvey. Ethiopia, rasta talk. In fact, much of his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 5 appears to be lifted from Marcus Garvey speeches. Wants to buy a plantation, be a big man (in all the plays, the spirit guy/person is always in contention to be the Warrior).

Floyd reminded me a bit of Hambone (tell him to give me my money!), but also of Bynum and of Gabe. He also reminded me of Troy Maxsom and possibly of Levee, trying to make it as a musician but seemingly doomed at every corner. Only WWII veteran in the bunch (possibly only military veteran in the Cycle). Floyd is the band leader and the guitarist (recall Boy Willie offered to get Mareatha a guitar in place of the piano). Buys the marker for his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. I think Floyd is the Wilson Warrior here. But perhaps he shares it with Hedley.

Louise fits in the character mould of other strong stable women characters (Risa, Berniece, Bertha, Rose, and Ma Rainey). Although Vera does not heed Louise’s advice (about her Henry) immediately, in the end fate changes things and she does.

Canewell’s riff on roosters at end of Act 1. Naturally, he is the harmonica player in the band, having paid so much attention to roosters crowing. Lives with “some old gal.”

Catalog lists (Whitmanian) : roosters (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi); types of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall); brands of beer (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, Yellow Label); Guns (Smith and Wesson, 38, snub nose 32 (no mention of 45, military issue).

Miscellaneous:

Hedley slashed Floyd’s throat with a machete (like Loomis and Risa self-slashing and Levee killing Toledo with a knife). Dance scene celebrating Joe Louis victory: Juba (in Joe Turner); Prison song (in Piano Lesson). Joe Lewis radio scene locates the play in time and provides multimedia appeal (Act 1, Scene 5). And what about the cabbage song (sexual innuendo) scene right after the funeral that opens Act 1? Card playing: whist, pinocle, pitty pat.

Song list: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK

Events of the late 1940’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1940-1949-45441

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which desegregated war production plants and also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This act set the stage for a decade filled with African-American firsts in the U.S. Armed Services.

1948

President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
Alice Coachman becomes the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal when she wins the high jump competition.
The law banning interracial marriages in California is banned by its state supreme court.
The first African-American variety show, Sugar Hill Times is aired on CBS. Performer Timmie Rogers leads the variety show’s cast.
E. Franklin Frazier becomes the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association.

https://www.thoughtco.com/zoot-suit-history-4147678
The apostles of Zoot, you might say, were early 1940’s jazz musicians like Cab Calloway who played in front of white and black audiences and were emulated in their dress by youths of all races, though not necessarily their elders. (Before and during World War II, jazz was the dominant cultural musical idiom in the U.S., much like hip-hop still is today, albeit in vastly mutated form.)

week 6 – Two Trains Running

Still a Fool – Muddy Waters

Still a Fool – Rolling Stones

Some notes. Week 6 – Two Trains Running

1. Title from a blues song by McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Still A Fool. Worth the listening. Railroads and trains played an essential role in America’s westward expansion, and in the migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrialized North.

Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running
Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way
Well, now, one run at midnight and the other one,
Running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day
Oh Lord. sure ‘nough they is
Oh well

2. The Non-stop personal narratives in Two Trains Running don’t really fit the normal pattern for play construction we have discussed. Even in previous Wilson plays there seems to be more linear structure. Here characters pop in and out, tell their stories in an almost isolated way. Is Wilson changing the format? Is this a move signifying an embrace of modernism or a return to neoclassicism? Or even a foretaste of postmodernism?

3. Plays, like poetry, are autobiographic, ethnographic, and meta-poetic. Two Trains Running shows Wilson’s development as a playwright, and draws on his backgraound as a short-order cook in Pittsburgh as a young man. Also shows his exposure to such 60’s luminaries as Malcolm X and his black nationalism, Martin Luther King, Jr and his nonviolence, and Pittsburgh’s Prophet Samuel (a composite of Washington’s Daddy Grace, New York’s Father Divine, and Chicago’s Elijah Muhammad). Ethnographic in that plays portray the setting, the scene, the immediate environment of the play, in this case, Memphis’s restaurant, in the late 60’s, urban renewal in cities, a key element of the play’s plot and the principal core around which revolve the various narratives of the characters, all restaurant diners. Finally, plays are meta-poetic in that they say something about plays themselves, the play’s structure, how the action is organized around the plots (or several plots, in this case). How the play begins, how it proceeds and how it ends are all tell-tale signs of the play’s meta-poetic nature.

4. Holloway = Toledo (Ma Rainey) = Bono (Fences) = Doaker (Piano Lesson)  = Bynum (Joe Turner). Similarities in these characters as archetypes of human behavior. Older men, survivors, who sort of keep the narrative(s) on track.

5. Risa = Rose (Fences) = Berniece (Piano Lesson) = Ma Rainey = Bertha (Joe Turner). Strong women figures in the plays so far who relate to male characters in various ways, but always a central, stabilizing factor. Risa in Two Trains Running is always kind to Hambone, for example, and give Sterling the time of day when no one else does. She manages the restaurant and keeps it “running’ as the central location in action. Her self-mutilation is not something that other Wilson women have done in overt ways, but it represents a self-sacrifice, physicalized, that they all have performed. (Let’s not over simplify things, however.)

6. Hambone = Gabriel (Fences) = Sylvester (Ma Rainey). Male characters with a physical handicap who are central to the story as it unwinds (He gonna give me my ham…I want my ham!)

7. And who is the Wilson Warrior? Sterling would be my pick, Stering who comes from humble and horrible origins, abandoned, orphaned, incarcerated, fired from his job, and excluded from economic development in industrial Pittsburgh by a stupic catch-22. Yet he fantasizes about the love of his life, externalizes that fantasy on Risa, and finally finds redemption in commiting a crime to pay homage to Hambone.

Extras

Aunt Ester finally appears (but not quite, though we know she is there). There is this triangular thing, a choice between Aunt Ester’s spiritual path, Malcolm X’s black nationalism, and Prophet Samuel’s here and now take on things.

West, the undertaker, who knows all about how the city runs, presents a type of developmental redemption moving from a life of petty criminal activity to a respectable business operator. But Holloway thinks West still has dirt on his hands, notwithstanding the black gloves he wears. West is without love in his life since his wife died.

Wolf makes a good living running numbers in the black community for the downtown mob. But he is unhappy because of his loneliness.

Memphis: owns the restaurant that Risa runs. Was chased out of the South when he tried to run a farm he bought. Wants to return to claim his property, but also wants a good value for his restaurant from the redevelopment commission so he can open a bigger restaurant in another part of town.

postscript. 4/17/2018, after seeing the play performed at Arena Stage.

Much to be said about August Wilson’s personal experience with the 60’s and how that may have informed his crafting of the play. His time as a short order cook, for example, and his short fling with the Nation of Islam, his failed marriage, even the poetry he had published in the Negro Digest are all testament to his direct experience with the 60’s, how it shaped him, and how it may have influenced his thinking in writing the play.

Risa finally gets that jukebox to work. It plays Aretha Franklin’s version of Take a Look.

events of the late 60’s

1965

Malcolm X is assassinated at the Audubon Ballroom in New York City. Months later, writer Alex Haley publishes The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

The Watts Riot occurs in the Watts section of Los Angeles. Thirty-four people are reportedly killed and one thousand are injured in a riot that lasted five days.

1966
Stokley Carmichael becomes the chairperson of SNCC and immediately changes its focus to the idea of black power, a definite break from historical civil rights tactics.
The Black Panther Party is founded in California by Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton.
King delivers his first speech concerning the Vietnam War.
Race riots take place in Lansing, Mich., and Cleveland.

Edward Brooke becomes the first African-American to be elected by popular vote to the U.S. Senate. Brooke serves the state of Massachusetts.

1967

H. Rap Brown becomes chairperson of SNCC.
The U.S. Supreme Court rules that states cannot ban interracial marriage in the Loving v. Virginia case.
Thurgood Marshall becomes the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Albert William Johnson opens an Oldsmobile dealership in an African-American neighborhood in Chicago. He is the first African-American to be awarded a dealership from a major automobile company.

1968

King is murdered in Memphis. Riots ensue in 125 cities throughout the United States. Within seven days of King’s assassination, an estimated 46 people are killed and 35,000 are injured.
The Civil Rights Act of 1968 is established by Congress, banning discrimination in housing sales and rentals.
The Poor People’s Campaign galvanizes 50,000 demonstrators to Washington D.C.

After winning first and third place respectively at the Olympics in Mexico City, Tommy Smith and John Carlos raise clenched fists in solidarity with other African-Americans. As a result, both are suspended.
Arthur Ashe is the first African-American to win the Men’s Singles at the U.S. Open.

1969

Photographer Moneta Sleet, Jr. becomes the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize in Photography.
Howard N. Lee becomes the first African-American may of Chapel Hill, NC. He is also the first African-American mayor of a southern city that is predominately white.
Black Panther leaders Mark Clarke and Fred Hampton are killed in Chicago by police officers.
Guitarist Jimi Hendrix headlines the Woodstock Music Festival in upstate New York.
Duke Ellington is awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Richard B. Nixon.

Week 5 – Some notes and takeaways from The Piano Lesson

Art work, clockwise from the upper left corner: Matisse, The Piano Lesson; Bearden, The Piano Lesson; Matisse, The Music Lesson; Bearden, The Piano Lesson.

August Wilson called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” his favorite play, but he referred to The Piano Lesson as his best play. I haven’t come across any explanations but my own observation is that this play contains a richer variety of symbols and rituals than the other plays we have studied so far, though each was unique in its display of ritualistic behavior.

The Berniece/Boy Willie interface is reminiscent of the Jacob/Esau birthright conflict as well as the King Solomon cutting the baby in half suggestion. The four men at the table drinking and singing old prison songs until they work themselves into a near frenzy reminds me of a type of communal seance where distant spirits inhabit and emerge from the interplay between the participants. The piano combines the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant mythologies (we’ll spend more time on this later in this discussion. Avery’s failed blessing of the house is a type of exorcism, again that ultimately fails. Berniece is the high priestess who finally emerges to make a sacrifice to appease the family ancestors (gods). All this richness!

I am calling the the prison work song scene the first climax of the play because of all the action and discussion leading up to it and the falling action/discussion after it. After the song was completed, all four men opened up and spoke freely together, so it was also an “equalizing” event, similar to the Eucharist with bread and wine (note: drinking had occurred, but it was whisky, not communion wine. Anyway, you get the point.). Very moving scene. The prison work song, I propose, not only identified their common experience with incarceration in the South, but, much deeper, identified a spiritual basis or background they shared connecting them to their African roots and origin. The “sacrament” was ended with Whining Boy playing on the piano (the altar, the shrine). Berniece’s arrival changes the mood completely. She will have a separate cataclysmic event.

This is the second Wilson play based on a painting. The first one was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Both were based on or inspired by paintings by Romare Bearden. So already there is an organic relationship between the two plays.

Who is the Wilson Warrior in this play? Is it Berniece, determined to hold on to the family keepsake (a shrine, altar and a surrogate archive)? Or is it Boy Willie, who’d prefer to sell the piano and use the money to buy the family plantation land down south (capitalism and wealth building)? I contend they are both Wilson Warriors per the Riley Temple definitions, characters who

  • “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. And in so doing they must have the strength and the courage – the faith – to revisit the past in all its several guises and heaviness, to set down the burdens of that past, and become free. The faith is needed to know that the outcome will be as God intends, despite the difficulties attendant to the journey.
  • “These men (and Berniece Charles) are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”
  • those who fight – sometimes foolishly as Levee has just done, and who should and will pay dearly for such a tragic mistake.
  • “like the others: Solly “Two Kings” in Gem, who freed slaves and who turned to helping abused factory workers; Herald Loomis; Boy Willie of Piano Lesson who has to fight off ghosts of the past to help his sister unlock herself….Troy Maxson, of Fences, who battles death and the compulsion to save his son from racial humiliation…”
  • “Each one had who they were right within their reach – their song was in their throats – they had to be guided to the soul’s destination to sing it.”
  • “He (Boy Willie) is, after all, one of Wilson’s warriors….(his) mistakes have been bad, some not so smart – even stupid. But he’s paid for them, he is struggling to walk upright and is determined to do so.”
  • [He] is no victim. He is a fully redeemed soul. He knows who he is and how he got to where he is. He knows his history; he has called on his ancestors; he knows on whose shoulders he stands; and he is comfortable and free. He remembers his past, and he engages in it – like the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as God directs, remember who delivered them.

Here is a Youtube video of the entire play:

Berniece is on a parallel development track. She is pursued by men and told she can’t be whole without a husband. She is pursued by fears, of ghosts, of what happened to her mother and father and husband. But she overcomes those fears when she plays the piano and calls out to her ancestors (reminiscent of Toledo’s African conceptualization in Ma Rainey) for help after her primary suitor Avery’s Christian exorcism attempt failed. Berniece is the High Priestess/Warrior in the myth story but she has developed a fear of performing her function as High Priestess. Only when she succeeds in overcoming her fear is she able to quell the Sutter’s ghost issue.

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.

I wonder if the back and forth between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano was a sort of distraction, albeit a necessary one, to get to the real plot and character development in the play, the family united in purpose at the play’s end? In the end, the play highlights the family unit, resilient and purposeful.

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 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 them 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 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.

postscript. The use of art (especially Romare Bearden) as inspiration for drama began with Joe Turner and continues with The Piano Lesson. But in The Piano Lesson, we are faced with two works of art under the same title, Matisse’s The Piano Lesson and Bearden’s The Piano Lesson. Further, the juxtaposition of the two works of art force us to consider, what is art?

As an aside, the French Impressionists were considered outside the dominant school of French art at the time, the Ecole des Beaux Arts. The more traditionalist school considered them anti-establishment painters, many of whom failed the entrance exam for the Ecole, as pretend painters, and their work, merely an impression of art, and not art itself. Hence, they became known as Impressionists.

Late 1930’s.

In March of 1931, nine young African-American men were accused of raping two white women on a train. The African-American men ranged in age from thirteen to nineteen. Each young man was tried, convicted and sentenced in a matter of days.

African-American newspapers published news accounts and editorials of the events of the case. Civil rights organizations followed suit, raising money and providing defense for these young men. However, it would take several years for these young men’s cases to be overturned.

https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1930-1939-45427

1936

Bethune is appointed Director of the Division of Negro Affairs for the National Youth Administration. Bethune is the first African-American woman to receive a presidential appointment and is the highest-ranking African-American official in Theodore Roosevelt’s administration.
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals at the Berlin Olympics. His achievement defies Adolf Hitler’s plan to use the Olympics to show the world “Aryan Supremacy.”
The first medical textbook to be written by an African-American is entitled Syphilis and Its Treatment. The author is Dr. William Augustus Hinton.
The first African-American federal judge is appointed by Roosevelt. William H. Hastie is appointed to the federal bench in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

1937

The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and Maids signs a collective bargaining agreement with the Pullman Company.
Joe Louis wins the heavyweight championship against James J. Braddock.
The Negro Dance Group is founded by Katherine Dunham.
Zora Neale Hurston publishes the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

1938

The work of Jacob Lawrence debuts in an exhibition at the Harlem YMCA.
Crystal Bird Fauset becomes the first African-American woman elected to a state legislature. She is chosen to serve in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.