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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Context


The Century Cycle

In the 1970s August Wilson embarked on a project that would examine the African American experience throughout the 20th century. He went on to write 10 plays—one set in each decade:

  1. Gem of the Ocean (set in 1904)
  2. Joe Turner's Come and Gone (set in 1911)
  3. Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (set in 1927)
  4. The Piano Lesson (set in 1936)
  5. Seven Guitars (set in 1948)
  6. Fences (set in 1957)
  7. Two Trains Running (set in 1969)
  8. Jitney (set in 1977)
  9. King Hedley II (set in 1985)
  10. Radio Golf (set in 1997)

The plays share many features, notably their settings and their focuses on the lives and culture of African Americans.

All but one of the plays (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Wilson grew up. For this reason they are also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle. References in The Piano Lesson to once-actual places in the Hill District include Eddie's Restaurant at Wylie and Kirkpatrick, where Doaker suggests Boy Willie and Lymon go for a meal; the Irene Kauffman Settlement House, the school where Maretha is learning to play piano; and the Rhumba Theater on Fullerton Street, where Lymon wants to go to "the pictures."

All 10 plays explore race relations and racial discrimination. Topics that recur throughout the cycle include theft, murder, imprisonment, broken families, and the difficulty of earning a living. Recurrent themes include reconciling heritage and history with the desire for a better future. Music is a pervasive motif. Some characters recur in certain of the plays—notably Aunt Esther, a centuries-old "soul cleanser" who first appears in Gem of the Ocean and whose house becomes a focal point in Radio Golf when it is scheduled to be torn down to make way for new development.

The Long Shadow of Slavery

In 1619 20 Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. They were the first African slaves brought to what would become the United States, with slavery the bedrock on which the agriculture-based Southern economy was being built. While slavery existed in the Northern United States up through the mid-19th century, the most iconic and enduring image of it is based within the Southern plantation. By the time the Civil War began in 1861, the South was home to roughly four million slaves.

Along the southeastern seaboard, most slaves worked on plantations growing indigo, rice, or tobacco. The South moved its agricultural focus to cotton because of growing demand for cotton from textile factories. American Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin made removing cotton seeds faster and easier. One of the states in which cotton reigned as king was Mississippi, where by 1860 slaves made up 55 percent of the population.

Planters began settling the delta of the Yazoo River in Mississippi—known as the "Mississippi delta"—in 1820. Stretching westward to the Mississippi River, the delta was low-lying land and flooded often. The white planters employed hundreds of slaves on huge cotton plantations—some spreading across more than one county. Sunflower County, where August Wilson situated Robert Sutter's plantation, lies in the middle of the Mississippi delta.

Enslaved workers were not paid. Generally speaking, they had very limited freedom. The slave owner decided where they would live, what work they would do, and who they would marry or have children with—if they were allowed to do so at all. Before 1830 there were no regulations on slaves' work hours and conditions, and Southern slave owners did not have to provide food for their enslaved workers. Slowly this changed. For instance, in 1852 Alabama required slave owners to provide clothing, healthy food, and health care if slaves became ill; the state even required owners to take care of their slaves in old age. Mississippi laws at that time made killing a slave a capital offense and forbade cruel and unusual punishment of slaves.

However, slaveholders were not required to provide a stable family life for their slaves. As Wilson illustrates in The Piano Lesson, families might be broken up for any reason, such as the owner's financial needs. One slave trader reported he was often sold a woman slave while the seller would keep her husband and children. Such impermanence and emotional trauma coupled with the total dependence of slaves on their owners cast a long shadow on African American family life. Even after abolition, Jim Crow laws throughout the region kept African Americans living in poverty, causing still further trauma to families. The nonnuclear family, often headed by a single mother or even an older sibling, was a lasting legacy of slavery. As August Wilson declared in a speech at Princeton University, the phrase African American—in addition to denoting race—"carries with it the vestige of slavery and the social segregation and abuse of opportunity."

The United States has historically been referred to as a "melting pot" because of the many immigrants who came here and were gradually included within the greater mass of Americans. A similar process occurred on the plantations, where people from different parts of Africa were made to work and live together. They brought their beliefs and cultural practices with them, and these were incorporated into their lives in North America. For example, slave religions incorporated both European-style Christianity, which they were taught on their plantations, and African spiritualism. Slaves therefore tended to believe in both a supreme being and a variety of human and nonhuman spirits. African roots were evident in folktales, such as the story of the tar baby, and work songs and spirituals, which featured call-and-response patterns. Even the musical instruments slaves played—especially banjos and drums—had their origins in Africa. Today the Mississippi delta is famous as the birthplace of the blues—a form of music with its roots in the music of enslaved workers and therefore in Africa.

The Great Migration

"I was born to a time of fire," says Boy Willie Charles in Act 2, Scene 5 of The Piano Lesson. He was born in Sunflower County, Mississippi, in 1906, when the South was ruled by Jim Crow laws. Southern states enacted these harsh laws after the Reconstruction period ended in 1877. The states intended such laws to keep the races segregated and relegate African Americans to sharecropping, logging, and other practices akin to slavery. Sharecroppers continued to work on plantations, in effect renting a portion of the plantation that included food and housing. They paid for this by giving the landlord the larger share of the crop. In 1879 the average annual earnings of a sharecropper were $74–$1,800 adjusted for inflation. When the Jim Crow laws were challenged, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld them on the basis they were "separate but equal." They remained in effect until the mid-20th century. In addition to the abuses of the Jim Crow system, African Americans in the South were terrorized by the outlawed but thriving Ku Klux Klan. To escape poverty and oppression, more than six million African Americans left the South in the early and mid-20th century. They traveled north and later west looking for jobs and social opportunity in the cities.

When five million white American men joined the military and went to Europe to fight in World War I, the United States suffered a shortage of industrial workers. The war also meant European immigration dried up. African Americans surged northward to fill the worker shortage. Many railroads and factories even paid for their new employees to move north. By the end of the war, a million African Americans had already left the South, and the trend continued. The cities of the North swelled, and housing became scarce. When the soldiers returned home, competition for jobs became a problem. Just as earlier waves of migration had created ethnic neighborhoods, black neighborhoods developed in the cities of the North and Midwest, often characterized by a vibrant African American culture. Well-known examples include Harlem in New York City and the Hill District in Pittsburgh.

Before the Great Migration, 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South, most of them on farms. When it ended in 1970, less than 50 percent of African Americans lived in the South, mostly in cities.

Mississippi and Pittsburgh in the 1930s

August Wilson set The Piano Lesson in 1936, when the ravages of the Great Depression were still being felt. The effects of the Depression on the Mississippi delta were catastrophic. In 1930 a drought wiped out crops in areas earlier devastated by the Mississippi River flood of 1927, which had inundated 27,000 square miles in seven states, striking Mississippi, Arkansas, and Louisiana particularly hard. Banks were failing and crop prices plummeting throughout the state. On one day in 1932, 20 percent of rural property in Mississippi was auctioned off. What's more, whereas the sharecropping system had allowed the cotton-based economy to continue, federal New Deal policies of 1933–35 were geared toward reducing cotton production. The Depression impoverished whites as well as blacks. This is reflected in The Piano Lesson in James Sutter having sold off most of his land before his death. Many New Deal policies helped white families of the area before they helped black ones.

Meanwhile, life was very different in Pennsylvania. During the early years of the Depression, many workers lost their jobs, and shantytowns sprang up. The effects were felt somewhat later in Pittsburgh, thanks to the strength of the steel industry. By 1933 more than a third of the state's workers were unemployed; but in Pittsburgh, unemployment didn't pass 12 percent until 1932. The Catholic activist Father James Cox led an unsuccessful march on Washington, D.C., asking President Hoover for financial aid for the unemployed. The Irene Kaufmann Settlement House set up a "thrift garden" to encourage people to grow their own food. Others raised money to feed and house the homeless. Then, in March 1936, a flood submerged the downtown area, prompting city leaders to partner with the federal government on flood control and other urban planning projects. The city's economy began to turn around. Even in the 1930s, the multiethnic Hill District was among the most prosperous African American communities in the country.

Critical Reception of The Piano Lesson

When The Piano Lesson was first performed in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theater, its script was still rather rough around the edges. In the New York Times, critic Frank Rich called the play "unruly and unfinished" with a tendency to sermonize. But he also felt The Piano Lesson contained "some of Mr. Wilson's most virtuosic and easeful writing to date." He particularly mentioned the delicate and poignant scene between Berniece and Lymon in Act 2 and the play's "verbal music, emotional heat and considerable humor." The Piano Lesson moved to New York in 1990, when Rich reviewed it again, declaring it "seems to sing even when it is talking."

The New York production received six awards, including:

  • 1990 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play
  • 1990 New York Drama Critics' Circle Award for Best Play
  • 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama

This was Wilson's second Pulitzer Prize. He received his first for Fences—another play in the Century Cycle—in 1987.

The Piano Lesson was adapted for television in 1995; the Hallmark Hall of Fame production won the Peabody Award.

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