Call-and-Response: Parallel "Slave Narrative" in August Wilson's 'The Piano Lesson.' (African American Author)

By Boan, Devon | African American Review, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Call-and-Response: Parallel "Slave Narrative" in August Wilson's 'The Piano Lesson.' (African American Author)


Boan, Devon, African American Review


So much has been written on August Wilson's project to chronicle the African-American experience through each decade of the twentieth century that the series, which now includes seven plays - Jitney!(1979), Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), Joe Turner's Come and Gone (1988), The Piano Lesson (1990), Two Trains Running (1992), and Seven Guitars (1996) - sometimes seems like a monolith. This effect may be more thematic than theatrical; the plays are rich in their variety of characters and conflicts, and in the resolutions to these conflicts. But beneath the diversity within the dramatic framework of the plays lies the assertion that the present for black America has been invariably shaped by a history of race-related stolen opportunity and broken relationships, or what Michael Morales calls "a simultaneously reactive/reconstructive engagement with the representation of blacks and the representation of history by the dominant culture" (105). Traditionally in Wilson's plays, the protagonist's personal past is the lens through which the present situation is seen. In The Piano Lesson, however, Wilson traces the play's historical complications back three generations, to an incident in the family's slave legacy that has left them to face the present in terms of a history that, seventy-five years later, is not just personal, but communal and familial.

The action of the play is driven by conflict over how best to engage history - as iconographically centered mythology, which would celebrate the events of the past, or as foundation for the present, which would seek to fulfill its promise. The fulcrum of the conflict is the piano. Boy Willie, the great-grandson of the slave whose art graces the piano, has come north to Pittsburgh to claim his half of the piano, which is currently in the possession of his sister, Berniece. He is a ruffian, and feels that the proceeds from the sale of the piano offer him his best chance to escape the economic and social oppression that has burdened the men in his family since slavery. His dream of escape is blunted, however, by Berniece's unwillingness to sell what is, for her, a sacred icon of the family's sacrificial legacy. Throughout the play, then, the piano becomes a touchstone by which antithetical attitudes about the past may be evaluated (Pereira 90). The result is that Wilson has redefined the frustration of carrying the burden of the past, which is at the center of his other plays, into a question of how best to utilize the past. He told an interviewer, "The real issue is the piano, the legacy. How are you going to use it?" (DeVries 25).

This question is brought into focus at the point where Doaker - Boy Willie and Berniece's uncle - tells Boy Willie's friend Lyman the reason that Berniece refuses to sell the piano (40-46). He relates the story of his grandfather's carvings on the piano in a tale so imbued with rich images of bondage, acceptance, and retribution that it seems to have been handed down, father-to-son, detail-by-detail, since the time of its origin. It is, in other words, the family's slave narrative. For Boy Willie, however, the dynamic of enslavement is not just a product of oral tradition; the events of his own life constitute, in his mind, a second, metaphorical, enslavement - economic, not physical - from which he attempts a desperate flight to freedom through the acquisition of James Sutter's land, upon which his family had worked as slaves, and which would offer him, for the first time in his life, a substantial degree of achievement and self-realization. Arnold Rampersad identifies such a pursuit of self-realization as an inherent feature of the slave narrative (105), so that the play itself comes to constitute a broader, metaphorical slave narrative, one being lived out by Boy Willie as he searches for economic freedom.

The structure of the play, then, is a narrative within a narrative, a literal slave narrative integrated into a metaphorical one, with the latter (Boy Willie's narrative) reflecting both a continuation of and an attempt to bring to fruition the former one (the family's). …

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