Wilson Reciting “Poem for my Grandfather”
“Who’s this white man,” I said walking past August Wilson. It was 2001 or 2002. I can’t remember the year but it was on Morehouse’s campus. Morehouse College is an HBCU. I found out two years later I walked past the black literary giant August Wilson. He was smoking a cigarette outside King Chapel. There was this look on his face like he knew something awful was about to happen. Had I walked inside King Chapel five minutes later I would’ve seen him talking about his career to an auditorium filled with men in dress shirts and dress pants.
Wilson’s play “The Piano Lesson” debuted at King Chapel the next day. In The Piano Lesson Boy Willie and his sister Berniece argue about selling the family heirloom, a piano. Boy Willie, a sharecropper, wants to sell the piano to buy the land his ancestors worked on as slaves. Berniece wants the piano to remain in the family. Their family history, carved into the piano, shows their great-grandfather, his wife and their son when they were slaves owned by a man named Robert Sutter.
Watching the play on stage was an experience. The characters felt authentic. Wilson’s themes of spirits (Sutter), folklore, and the significance of objects in relation to the past was well executed.
The Piano Lesson @ Yale Repertory Theatre
Two of my favorite scenes are: the men gathered at the kitchen table reminiscing about Parchman Farm (Penitentiary in Mississippi) signing “Berta Berta” an old prison work song and when Doaker explains the piano’s history to Lymon.
Berta Berta Scene The Piano Lesson (Hallmark, 1995)
Doaker Explains the Piano’s History to Lymon:
See, now, to understand why we say that. To understand about that piano. Well, you got to go back to slavery time. See, our family was owned by a fellow named Robert Sutter. Now, that was Sutter’s grandfather. All right. The piano was owned by a fellow named Joe Nolander. Now, he was one of the Nolander brothers from down in Georgia. Now, Miss Ophelia — that was Sutter’s wife’s name – she fancied herself a player of the piano. Having taken it up when she was a little girl. It was coming up on their wedding anniversary. Sutter figured he’d get her this piano for a present. The thing with him Sutter ain’t had no money. But he had some slaves.
Wilson was inspired to write the play after seeing a Romare Bearden painting titled The Piano Lesson. Set in the 1930’s, the play The Piano Lesson is Wilson’s fifth Decade play. The Decade plays (or Pittsburgh Cycle) are set in a different decade to show the Black experience in the 20th century. The cycle includes 10 plays:
- 1900s – Gem of the Ocean (written in 2003)
- 1910s – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (written in 1988)
- 1920s – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984) – set in Chicago
- 1930s – The Piano Lesson (written in 1990) – won the Pulitzer Prize
- 1940s – Seven Guitars (written in 1995)
- 1950s – Fences (written in 1987) – won the Pulitzer Prize
- 1960s – Two Trains Running (written in 1991)
- 1970s – Jitney (written in 1982)
- 1980s – King Hedley II (written in 1999)
- 1990s – Radio Golf (written in 2005)
On October 16, 2005 14 days after Wilson’s death the Virginia Theatre in New York’s Broadway Theatre district was renamed the August Wilson Theatre making it the first Broadway theater to bear the name of an African-American.
True Colors August Wilson Monologue Competition @ the August Wilson Theatre
The Start of Dreams Trailer About the Kenny Leon and August Wilson Monologue Competition
“The Start of Dreams produced by Jennifer Gordon Thompson and directed by The Horne Brothers, is the story of award-winning director Kenny Leon bringing aspiring teenage actors to a Broadway stage in his annual August Wilson Monologue competition. In a new age where Arts Education is considered expendable in a declining economy, Leon is determined to use his celebrity and influence to expose kids across the country to the wonderful world of theatre. Featuring A-list actors like Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Phylicia Rashad, The Start of Dreams is packed with Hollywood’s elite weighing in on this important art form and what it means to humanity.”
Unfortunately The Piano Lesson is the only Wilson play I’ve seen. The next play I want to see is Gem of the Ocean.
If you’re in Hartford, CT you can see the Gem of the Ocean at Hartford Stage May 12th, 2011 – June 5th, 2011 directed by Hana S. Sharif. The theater is offering an Open Captioned Performance a text screen to assist people with varying degrees of hearing loss as well as hearing audience members who might not catch every word during a performance.
- Samuel L. Jackson to make his Broadway debut as MLK (thegrio.com)
- Teen actors in spotlight in August Wilson Monologue Competition (seattletimes.nwsource.com)