The Piano Lesson
August Wilson was born Fredrick August Kittle on April 27, 1945. His parents were Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant, and Daisy Wilson, an African-American woman, who migrated to Pittsburgh from North Carolina. The playwright never saw much of his father growing up. He was mostly raised by his mother in an apartment with no hot water in Pittsburgh's Hill District, a mostly black neighborhood. When he was twenty, August Wilson officially became August Wilson. He ditched his absent father's name altogether, aligning himself more with his mother and their African-American heritage.
Wilson faced lots of racial discrimination in school. This reached a peak in high school when Wilson was accused of plagiarism. He'd written an excellent twenty-page paper on Napoleon. However, the teacher didn't believe that a black person could write so well and called him a cheater. When the principal backed her up, Wilson dropped out of school. He continued to educate himself in the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. It looks like he did a pretty good job of it, too. Not too long afterward, he became one of the greatest American playwrights of all time.
Though Wilson began his writing career as a poet, he was attracted to the theatre. Along with his friend, Rob Penny, he founded Black Horizons, a theatre company in Pittsburgh. Later on, Wilson's play, Jitney, got him accepted to the Playwright's Center in Minneapolis. It was there that he first started to think of himself as playwright instead of a poet. A few years later he found himself at the O'Neill Playwrights Conference with his play, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. There he met the director Lloyd Richards, an African-American man who just so happened to be dean of Yale's Drama School as well as the Artistic Director of the highly influential Yale Repertory Theatre. From there, Wilson's career was made. Richards premiered lots of Wilson's plays at the Yale Rep and also directed Wilson's first six plays on Broadway.
August Wilson is most famous for his ten-play cycle that chronicles the African-American experience in the twentieth century. This set of plays is sometimes called the Pittsburgh Cycle, since all but one (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) is set in Wilson's hometown. This cycle is widely considered to be one of the most significant contributions to American drama. Its plays have won just about every award a play can win. These honors include eight New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, a Tony Award, and two Pulitzer Prizes.
The Piano Lesson won August Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in 1990. He received his first Pulitzer in 1987 for Fences. (For more on that play, check out our Shmoop guide.) Like Fences and many of Wilson's plays, The Piano Lesson premiered at Yale Rep and was directed by Lloyd Richards. The play opened on Broadway in 1989, the same year as the Yale Rep production. It starred Charles S. Dutton as Boy Willie and Epatha Merkerson as Berniece (source).
The Piano Lesson wrestles with the problem of what African Americans can best do with their cultural heritage. It seems to ask the question of how best to put history to use. August Wilson has been quoted as saying, "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents. They shielded us from the indignities they suffered" (source). He saw this as problem. Wilson felt that it was important for African Americans to be aware of their past, even if many parts of it were filled with struggle. The Piano Lesson is a parable of sorts that expresses the idea that African Americans must embrace where they've come from before they will truly be able to move forward. Though he died too early on October 2, 2005 of liver cancer, August Wilson's talent and wisdom lives on his amazing plays.
Why Should I Care?
Don't think that just because The Piano Lesson is set back in day that it doesn't have anything to do with today. The play brings to light issues of race that still affect the America today. We've come a long way since 1937, when the play is set, and a really long way since the time of slavery. But still it will take a lot more work for America to truly heal from its past of racial intolerance.
The Piano Lesson highlights the idea that African Americans should be aware of their history, even the negative parts, if they hope to build a positive future. The playwright, August Wilson, felt that it was important for his fellow African Americans to make use of their cultural heritage and draw strength and unity from it.
We feel all people can learn from the message of The Piano Lesson. We all have a cultural heritage. We all come from somewhere. We all can draw strength from a knowledge of our own history, including the difficult parts, and from a knowledge of each other. Even if you're not African American, there's something to gain from The Piano Lesson. And the best thing about the play is that it teaches through a funny, suspenseful, poetic story that will keep you on the edge of your seat.