Seattle Rep’s ‘The Piano Lesson’


Posted by Linda J.

Playwright August Wilson (who died in Seattle in 2005) won his second Pulitzer for drama with The Piano Lesson, one of 10 plays in The Pittsburgh Cycle. Each play in the cycle focuses on a different decade of the African American experience during the 20th century. The Piano Lesson, set in the 1930s, previews next Friday, January 16, at Seattle Repertory Theatre.  

One of the things I love most about my job is when a research project opens a new doorway, and one thing leads to another … and another.  Such was the case when, after reading The Piano Lesson,  I began working on a list of books and music to complement seeing the play at The Rep. I looked for writers, songs and experiences that inspired Wilson and that might bring insight into his work. I didn’t have to look far to understand more about Wilson: like many of my favorite writers, he wrote and spoke often about the creative process and credited others with shaping the artist he became. And like the writer he was, the way he phrased it is memorable:

“My influences have been what I call my four Bs — the primary one being the blues, then Borges, Baraka, and Bearden,” Wilson said in The Paris Review in an interview by Bonnie Lyons and George Plimpton (Winter 1999). From Borges he mentions gaucho stories; from Amiri Baraka that “all art is political.” I was particularly taken with what he said about Bearden: “From Romare Bearden I learned that the fullness and richness of everyday ritual life can be rendered without compromise or sentimentality.”

That line led me to the 8th floor art department in the Central Library where I looked through a reference copy of The Art of Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual, the very book that Wilson mentioned. I checked out and brought home Romare Bearden, His Life & Art by Myron Schwarzman, resisting my natural urge to first look for a specific painting Wilson mentions in that Paris Review article. Instead, with the luxury of time on an afternoon off, I pored over the book until I came to “Harlem Woman Bathing in Her Kitchen,” with Wilson’s words in my head: “… through Bearden I realized that you could arrive at the universal through the specific.” Lovely.

To his four Bs Wilson added Ed Bullins and James Baldwin. I could spend the rest of this post pulling out favorite insights from that Paris Review article, but there are so many, many nuggets to love that I will just urge you to read it for yourself.

Now, drop everything, grab your headphones and watch/listen to this video of “Berta, Berta,” a prison work song Wilson wrote for The Piano Lesson. This recording is at radio station WNYC, and it blows me away every time I hear it.

I absolutely cannot wait to hear it and see The Piano Lesson on stage here in Seattle. For more books, music and DVDs to enhance your immersion into Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, please see this Beyond the Theatre listwhich includes Wilson’s four Bs (plus Baldwin and Bullins), and a link to a free download of the song “Berta, Berta.”

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