August Wilson was born poor into a family of seven in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Due to the intense racism, he left school at age sixteen, opting to educate himself independently at the city library. While working a variety of jobs, Wilson began to write, eventually founding, in 1968, the Black Horizon on the Hill theater company. It was not until 1978, however, when he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, that Wilson began to produce mature dramas. His first piece, Jitney, a tale of a group of workers and travelers in a taxi station, was well-received locally and praised especially for its experiments in black urban speech. Fullerton Street, however, Wilson's subsequent play, brought no comparable success. Wilson turned to an unfinished project that would prove to be his breakthrough.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which concerns a black blues singer who takes advantage of a group of musician in a recording studio and their various experiences with racism, eventually brought Wilson to the Yale Reparatory Theater and then to Broadway in 1984. Ma Rainey also enabled Wilson to make contact with Yale Reparatory director Lloyd Richards, who has continued to collaborate with Wilson on his productions. Wilson then wrote his Pulitizer-winning Fences, in which a former star athlete forbids his son from following his path and accepting an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which tells of an ex-convict's search for his wife upon his release from prison. In 1990, Wilson won his second Pulitzer with The Piano Lesson. His more recent work includes Two Trains Running (1992), which concerns a diner on the verge of being torn down, and Seven Guitars (1995), Wilson's homage to Blues guitarist Floyd Barton.
The Piano Lesson concerns the struggle of two siblings over a precious family heirloom, a piano carved with images of their African ancestors and crafted their enslaved grandfather. The Great Depression serves as the historical backdrop to the play as well as black migration during this period from south to north. Such migration increased steadily until stabilizing in the 1930s and creating new black communities that would be devastated by the economic ruin. Wilson took inspiration for the play from a Romare Bearden painting by the same name, seeing in its scene of a teacher and student an allegory for how African Americans must learn to negotiate their history. As critic Sandra Shannon explains, Wilson formulated two thematic questions to address in his work: "What do you do with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use?" (The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, 146).
In a sense, Wilson's entire body of work concerns itself with analogous questions. Not only do his plays emerge from meticulous research into the dialect and everyday life of its given eras, but they also raise issues of history, history's representation, memory, and legacy as their primary sources of conflict. It is important to note The Piano Lesson is part of Wilson's projected ten-play cycle on African American history, written in a moment when he appeared especially concerned with what he identified as the "foreign" representations of African American experience that dominated the mass media of the 1980s. The Cosby Show provides an obvious example.
The importance of such counter-representations of history notwithstanding, one may hear, in Wilson's call to represent African American history in "non-foreign" fashion, the echoes of a cultural nationalism that characterizes his earliest work.
Take a Study Break!