Thursday, February 17, 2011
To the MET’s cast and crew of “The Piano Lesson”
Dear Cast and Crew,
I really enjoyed watching your rehearsal last night and I wish you great success and joy with your preview this evening. As I departed last night, Karen suggested I write something longer than I usually do. My articles tend to be short subjective celebratory pieces about the art, the artists, and the atmosphere art creates to make one feel something. I’m not a critic or a reviewer; we have many people doing that in town.
I have a personal connection with this play. From 1995 to 1997, I taught Reading and Art at the Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center. To connect with my young students, who ranged in age from 8 to 18, I tried to find art (music, literature, paintings, sculpture, dance, theatre, and film) with which they could connect, art we could experience together and sense, art approachable to their sensibilities. Our student body usually consisted of around 100 students on any given day, mostly young men, but always with a team of around 15 women. Six teams which I called classes.
My students taught me that some stories were really interesting and fun. Four stories they loved were Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, Hemingway’s two part short story The Big Two-Hearted River, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.
The Piano Lesson always was a beautiful gold mine to experience the characters and learn so much more. And here was a story with people with whom they could connect and truly understand. We talked about music, took side trips to discuss the musical center-point of Parchman Farm; the birthplace of the blues, the work song poetry, and the sweat of oppression suffering too. Bitter sweet stuff. Students, now in their own child version of Parchman, would literally light up when reading and realizing that all the men in the story were once “residents” (that’s what the county called the children – residents).
The young women loved Berniece and would discuss what it must have been like to be young Maretha. We listened to various forms of piano music together from classical (they liked Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations) to jazz (they thought Herbie Hancock was very good), boogie woogie, and Joplin’s ragtime artistry. We listened to Mississippi John Hurt’s songs, too. Great stuff.
We examined Romare Bearden’s paintings and had a poster of the painting of the same name that inspired Wilson.
We would take a few side trips to Pittsburgh and talk about the steel city. I told them about this young guy, Billy Strayhorn, who as a young boy saved his errand money to buy a piano, how he became a composer in high school, how he practiced real hard and one evening met this guy named Duke Ellington. How Billy wrote this “Take the A Train” song” based on some directions the Duke gave him on a napkin, directions to his New York apartment. How young Billy maybe, just maybe, lived down the street from Berniece, Maretha, and Doaker. How Billy may have impressed Wining Boy with his licks (they’d smile when Wining Boy talked about Kansas City and all the pretty girls there).
From the pages of Wilson’s play, the student’s threw out all these colorful strands of string to places far beyond their heavily secured temporary home. They really loved the film, too. We watched it in bits and then we’d see it all the way through at the after school matinee I’d host.
I met a few budding actors, too. A few did a great Doaker, a passionate Boy Willy, a searching Avery, a touching Lymon, and a strong willful tender Berniece too. A few students memorized memorable lines.
Many of my students had difficulty reading, but together we found ways to hook into the words. This was sweet stuff for reading out loud with challenging authentic colloquial language to give us new vocabulary words, real words they had heard before. A few jarring words too, like “nigger”. My students took me to school on the word many times. One student demonstrated the endearing quality of the sound when he gave me a thank you hug after class and used the word in a thank you expression. I still lose it when thinking of that “teachable moment”.
I started this by mentioning that I have a personal connection with this play, yet out there in Kansas City, there must be around 1000 young people who do as well. I wonder where they are? Are they here? Have they heard that The Piano Lesson’s back in town, or rather this is the Kansas City premiere of the play?
I’ve loved this play for years and last night I saw it for the first time, for real. Saw the water fly, smelled Doaker’s cooking, saw Wining Boy play the piano, and looked closely for Sutter’s ghost up the stairs. My fellow young scholars were with me in that theatre last night. I could feel them, stronger than Sutter. You made me feel them. Although the pews only hold 99, there where ten times as many watching, listening.
One final lesson they taught me over the course of teaching this play a few times… They taught me that this story is universal. They taught me that a kid from Philly with Irish, French, Sicilian, Italian and German cultural roots can connect with this play too. We all have family pianos in one form or another.
You all are a family now and you showed that to me last night. I really want to see you again at the tail end of your fun run because I know I’ll see more special things. You took me somewhere and that power of transportation is more powerful then those trains Doaker talked about. Your train is a time machine, a rocket ship to the heart, a memory well, when you allow yourself to fall into it, from which you emerge refreshed and new.
Thanks for the trip, everyone.
PS...pictured above, The Piano Lesson by Romare Bearden