Critical Context (Masterplots II: African American Literature)

The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s cycle of ten plays that portray the black experience in America in the twentieth century. The first play in this series was the Tony Award-winning Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984), which dealt with jazz musicians in the 1920’s who were exploited by white entrepreneurs. Fences (pr. 1985), which won a Pulitzer Prize, takes place in the 1950’s and dramatizes the effects of the exclusion of black baseball players from professional baseball. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986) takes place in 1911 and portrays the anguish of those who had fled the enforced labor gangs of the South and suffered the destruction of their families and the tribulations of a migratory existence. Wilson was committed to write a history of African Americans and of how they have been denied participation in American life. Wilson said that African Americans are “leftovers from history,” meaning that when free labor was needed, African Americans were valuable, but as the world moved into the industrial age and the computer age, “we’re no longer needed.” The Piano Lesson is a vivid documentation of history in the process of expelling African Americans and of the African American’s struggle to retain dignity, pride, and personhood by clinging to the symbols of history.