August Wilson

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August Wilson asks, "What does a man owe to his family, and how much can a man...permit himself to ignore duty in order to pursue more self-interested objectives?" What is our responsibility to ourselves versus to families and society?

In August Wilson’s plays, a man is often torn between fulfilling his duty to family and pursuing self-interested objectives. Two works in which Wilson develops these themes are The Piano Lesson and Jitney. In The Piano Lesson, Boy Willie places his goals first but claims he is acting out of concern for family. In Jitney, Booster’s selfishness contributes to his conflict with his father, Becker, but the son ultimately regains a sense of family duty.

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August Wilson’s plays often center on conflicts within families that include different characters’ ideas about what their duty to family entails. His characters may fail to see that they are acting out of self-interest and assume that others share their goals. The character of Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson tends to look at the world that way. His efforts to convince his sister Bereniece that he knows best about the use of a family heirloom threaten to tear the family apart.

In other plays, such as Jitney, a serious rift has already developed before the plays action starts. The character of Booster, who has been incarcerated, has caused his father, Becker, so much pain that Becker has broken off contact with his son.

The Piano Lesson develops themes of duty and responsibility to family through Boy Willie and Berniece’s different attitudes toward a piano that symbolizes the family’s ancestry as enslaved people. For Boy Willie, the land the family worked is more important, and he expects to get his own way by selling the piano. Berniece understands the symbolic value of the object itself and resists her brother’s domineering ways.

In Jitney, both Booster and Becker can be seen as more selfish than family oriented. Becker rejects his son because he is disappointed by his behavior and its results: not only was he imprisoned, but he broke his mother’s heart, which Becker believes led to her death. Only after his father passes can Booster see the true value of family and can devote himself to continuing the family business.

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