August Wilson is an award winning American playwright who lived between 1945 and 2005. He wrote plays portraying the experiences of African-Americans. Two of his plays, Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s come and gone, will be analyzed in this essay. The essay will examine how the playwright has stressed plot, setting, characterization, and how symbolism brings out the theme of identity. It will also analyze the use of songs as a literal element.
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The Piano lesson depicts two children’s disagreement over an old, family musical instrument. Willie wants to sell it but Bernice is adamant. Wilson gives each protagonist enough tactics to counter the other. For example, when it appears like Boy Willie has swayed Bernice with his argument, the latter presents a counter argument that women have been the recipients of pain all through history. If the piano should be sold, she will be the one to suffer not Willie (Herrington 17).
The debate structure is interwoven in songs. Willie sings that he wants to sell the piano (his heritage) so as to buy Sutter’s land (a symbol of capitalism) to which Bernice responds that it will not happen. One individual renders a verse and a chorus and allows the other to react. Herrington notes that this interchange serves as a cliffhanger to the reader and develops the plot leading to the climax where the two sing the same song as a sign of consensus (21).
Wilson has also employed songs to stress the plot in Turner’s come and gone, but with dance this time. It is in the way he has created characters that emphasize the plot. Loomis, the protagonist, is a man with no identity. Religion is at the core of his internal conflict. In African culture, songs and dances are a way to connect with the ancestors.
When Bynum- another character in the play- mentions Joe Turner in a song, Loomis internal conflict intensifies. Turner was a fictitious character in songs that chain-ganged African-Americans. He represented oppression to the black community. Bynum offers to help Loomis in the odyssey for identity. This identity crisis is what holds the play together by developing the plot (Pereira 36).
Piano lesson is set in Charles’ house and the play unfolds in the kitchen and the living room. Anderson argues that the staircase connecting the two rooms is metaphorical (438). Sutter’s ghost is always sighted at the top of the stairs. Considering that Sutter is a former slave owner, it maybe said that the ghost represents the looming power of whites over black.
The fact that Willie fights so hard to go upstairs symbolizes his determination to achieve a status similar to that of whites. In Turner’s come and gone, the play is set in Seth Holly’s boarding house. It is a black neighborhood representing alienation of the black community.
The characters used in the two plays are predominantly black. Herald Loomis is the major character in Turner’s come and gone. Having wasted his seven years in a chain gang, he is keen to find his wife Martha who left as soon as he was chained. He arrives in the boarding house a diminished man, accompanied by his daughter.
Bynum Walker, an occupant of the boarding house too, identifies that Loomis appeared rootless. He sets to help him discover himself. A character that deserves specific mention is Rutherford Selig. The only white man in the play, he helps Loomis find Martha. It is ironical that a man who was looking for runaway slaves and handing them back to their masters is the same man who will contribute to the unification of the Negroes who have lost each other (Anderson 437).
In Piano lesson, Wilson has decided to use two siblings, Bernice and Boy Willie Charlie. At the center of the conflict is the family’s piano which Willie wants to sell and buy Sutter’s land. The piano is a symbol of the African-American heritage and history. The Sutter’s land represents capitalism. Herrington observes that Sutter’s ghost represents the white’s power while Charlie’s family ghost represents the stories and spirituality of the family (22).
The theme of identity search, brought out through symbolism, runs through the two plays. In Turner’s come and gone, Loomis arrives in the boarding house a vanquished man. Seven years of his life had been wasted in a chain gang. In the same period, he had lost his wife who ran away. His departure to look for his wife is symbolic of a rootless man who is looking for connectedness. When he finds his wife, he experiences a temporary feeling of identify.
Bynum Walker, a root worker who also occupies the boarding house diagnosis him as a man trying to remember a song he knew. The song referred to by Bynum pontificates the symbolism of identity crisis (Pereira 23). Loomis is a black man who can not distinguish which religion to profess. To denounce Christianity, and establish his true identity, he tears his skin with a knife. This way, he sheds blood and saves himself like Jesus did for Christians.
The theme of identity crisis recurs in piano lesson. The protagonists’ conflict is about an object that symbolizes the family’s heritage and history. When Willie wants to sell the piano, he metaphorically wishes to do away with a family treasure, a symbol of heritage.
And when he gives the justification as plans to own a land formerly occupied by a white master, he signifies a desire to take up the white’s man way of life. At the end of the play, Charlie’s family ghosts intervene to save the situation. Finally, the African heritage triumphs in that in that the piano is not sold. (Anderson 439).
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The literal element that stands out is the use of songs. Wilson recognizes the effectiveness of songs in connecting with the ancestors and spirituality. According to Pereira, Songs have been used for two reasons (32). The first is at a symbolic level to show the aspiration of the African-American to discover his identity. The second reason is to make the plays interesting. The piano lesson is built on blues song, while the songs in the Turner’s come and gone incorporates dances.
In summary, the essay has examined how Wilson has stressed the plot, setting, characterization, and themes in the two plays. To stress plot in Piano lesson, Wilson has employed structured debate in form of songs. For setting, the metaphor of the staircase has been very effective.
In characterization, he has used siblings who are at the verge of loosing their heritage. In Turner’s come and gone, songs and dance have been used to stress plot in addition to characters. The theme of identity crisis runs through the two plays and has been emphasized by use of rich symbolism.
Anderson, Douglas. “Saying Goodbye to the Past: Self-Empowerment and History in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.” College Language Association Journal. 40.4 (1997): 432-457. Informaland. Web.
Herrington, Joan. I Ain’t Sorry For Nothin’ I Done: August Wilson’s Process of Playwriting. New York: Limelight, 1998. Print
Pereira, Kim. August Wilson and the African-American Odyssey. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1995. Print