The Piano Lesson by August Wilson

The lesson is cited from The NYTimes Learning Network

Overview of Lesson Plan: In this lesson, students will examine Wilson’s 10-play series in which each play focuses on a particular decade. They then speculate on possible plots for an eleventh play, set in the 21st century.

Suggested Time Allowance: 1 hour

Students will:
1. Examine the life and accomplishments of August Wilson.
2. Consider the meaning of August Wilson’s play, “Radio Golf,” by reading and discussing the article, “In the Rush to Progress, the Past Is Never Too Far Behind.”
3. Research and create Playbills or programs for plays in the Pittsburgh cycle.
4. Write proposals for what might have been August Wilson’s eleventh play in the Pittsburgh cycle, set in the 21st century.

Resources / Materials:
-access to the video “August Wilson: 1945-2005″ ( or copies of a biography of August Wilson, found online at Dartmouth University (, at The August Wilson Center for African American Culture (, and at Book Rags (
-classroom board
-copies of “In the Rush to Progress, the Past Is Never Too Far Behind” found online at per student)
-resources about August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays (literature textbooks, encyclopedias, literary criticism resources, computers with Internet access, etc.)
-examples of Playbills or programs for theatrical performances (enough for students to share
-markers (enough for students to share)
-glue and scissors (optional)

Activities / Procedures:
1. WARM-UP/DO-NOW: Direct students to watch “August Wilson: 1945-2005,” a video celebrating August Wilson’s life and accomplishments. If the appropriate technology isn’t available, students can read a printed or copied biography. Biographies of Mr. Wilson can be found online at Dartmouth University (, at The August Wilson Center for African American Culture (, and at Book Rags (
As a class, discuss the following questions:
-Who is August Wilson?
-Why is he considered an important playwright?
-What subjects and themes does his work embody?
-Before today, have you ever heard of Mr. Wilson? Have you seen any of his work?
2. As a class, read and discuss the article “In the Rush to Progress, the Past Is Never Too Far Behind” (, focusing on the following questions:
a. What is “Radio Golf”?
b. What characterizes it?
c. What do you think August Wilson was trying to accomplish by creating his 10-play cycle?
d. How does August Wilson use popular culture to make his point in “Fences”?
e. How does the storyline of tearing down a house to make way for a new apartment and shopping complex illustrate today’s reality?
f. How has Mr. Wilson linked “Fences” with his other work?
g. What does Mr. Wilson consider to be a danger of assimilation?
h. Based on your experiences, what do you believe are the dangers of assimilation? What might be the benefits?
i. What is “blindeyetis”?
j. According to the author of the review, what makes the play’s characters boring? Why?
k. What does the quotation “It was raining. I thought she was gonna melt. The rain looked like it hurt her. Like the two wasn’t supposed to go together” mean to you?
3. Divide students into ten small groups. Explain that groups will be researching Mr. Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle of plays to examine how they explore the African-American experience. Students will also determine how these works relate to one another. Ask groups to compile their findings into a Playbill or program for their respective performances. Assign each group a play, from the Pittsburgh cycle, such as “Gem of the Ocean,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “Ma Rainy’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Two Trains Running,” “Jitney,” “King Hedley II,” and “Radio Golf.” A concise description of each play in the Pittsburgh cycle can be found on The August Wilson Center for African-American Culture’s Web site,
To guide their research, students should consider the following questions (written on the board or copied into a handout for easier student access):
-What is the title of this play?
-What is the setting?
-What is the main storyline?
-What is the tone of the play?
-Who are the main characters? Write a brief description of each.
-Which actors performed in the original run of the show?
-What is the play’s major theme? What are the minor themes, if any?
-Why do you think Mr. Wilson wrote this play?
-What do you think audiences learned by watching this play?
-How does this play fit into the Pittsburgh cycle historically and thematically?
-What references are made to other plays in the cycle in terms of plot, characters, setting, tone, etc.?
-What have critics said about the play? (Be sure to get both positive and negative comments.)
Once research is complete, groups work together to create Playbills or programs celebrating the play that they researched. Encourage students to use copies of photographs, symbols, or other images representative of the themes, actions, and settings of their respective plays. Images of the plays can be found online at The New York Times Arts slideshow Ask groups to display titles prominently on their work.
During the last five minutes of class, groups present their Playbills or programs to the class and discuss the ideas and themes that August Wilson deemed important. How do these concepts apply to today’s society? What can we learn from Mr. Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle? Why do you think Mr. Wilson’s work, particularly “Fences” might be included in so many high school curricula? Finally, students should create a chart on the classroom board illustrating the commonalities between the plays. What characters “cross over” into other plays? What themes are repeated? What connections can be made between decades, experiences, and characters?
Playbills or programs may be displayed in the classroom, school library, or at a local theater.


elegy, melodrama, lament, symphonically, idiosyncratic, Faustian, blot, embodiment, schism, parsed, parlance, populism, imperiled


  1. The Piano Lesson collage by Roman Bearden
  2. “Yellow Dog Blues” by Bessie Smith
  3. “BERTA Berta”
  4. Magical realism by Luis Borges
  5. Great Migration
  6. Rhythm and moods in the play


Lesson 2

Directions: Respond to all the guide questions for Act 1 & 2

Guide Questions Act One, Scene One  

  1. Where and when does the first act open?
  2. Describe boy Willie, Lymon, Doaker Charles, and Berniece (according to the  stage directions). Who is Maretha?
  3. Describe Wining Boy.
  4. Why does Boy Willie want to sell the piano?
  5. Doaker says Berniece will never sell the piano. Why won’t she?
  6. Who is Sutter?
  7. Who is Avery Brown?
  8. Whom does Berniece see upstairs?
  9. How does Boy Willie react?
  10. Who is Crawley? Whom does Berniece blame for Crawley’s death?
  11. Summarize Avery’s dream of the three hobos.
  12. Whom could the three hobos represent?

Act One, Scene Two

  1. Who was Cleotha Holman? How does Wining Boy find out about her death?
  2. How long ago (before the time when the play opens) did the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog get Sutter?
  3. About how many people did the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog get? List some of their names.
  4. For what were Boy Willie and Lymon put in the penitentiary?
  5. According to Wining Boy, what’s the “difference between the colored man and the white man”?
  6. Tell the history of the piano – according to Doaker – from “slavery time”.
  7. Who took the piano?
  8. Who are the “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog”?
  9. Boy Willie justifies his desire for land by appealing to his father’s experience. Explain.
  10. Berniece says, “You killed Crawley just as sure as if you pulled the trigger”. Explain.
  11. How does Boy Willie respond and say that he is not responsible for Crawley’s death?

Act Two

  1. Who was the first person to see Sutter’s ghost?
  2. Berniece says she will talk to Avery about their relationship when what happens?
  3. Why doesn’t Berniece play the piano?
  4. What does Avery promise to do?
  5. What is Lymon looking for in his life?
  6. What does Lymon give to Berniece?
  7. How much can Boy Willie get for the piano?
  8. How does Doaker react when Boy Willie tries to move the piano?
  9. How did the “Yellow Dog” get its name?
  10. Why does Boy Willie want to buy land?
  11. As Boy Willie again starts to move the piano, what does Berniece do?
  12. As Boy Willie rushes upstairs to fight Sutter’s ghost, what does Avery finally say?
  13. What does Berniece do as Boy Willie fights with Sutter’s ghost?
  14. Whom does Berniece call on for help?
  15. How does the play end?

Directions: Select 10 questions out of 32 to respond fully. Provide evidence to support your claims.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is the importance of music in the play?
  2. What is that musical genre called the blues?
  3. Is the awful experience of the “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” unusual in the 1930s  south?
  4. What brought Berniece and Doaker from Mississippi to Pittsburgh?
  5. What were the southern justice and prison systems like in the South typified by Parchman Farm?
  6. What is the significance and symbolism of Sutter’s ghost?
  7. What kind of art existed in Africa and served as a model for art among early slaves?
  8. What kind of character is Boy Willie? Does he bear any resemblance to that notorious character of song and story – Staggerlee?
  9. Describe the railroad system in the 1930s.
  10. How important was the railroad as a mode of transportation in the 1930s?
  11. Was Doaker Charles unusual as a black man working for the railroad?
  12. Describe the African American Church in the 1930s. Was Avery an unusual example of a preacher in the Church?
  13. Describe some aspects of the experience of slavery especially examining the practice of breaking up families at the whim of the master.
  14. Who do you think is really pushing those (white) people down their wells? How common was the spirit of rebellion among slaves?
  15. What forms might the spirit of rebellion take among slaves?
  16. Describe the symbolism of the piano and justify your description with quotes from the play, as well as with August Wilson’s statements regarding the piano.
  17. Describe Wining Boy and give a picture of the recording of that time.
  18. What was the accepted role of women, especially African American women in the 1930s in the North? In the South?
  19. How does the use of flashbacks establish continuity in the play especially with reference to the Charles family?
  20. Describe the background of the situation when Crawley got killed. What kind of backdrop is assumed but never stated in that confrontation.
  21. Berniece talks about the men’s use of violence and its effects. Is she correct? Why or why not?
  22. What is a work song? Give some examples. How were they used in the 1930s?
  23. What is an allegory? What are the elements of allegory in the play?
  24. What was the Great Depression? What impact did the Great Depression have on the characters in the play?
  25. Who was August Wilson? Did he fill the role of a griot?
  26. What was life like for blacks in the South in the 1930’s?
  27. What was life like for blacks in the cities of the North during the 1930’s?
  28. The North won the Civil War. What was life like for blacks in the South immediately after the Civil War?
  29. What was the experience of racism for blacks in the South in the 1930’s?
  30. What was the experience of racism for blacks in the North in the 1930’s?
  31. Is there racism today? How is it manifested?
  32. What are the lingering effects of generations of oppression among blacks today?

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