American Literature–The Piano Lesson (August Wilson) (Notes on the 1995 Hallmark Film)


"Berta, Berta," Prison Work Song from The Piano Lesson,
Written and Directed by August Wilson

dansato says,
In the play, this is "Berta Berta" [lyrics on pages 833-834 in Literature and Society, 4th edition, full reference below and here] a prison work song the men learned while in Parchman Farm (Penitentiary) in Mississippi. You can hear its roots in the field songs of slaves and in gospel call-and-response, as well as the relation to its distant descendant, rock 'n' roll. Actors: Charles Dutton, Courtney Vance, Carl Gordon, Tommy Hollis. Dir. Lloyd Richards.

Afterwards, hear a short clip of a real prison work song.

(Part Four of August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”)

Setting (place and time):
Pittsburgh, circa 1936
Major Characters (and ages, according to August Wilson):
Boy Willie, 30 (Charles S. Dutton)

Lymon, 29 (Courtney B. Vance)

Doaker, 47 (Carl Gordon)

Berniece, 35 (Alfre Woodard)

Maretha, 11 (Zelda Harris)

Avery, 38 (Tommy Hollis)

Wining Boy, 56 (Lou Myers)

Grace, age not specified, probably slightly older than Boy Willie and Lymon (Rosalyn Coleman)
Characters mentioned in the dialogue but who do not appear on stage or the film:

Papa Boy Charles (Berniece and Boy Willie’s late father and Doaker’s brother, killed in 1911 after stealing the piano from the Sutter family)

Mama Ola (Berniece and Boy Willie’s late mother)

Sutter (the 340-pound man who ended up in the well and is now a “ghost”)

Crawley (Berniece’s late husband, killed after stealing firewood)

Cleotha (Wining Boy’s late wife)
Important characters not appearing on stage (but appear in the Hallmark film in flashbacks):

Papa Boy Willie (Harold Surratt)

Mama Berniece (Elva Branson)

Sutter, the slave owner (Tim Hartman)

Miss Ophelia, slave-owner Sutter’s wife (Lynne Innerst)

Minor characters appearing in the film:

Ace (Tommy Lafitte)

Dolly (? Appeared in a cameo in the movie theater)

Watermelon Lady (Alice Eisner)

Watermelon Man (Ben Tatar)

Nolander (Bob Tracey)
Director/Writer of film version:
August Wilson
Major Themes

--The American Dream versus Tradition

--Race: relationship between blacks and whites (in both South and North)—socio-economic issues

--Freedom (in its many guises--20th century America motifs

--Pre-feminism: relationships between women and men (potential romance?)

--The supernatural/spirituality/organized religion

--Family drama/conflict/relationships

--Stereotypes/inverted stereotypes

--Music (The Blues)

--Cultural legends, lore (the reference to Stagolee, a folk hero), and folktales

--Family stories

Questions for Discussion
What word is missing from the film and why?

What scenes have been added to the film?

What scenes have been deleted from the film?

What is the legend of the Yellow Dog, and how is it depicted in the film?

August Wilson specifies ages for the major characters. In your opinion, did the Hallmark casting director cast these parts to match the ages noted in the play script? Why or why not?
To read the play, see Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, 4th Ed. (Edited by Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen), Upper Saddle River (NJ): Pearson/Prentice Hall, 2007. 808-879.

Questions: # 1-14, pages 877-878

Suggestions for Writing: # 1-4, pages 878-879.

Interesting websites about playwright August Wilson:
Piano Lesson, painting that influenced August Wilson, by Romare Bearden:

August Wilson Website

About August Wilson

Links to Various Readings, Notes, Exercises, Handouts, Prompts, etc.

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