Performing Ancestry: Reading August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson as a Performative Neo-Slave Narrative


Patrick Maley


August Wilson’s work reveals a conviction that strong, productive African-American community must include dead ancestors, especially slaves, and the playwright works towards constructing this community with a consistent stress on performance within his plays. When his characters perform for and with each other in song or ritual they do so in such a way that attempts to invoke and commune with ancestral spirits. This impulse in Wilson aligns his work with the goals of neo-slave narratives, a genre—usually associated almost exclusively with novels—that revisits the conventions of slave narratives in order to examine connections between contemporary and slave communities. Treating Wilson’s plays as dramatic neo-slave narratives opens productive terrain for complicating understandings of both the genre and Wilson’s plays. The neo-slave narrative proves broader and more capacious when expanded beyond novels, and its lens helps contextualize Wilson’s deep investment in ancestral history. The Piano Lesson’s second scene is a powerful microcosm of Wilson’s aesthetic and his neo-slave impulse. The long scene contains at least five distinct performances—self-reflexive mourning, recounting of a spiritual experience, a communal work song, a long narration of family history, and a boogie-woogie blues number—each invoking the past while affecting the social conditions of the present. Here and throughout Wilson’s oeuvre, the playwright’s use of performance to encourage communion between his characters and dead ancestors is an effort to construct a broader, more spiritual African-American community that can support and contribute productively to the social struggle of contemporary black society.

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