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

The preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life

August Wilson1

August Wilson considered remembering the struggles and triumphs of black American history stretching back into slavery of paramount importance to African-American community. He declared, “I stand myself and my art squarely on the self-defining ground of the slave quarters, and find the ground to be hallowed and made fertile by the blood and bones of the men and women who can be described as warriors on the cultural battlefield that affirmed their self-worth.”2 The playwright said frequently that his own cultural history began with the initial arrival on American soil of American slaves, and he dedicated the performative power of his art to wrestling with how the complex legacy of that history influences black American community. His work in fact reveals a conviction that strong, productive African-American community must include dead ancestors, especially slaves, and he works toward constructing this community with a consistent stress on performance. 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. His plays attempt to do the same in theatres during performance. This impulse in Wilson aligns his work with the goals of neo-slave narratives, a genre that revisits the conventions of slave narratives in order to examine connections between contemporary and slave communities. Theorists associate the neo-slave narrative almost exclusively with novels, but Wilson demonstrates how conceptions of the form can benefit from serious consideration of drama. [End Page 59]

The neo-slave narrative prioritizes historical and aesthetic community. By depicting slavery and its legacy in contemporary literature, neo-slave narratives reveal an investment in exploring the connections between contemporary cultures and their slave ancestors. But that connection is not simply linear. Instead, neo-slave narratives posit an immediacy of the slave experience upon the contemporary landscape. Ultimately, neo-slave narratives seek to close the historical and cultural gap between their epochs and slavery, suggesting that enslaved Africans in America constitute an indispensable component of African-American community. Neo-slave narratives therefore seek fuller understanding of American black life and a more productive conception of contemporary community that includes the presence of historical forebears.

Since Bernard W. Bell coined the term in a study of novels, the critical tradition has identified neo-slave narratives primarily in fiction. When prominent critics like Bell, Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, Valerie Smith, and others discuss neo-slave narratives, they refer almost exclusively to novels from the mid-sixties through today that redeploy conventions of the slave narrative genre originating in the late eighteenth century. Examining novels like Margaret Walker’s Jubilee (1966), Alex Haley’s Roots (1976), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), among others, theorists explore how contemporary authors appropriate and reinvigorate a historical form in order to examine African-American community and critique the condition of contemporary black subjectivity.

Among contemporary scholarship on the genre, besides Arlene R. Keizer’s interest in Derek Walcott, drama garners very little attention as neo-slave narrative.3 This could be because Bell’s originary conceptualization of the form comes within a study of novels, or because theorists are most interested in how contemporary novels emulate the form as well as the function of the slave narrative, or simply because the very notion of narrative presupposes certain generic constrictions. But certainly the concept of contemporary literature revisiting the conventions of the slave narrative invites exploration of a variety of forms. Even Rushdy leaves room for generic flexibility when defining the neo-slave narrative: “Neo-slave narratives are modern or contemporary fictional works substantially concerned with depicting the experience of the effects of New World slavery” (my emphasis).4 In his choice of the term fictional [End Page 60] works rather than novels or stories or something similar, Rushdy betrays an awareness that contemporary literary engagement with the effects of New World slavery can come in a range of genres.

Lack of attention to African-American drama is thus a lacuna in the theorization of neo-slave narratives that should be filled. If we consider the goal of the neo-slave narrative to commune with and reinvestigate the social, existential, and political concerns of slave narratives’ authors, rather than only to emulate the earlier genre’s form, we can see how African-American dramatists have been writing with a view to engaging that ancestral history in active dialogue. This is especially true of Wilson, who considered himself and his black American community not “African Americans” but rather the perpetually othered “Africans in America.” He reveals his understanding of his ancestry at the opening of his memoir, the monologue play How I Learned What I Learned, by identifying the moment enslaved Africans first reached what would become America as the root of his lineage. In his American Century Cycle, Wilson examines how twentieth-century black life creates a community of Africans in America stretching from the early seventeenth century to the 1990s; as the above epigraph demonstrates, Wilson considered the cultivation of this historical community paramount to black identity in America. As Harry Elam recognizes, “Wilson’s history cycle reveals an African American continuum that is always in process, stretching back into Africa and reaching into the future.”5 At bottom, Wilson and his characters seek to commune with their slave ancestors in order to understand their own social conditions, paradoxically seeking peace in the present through embracing pain from the past. Wilson shares this guiding philosophy with authors of more traditionally conceived neo-slave narratives and also dedicates himself to similar political ideals. Both Bell and Rushdy argue that the neo-slave narrative emerged amid the movements of Black Power and Black Nationalism; Wilson embraced both: “I still consider myself a Black Nationalist. That’s what I call myself. At the advent of the Black Power movement of the sixties, I began to see that blacks were looking for ways to alter their relationship to this society and to alter the shared expectations of themselves as a people. I felt it a duty and an honor to participate.”6 This is an author steeped in the same aesthetic, historical, and political concerns as authors of neo-slave narratives. [End Page 61]

Examining Wilson’s contribution to the neo-slave narrative aesthetic thus fruitfully broadens the terrain of the genre. Drama, especially Wilson’s work, traffics in the oral, the musical, and the performative. Bell’s originary definition of the form cites remnants of non-literate slave narratives as constitutive of the form, calling neo-slave narratives “residually oral, modern narratives of escape from bondage to freedom.”7 This could very well be a definition of Wilson’s oeuvre. The bondage from which Wilson’s characters seek freedom is a complex amalgam of oppression, imposed identity, selfish individualism, and dangerous assimilation, all reinforced by white power structure. Wilson’s Cycle explores how that bondage can be productively thrown off. Among the playwright’s guiding blues sensibilities and his prominent griot characters exists a stress on the performance, musicality, and orality he considered essential to black identity crafting. Wilson’s neo-slave narrative, then, is more about process than form, using performance to engender dialogue with his slave ancestors in order to reinvestigate the contemporary landscape.

Individually and collectively, Wilson’s plays constitute a performative neo-slave narrative, one that converses with slavery in order to give shape to the struggle for escape from racial bondage. His black characters exist in the inhospitable terrain of America while struggling to identify with their African-American community as well as their slave ancestors. But as the timeline of Wilson’s Cycle advances, the echo of slavery dwindles. The Middle Passage, slavery, and the Underground Railroad are central to the collective consciousness of Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, but Radio Golf’s 1990s characters drift dangerously close to assimilation with white culture while struggling to embrace the wisdom of their griot, Elder Joseph Barlow. One prominent element of the narrative arc of Wilson’s Cycle is therefore Africans in America’s growing distance from their slave roots. While moving away from the memories of a painful past might seem desirable, it is for Wilson a deeply troubling systematic forgetting of crucial cultural origins. Although Roosevelt Hicks in Radio Golf makes a sound financial decision by allying with the white businessman Bernie Smith, the play condemns him for abandoning his friend and community. Alternatively, although Harmond Wilks likely commits political suicide by siding with black locals against a corporate redevelopment plan, [End Page 62] the conclusion of Radio Golf smiles on his awakening to deep cultural connections. For Harmond, as for many of Wilson’s characters, embracing his cultural genealogy provides spiritual fulfillment.

The narrative of slavery thus allows Wilson to explore in his Cycle the vexed relationship of ex-slaves and their descendants to the cultural legacy of the American slave trade. We should consider the American Century Cycle a neo-slave narrative because it is a performative process of characters working to embrace the ubiquity of slavery’s lasting ramifications and understand their own social positions as shaped by their cultural inheritance. By crafting characters and experiences such as these, Wilson sought to engender greater self-awareness in his characters and his audience. His plays continue this project whenever they are staged because their very fabric is the performative neo-slave narrative. Wilson’s Cycle cultivates black community through greater understanding of the black American experience, one which the plays consider irreducibly entwined with slavery’s legacy. Our understanding of the neo-slave narrative in American literature is significantly enriched by the American Century Cycle, for throughout the Cycle, particularly in performative rituals within the plays, Wilson makes tangible how embracing the persistence of enslavement within the black American experience contributes to a dynamic national and racial identity. The Wilsonian neo-slave narrative, then, is not a reinvestigation of American slavery but an examination of how the society of ex-slaves and their descendants responds to the trauma of slavery. His narrative is one of balancing the urge to move away from slavery and the cultural imperative of embracing its immediacy.

Performance and Ancestral Community in The Piano Lesson

The voyage of Wilson’s Cycle from the transitory pre-modern settings of Gem of the Ocean and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone to the cold, impersonal modernity of King Hedley II and Radio Golf pivots on his 1930s play, The Piano Lesson. By the time the Cycle reaches the 1940s in Seven Guitars, the black community is deeply entwined with capitalist America, but the dangers of this commitment lies at the heart of The Piano Lesson, where both Berniece and Boy Willie struggle either to embrace their cultural [End Page 63] legacy or to move forward without its support. Berniece insists upon the piano’s spirituality but has refused to cultivate those spirits by playing it. Boy Willie wants to build on his past by buying a piece of his family’s ancestral land, but he cannot do so without commodifying his legacy and buying his way into a white-controlled economy.8 At stake is whether or not the Charles family will embrace and dwell with their slave past. Wilson told David Savran that the question that gave him impetus for the play was “Can one acquire a sense of self-worth by denying one’s past?”9 Both Boy Willie and Berniece have complex relationships to their past, much of which revolves around the piano that comes to reify the identity crisis of Wilson’s black Americans. Throughout the Cycle, his characters are consistently torn between forces of modernization and assimilation on the one hand, or, on the other, the sort of cultural consciousness that brings with it painful, potentially debilitating memories.

The Piano Lesson is the play that most fully exploits Wilson’s conception of history as performative, vivifying the struggle between moving toward or away from slavery in one remarkable scene at its center. Its second scene contains many performative structures that contribute to the neo-slave dynamics of Wilson’s Cycle. The scene includes at least five distinct types of performative orality—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. In this long scene, Wilson explores strategies for his Africans in America to respond to their social conditions. All are performative and seek to commune with the characters’ ancestors and ancestral struggles. Arguing that “Wilson (w)rights history through performative rites that pull the action out of time or even ritualize time in order to change the power and potentialities of the now,” Elam underscores the operative importance of Wilson’s performativity.10 Here and throughout the Cycle, performance approximates séance. As Elam recognizes, Wilson’s performative interludes take the action of the play outside time and the characters outside the rigid constraints of realist drama, ritualizing the scene in such a way to summon ghosts of African-American history to the stage. This Piano Lesson scene serves as a microcosm of the Cycle’s performative neo-slave narrative. In the face [End Page 64] of persistent hardship, the characters turn to each other and their shared past through performance in order to cope more effectively with current struggles.

The scene begins as the past asserts itself upon the present: Wining Boy, who for years has not been to his brother Doaker’s house, arrives between scenes one and two, opening the scene discovered on stage, mid-conversation. This staging recalls the play’s beginning. There, Boy Willie unexpectedly arrives at his uncle Doaker’s house after a long absence, forcefully thrusting himself into the domestic sphere shared by Doaker, Berniece, and Berniece’s young daughter Maretha. Paradoxically, both unexpected arrivals rupture the domestic sphere by filling it out. Despite Boy Willie’s and Wining Boy’s arrivals causing tension in Doaker’s home, the surviving members of the Charles family are now under one roof. Through their long absences from Doaker’s house—the de facto family center thanks to the presence of three family members and the piano—Boy Willie and Wining Boy establish themselves as remnants from the past; their presence forces the family to gaze backward.

Wining Boy soon reveals his own vulnerability to the past when discussing his deceased wife from whom he was estranged. “You know Cleotha died,” he says unprompted, suggesting a preoccupation that must be indulged.11 Doaker has heard, but Wining Boy commences to read the letter he received letting him know his wife had died while he was living the life of a rambling musician. This is not information that Doaker needs; in fact, during the time Cleotha occupies Wining Boy’s speech, Doaker only delivers three short lines: “Yeah, I heard that last time I was down there. I was sorry to hear that,” he says after Wining Boy announces her death; “Cleotha wasn’t but forty-some,” he says after Wining Boy reads the letter; and he acknowledges “Cleotha always did have a nice way about her” in the midst of Wining Boy’s reflections (34–35).

Certainly Doaker is a taciturn character, but he becomes more loquacious throughout the scene, so his relative silence here signals a respectful awareness that Wining Boy’s story is more about his own performative mourning than it is about communicating information. Wining Boy tells us that he had long since abandoned Cleotha, with her begrudging blessing: [End Page 65]

Much as I loved Cleotha I loved to ramble. Couldn’t nothing keep me still. We got married and we used to fight about it all the time. Then one day she asked me to leave. Told me she loved me before I left. Told me, Wining Boy, you got a home as long as I got mine. And I believe in my heart I always felt that and that kept me safe.


The sweetness of Wining Boy’s remembrance of Cleotha’s tenderness belies his own sense of guilt for abandoning her. “Man that woman was something,” he continues, “I used to thank the Lord. Many a night I stay up and looked out over my life. Said, well, I had Cleotha” (35). Wining Boy here performs a ritualistic mourning for his deceased wife as a means of working through guilt that hounds him.

In this brief section of The Piano Lesson’s second scene, Wilson institutes a central tenet of the play’s dramaturgy. Trauma, whether personal or communal, is best eased through performance. Wining Boy does not pine silently; he performs his struggle for his brother as a means of assuaging suffering. This is not a large-scale social engagement with the characters’ slave ancestry that will happen shortly and come to define the tension of the play, but it signals that a basic function of the play’s characters is to constitute communal engagement with suffering. Doaker seems to understand that he need not say much, but he also understands that his role as audience is crucial to Wining Boy’s grieving. In this play as in the others throughout Wilson’s Cycle, such grief can only be treated through performative expression.

Wining Boy arrives at Doaker’s house enveloped by what seems to be a constant existential grief. He is a wandering musician, inconstant lover, and desperate hustler who finds little peace in his life. In a long speech of self-reflection, he says that in his youth he enjoyed the life of a traveling piano player:

Go to a place and they find out you play piano, the first thing they want to do is give you a drink, find you a piano, and sit you right down. And that’s where you gonna be for the next eight hours. They ain’t gonna let you get up! Now, the first three or four years of that is fun. You can’t get enough whiskey and you can’t get enough women and you don’t never get tired of playing that piano.

(43–44) [End Page 66]

He quickly admits that such a life grows thin: “But that only last so long. You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that’s all you got.” Wining Boy considers this trouble a crisis of identity: “Now, who am I? Am I me? Or am I the piano player?” The piano player has a simple task, one by which Wining Boy has defined himself for years, but he is beginning to wonder if there might be some way to discover more complexity in his identity. “Sometime it seem like the only thing to do is shoot the piano player,” he resolves, “cause he the cause of all the trouble I’m having” (44). Tellingly, the identity Wining Boy considers slaying has a name—“the piano player”—but what would remain is identified only by the nondescript first-person pronoun—“me.” Who Wining Boy is if not a piano player remains unclear even to him.

This is the existential bewilderment that sends Wining Boy to call on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. As Doaker explains in his long exposition about the piano’s history, the five Ghosts are Boy Charles, father to Boy Willie and Berniece, and four hobos who had the misfortune of sharing a Yellow Dog train car with Boy Charles as he tried to escape after stealing the play’s piano from Robert Sutter. The grandfather of Boy Charles, who along with his family was a slave of the Sutter family, carved his family history into the piano owned by Sutter. After Emancipation, the Sutters still owned the piano, a fact that ate away at Boy Charles; according to Doaker, Boy Charles claimed that the piano “was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it. . .he had us. Say we was still in slavery” (47). Boy Charles convinced his brothers Doaker and Wining Boy to help him steal the piano, but after they did, the authorities tracked Boy Charles to a car on the Yellow Dog train and set the car ablaze, killing Boy Charles and the four hobos. In a time of personal crisis, seeking solace from those ghosts, Wining Boy went to the crossroads “where the Southern cross the Yellow Dog and called out their names” (37). He explains that he went out of desperation: “It didn’t look like nothing was going right in my life. I said everything can’t go wrong all the time. . . . Let me go down there and call on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog” (37). As we have seen, the trouble hounding Wining Boy is a crisis of identity; he struggles to understand himself because he has little sense of who he is beyond the piano player. In response, he turns for solace and guidance [End Page 67] to the ghosts of murdered members of his community.12 And it works: “it just filled me up in a strange sort of way to be standing there on that spot. I didn’t want to leave. It felt like the longer I stood there the bigger I got. . . . I walked away from there feeling like a king” (37–38). Wining Boy feels lost in his life and in response he turns to his ancestral community of shared suffering where he finds solace and strength.

Significantly, we do not see Wining Boy’s experience with the Ghosts; rather, we experience his performative retelling of that spiritual encounter. After his story, Boy Willie and Lymon ask eagerly for details:


What they sound like? The wind or something?

Boy Willie:

You done been there for real, Wining Boy? (37)

When Wining Boy obliges these requests, he initiates a rite of performative orality during which he calls on the Ghosts anew. As the four men sit around Doaker’s table sharing drinks and conversation, they talk about troubles they have had and find some solace in their community of four. But Wining Boy’s performance broadens that community to include the Ghosts whose suffering has made them sacred. The legend of the Ghosts makes all five murdered men martyrs, and Wining Boy’s performance at once perpetuates that legend and draws his physical and spiritual communities into closer proximity, providing the downtrodden living the solace of knowing that the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog watch over them. In this moment, communing with ancestral pain invigorates the contemporaneous community.

Wining Boy’s storytelling demonstrates the process of locating strength in the performative, ancestral community that is central to the play’s deployment of neo-slave narrative tropes, but the efficacy of the neo-slave narrative in cultivating that community will be put to the test as the scene progresses. Tension will soon foment division, but the orality of blues and storytelling will salve wounds, attempting to reunite the play’s characters with their cohort of ancestors and remind the men of their place within a cultural continuum. Shortly after Wining Boy’s story, Boy Willie’s plan for buying Sutter’s land provokes derision from Wining Boy, which Boy Willie, angered, returns with defensiveness, and tensions run hot over a variety of issues. Between the threat of an [End Page 68] exploitative financial transaction, the reality of an unequal legal system, and the painful memories of peonage, the men discuss many struggles that plague their black society. The men are still physically united as a community around Doaker’s table, but building friction threatens to divide them along divergent paths toward individual identity, something which Wilson’s work treats as a disastrous response to white oppression.

Fingering the Jagged Grain: Blues, Performance, and Healing

In the play’s most stirring sequence, the four men reinvigorate their community through performative recalling of ancestral struggle in song. This moment of musical orality exemplifies Wilson’s deployment of the neo-slave narrative’s recuperative strategies. The men sing about the Parchman prison farm, recalling painful shared memories specifically to create a counter discourse demonstrating that despite their peonage and its aftermath they retain a full, complex humanity. After teasing Lymon about his inadequacy as a water boy while on Parchman Farm, Boy Willie unexpectedly and without prompting begins to sing: “They had Lymon down there singing. (singing:) O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah / O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well.” After these opening two lines of the song, the stage direction tells us “Lymon and Wining Boy join in.” Doaker is a bit more reticent, but after one verse and some encouragement by Boy Willie—“come on, Doaker. Doaker know this one”—he too joins the song, whereupon the stage direction tells us “As Doaker joins in the men stamp and clap to keep time. They sing in harmony with great fervor and style” (41–42). The song goes on for another two verses and three choruses, building in intensity as it progresses. In the play’s acclaimed 2012 production at New York’s Signature Theatre directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, the four actors (Chuck Cooper, Brandon J. Dirden, Jason Dirden, and James A. Williams) stomped their feet, slapped their thighs, drummed the table, clinked their glasses and the whiskey bottle, all in an effort to make the song more boisterous and ebullient. The tune is a work song ruing the narrator’s confinement to Parchman while his lover is free: “Berta in Meridian and she living at ease well / I’m on old Parchman, got to work or leave” (42). All these men know the pain of working on Parchman, but all have survived and been released. Nonetheless, they sing [End Page 69] together and with great vigor about the physical and emotional drudgery of the farm. The performance tradition for the end of the song (there is no stage direction dictating it, but directors regularly uphold it) exemplifies the healing effect the song has on the community: during the final chorus, Wining Boy, Lymon, and Boy Willie fade out their singing and leave the taciturn Doaker to belt out the final lines alone, trance-like and unaware that he is singing solo until he stops, embarrassed, and the others tease him as the whole group has a good-natured laugh. The performance moves the group from petty bickering to jovial community.

For these men, this performance at once recalls the pain of their individual and collective pasts while also uniting them as a community and reminding them of the joys that come from being away from Parchman. They are free, both as a formerly enslaved race and as formerly imprisoned individuals, but that freedom remains elusive because neither the shadow of Parchman nor the specter of similar suffering in the future ever dissipates. The Piano Lesson thus embodies here the neo-slave narrative impulse to celebrate freedom while being vigilant to its precariousness. “Their acapella ode,” as Elam notes, “is thus time bound and transcendent, triumphant and yet tragic. It is a communal, dichotomous moment that contains ‘both a wail and a whelp of joy.’”13 This is the paradox of finding a sense of peace in collective, performative remembrance of a painful past that defines Wilson’s neo-slave narrative impulse. It is through the collective recounting of their suffering that these men find joy. This is a blues impulse, one which Ralph Ellison describes as blues people’s tendency “to finger [the] the jagged grain” of painful experience so as not to forget its impact.14 In many ways, the black performance tradition of blues shares the ethos of neo-slave narratives. Along with developing community and celebrating the black self through song (as well as striving to make a living as entertainers), early blues performers also sought through orality to reclaim the full humanity and complex subjectivity violently denied by Jim Crow. They did so by cultivating a shared memory of the struggles of black experience, both distant and immediate, in the hopes of creating a counter discourse, one that nurtured black humanity and joy. Blues performers sang not to express woe but to embrace it and counter its deleterious effects through communal performance. [End Page 70]

It is thus through blues that Wilson most fully deploys the tropes of the neo-slave narrative. A creolization born in the New World out of an imperfect union of African and black American culture, blues was for Wilson an aesthetic that sought to cultivate black humanity and subjectivity by the communal forces of performance, memory, and fingering the jagged grain of shared suffering. All this materializes during The Piano Lesson’s second scene where communal memory of suffering and its precarious proximity allows the community to embrace the joy of their current distance from anguish. Shortly after the song’s conclusion, Boy Willie tells Doaker that his reputation remains high on Parchman, but Doaker responds, bitterly, “I don’t never want to see none of them niggers no more,” and Boy Willie quickly concurs (43). Clearly there is no sense of nostalgia from these men for Parchman, so the joy they get from the song recalling their time there lies in the temporal distance between the prison farm and Doaker’s kitchen table, a distance that can only be realized through recalling and embodying the painful past.

Performing this work song in a Pittsburgh kitchen recalls time spent on Parchman and also the labor of slaves which Jim Crow peonage reproduced. In this context, the performance becomes a form of atavism that connects Wilson’s four characters both to their past selves and to their slave ancestors. It constructs a community around Doaker’s table—all four men instinctively know the words, rhythms, and tempo changes—and it also calls into that community the spirits of previous generations of sufferers. As performance theorists Joseph Roach and Richard Schechner have demonstrated, performance invoking an imprecisely remembered past has restorative capabilities in the present. Through what Schechner would call “restored behavior,” the men recall their time on Parchman as well as the slave labor that such peonage mimics.15 According to Roach, such a performance creates an effigy that “fills by means of surrogation a vacancy created by the absence of an original”; through performance, these men constitute a space populated by their previous selves and their ancestors.16 Doing so initiates a ritual that allows these four men to commune with generations of their predecessors because the performance grants them access to a shared space of memory. As laborers on Parchman recall slavery and their work songs, so too do the freemen [End Page 71] in Doaker’s kitchen actively link themselves to that lineage, contributing to a performed effigy in order to draw strength from the ancestral community. As Roach and Schechner help illuminate, the performance does not simply replicate completed events from the past; it animates an actively developing genealogy in which these men include themselves. They move forward by fingering the jagged grain of and making present a painful past. Nobody in The Piano Lesson is an ex-slave, but they are only removed by a generation or two. The play’s slave narrative, then, must be imported from the past, something which the men in this scene do willingly. By performing their connection to slavery—their individual and collective neo-slave narratives—the men gain a strength and clarity for their present condition.

Boy Willie, however, offers a constant challenge to embracing such clarity. Almost immediately after joining in the performative call to the past in the work song, he returns obstinately to his plans for selling the piano, the totem of that past. He disagrees with Doaker’s implication that keeping the piano is essential to honoring the ghosts of the Charles family. “All that’s in the past,” he says of the piano’s history, “If my daddy had seen where he could have traded that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now” (48). For Boy Willie, the piano’s value comes from its ability to improve his and his family’s station in life by purchasing land; it can enable the Charles family’s transition from slaves and sharecroppers to land owners. To him, the piano’s carvings of his ancestors only increase its economic value, making it a more desirable commodity for the white instrument broker. If it contains any spiritual value for him, that spirituality is the ancestors enabling his purchase of land. Boy Willie certainly wants to be connected to his ancestors—he seeks to buy the land they worked as slaves and to continue the trade of farming he inherited from them—but he wants to do so by robbing the Peter of the piano in order to pay the Paul of the land. His father stole the piano for its spiritual history, not its economic potential; to sell it to a white broker would be to abandon the family legacy to white control. Boy Willie’s desire to own farm land in the South coalesces well with the ideals of Wilson’s dramaturgy, but Boy Willie’s haste blinds him to the complete dimensions of his inheritance. The piano’s spirits demand a place in the continuing community of the Charles family, but Boy Willie [End Page 72] sees the past as having come and gone, placing a responsibility on him to cash in its legacy to move forward, not to keep the entirety of the legacy present.

In Wilson’s dramatic world, this is dangerous hubris. Boy Willie is overlooking his cultural legacy, hoping to enter into commercial discourse at the cost of the black counter-discourse that trades in cultural memory. Without the totem of all the painful memories, future generations of the Charles family would be in danger of forgetting. Boy Willie is thus a threat to Wilson’s neo-slave narrative impulse, placing him in the company of Wilson’s warrior characters—Levee, Herald Loomis, Troy Maxson, Floyd Barton, and others—each of whom is determined to move forward by standing on the shoulders of the past. Wilson’s plays applaud this urge but punish the warrior’s over-exuberance. Often, like Boy Willie, the desired destination for the warrior is into the white-controlled economy, a space Wilson treats as fatal to black identity. To help protect the warrior from this perilous desire, Wilson pairs his warriors with griots, wise elders of the community providing links to the past in order to give life to a cultural community stretching well into history. Warrior Levee has griot Toledo, Loomis has Bynum, Troy has Bono, and Boy Willie has Doaker, who follows the work song by narrating the long, sordid history of the piano. He claims to be telling the story for the benefit of Lymon: “Lymon don’t know this. . .but I’m gonna tell you why me and Wining Boy say Berniece ain’t gonna sell that piano,” he says before starting, and then reiterates after the story, “I was just telling the man about the piano” (44, 48; ellipses in original). This pretense is disingenuous. The griot’s story is entirely for Boy Willie’s benefit, attempting to instill in him awareness of his investment in the piano’s legacy.

As Doaker tells the piano’s story, he draws direct connections between the play’s community and their slave ancestors. He begins by telling how Robert Sutter traded Doaker’s grandmother and young father when slaves to acquire the piano, explaining that eventually Sutter had Doaker’s grandfather carve their faces into the wood of the piano because his wife missed her slaves, and continues through the theft of the piano and Boy Charles’s murder. As Wining Boy earlier ushers the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog into Doaker’s home, here Doaker summons several generations of the Charles family to the stage. Michael Morales argues that in Wilson [End Page 73] “the transmission of history becomes a binding ritual through which his characters obtain an empowering self-knowledge, a tangible sense of their own self-worth and identity, that gives them the strength to manage the future on their own terms,” and that this strength is “achieved only by establishing connections to the past—connections represented as the power of ancestors.”17 Doaker is indeed transmitting history, but in doing so he engenders a performative rite that, as Morales points out, seeks to gain strength for himself and his family through connections to ancestors. The speech is less an action of casting the mind back to history than it is of summoning history to the present in order to demonstrate the irreducible mingling of past and present. If Doaker succeeds, Boy Willie might gain the empowering self-knowledge that Morales identifies, rather than allowing himself to be whisked into a capitalistic economy dominated by white society and forfeiting any ability to manage his future. Doaker knows that such power can only come from the influential company of ancestors and seeks to usher Boy Willie into that realm.

By performing this story, Doaker strengthens the bond established earlier by Wining Boy between their contemporaneous community and their slave past, and by so doing testifies to and passes on essential elements of history he fears would be lost if the piano were sold. It is a story that winds through Boy Willie’s great grandparents, grandfather, and father. Doaker’s speech epitomizes Wilson’s neo-slave narrative project: both Doaker and his playwright attempt through performance to reveal a lasting community among slaves and their contemporary audience. As Wilson sought through his plays to invigorate his African-American audience through what he felt was a crucial conceptualization of the black American experience, so too does Doaker seek to awaken Boy Willie’s cultural awareness. Doing so might allow Boy Willie to see the long view of his cultural history and to avoid the dangers of the white economy toward which he is rushing headlong. Doaker’s interest is almost entirely with his present company, but for him that company must include his slave ancestors, members of his community whom Boy Willie considers dead and gone. At stake in Doaker’s performance, then, is the immediacy of slavery and the persistently complex subjectivity and agency of slave ancestors.

Boy Willie will brook no such immediacy. For him, inheritance is material and economic, not cultural. He insists that his father’s “daddy ain’t had nothing to give him” because there was no wealth or material to [End Page 74] pass along. “The only thing my daddy had to give me was that piano,” he continues, “and he died over giving me that” (48). Boy Willie’s use of the term thing for the piano makes his stance on his inheritance quite clear: it is a simple object from which value can be obtained. Berniece later attempts to distinguish the spiritual value of the piano from the economic: “Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money” (52). For her, the piano’s value is distinct from use or economic value; its value is symbolic and spiritual. Boy Willie fundamentally disagrees: “I ain’t talking about selling my soul. I’m talking about trading that piece of wood for some land” (52, my emphasis). Boy Willie sees the piano and its carvings but little that lies beyond those carvings. He dismisses its spiritual worth as “sentimental value” (53).

Doaker’s story thus falls on the deaf ears of Boy Willie because Boy Willie hears it as a historical narrative simply recounting events in the past, rather than as a story with contemporary relevance tracing the roots of his present condition. Doaker seeks similar goals as the neo-slave narrative’s exploration of significant connections between slavery and present circumstances, but his performance elicits only anger and frustration out of Boy Willie. His irritation rises from the feeling that his family and the past are exerting expectations on him that contradict his plans for social and economic advancement. When Lymon broaches the notion of Boy Willie staying in Pittsburgh rather than returning to the South, Boy Willie explodes: “You stay! I’m going back! That’s what I’m gonna do with my life! Why I got to come up here and learn to do something I don’t know how to do when I already know how to farm? You stay up here and make your own way if that’s what you want to do. I’m going back and live my life the way I want to live it” (48). This outburst originates in Boy Willie’s stalwart determination for self-crafting: he is resolute on following a path to success that he has identified for himself, regardless of the expectations of a community constituted in large part by the presence of ancestors. In his mind, his ancestors farmed as slaves and sharecroppers, and he will cash in that past to move unilaterally forward by farming as a landowner. He does not recognize the need to dwell with and among his ancestors. Doaker performs a powerful narrative of the family’s slave legacy, but Boy Willie’s refusal to become part of the performance leaves him dangerously excluded from the strength-giving community. Both he and Berniece will eventually join that community only after the final performance in the play, Berniece playing the piano and calling on [End Page 75] her ancestors to save Boy Willie from Sutter’s ghost. Berniece realizes that she must play the piano to catalyze its full spiritual power, and Boy Willie at last understands that any social or economic advancement must coexist with the spiritual presences of ancestors. Both siblings recognize anew that they exist among a dynamic community of ancestors.

Like Wilson’s other warriors, Boy Willie’s self-crafting tunnel vision threatens to destroy the community around him. By failing to recognize their answerability to and responsibility for their community, Wilson’s warriors risk engendering its collapse. The Piano Lesson’s second scene demonstrates this danger in its ebb and flow of group dynamics: Wining Boy’s and Boy Willie’s presence fosters family strength, which yields to bickering before being reconstituted through performance of the Parchman song, followed by more anger from Boy Willie and then Doaker’s long narrative foregrounding family ties, and finally more anger and bitterness from Boy Willie. Any glint of unity is constantly smothered by Boy Willie’s self-interest.

The last uptick in this cycle comes in Wining Boy’s performance of a boogie-woogie piano blues number. Boy Willie will ensure that the scene ends with more anger when he insists upon trying to lift the piano despite objections from Wining Boy and Berniece, but not before Wining Boy offers one more attempt at solidarity through performance. After Boy Willie’s outburst, Wining Boy, acting on the instinct of a lifetime showman, slowly makes his way to the piano. Tensions are high, and the piano player will sooth them with a jaunty tune. More than that, though, he will reunite the bickering community around the force of blues. Wining Boy’s song is a lively blues in a style that would have been very modern during the 1930s setting of the play. Wilson’s stage direction describes the song as “one which has put many dimes and quarters in his pocket,” suggesting that it is a trustworthy crowd pleaser, a go-to in times like this when the room needs a lift (49). In Santiago-Hudson’s production, Chuck Cooper as Wining Boy pounded out a loose and jangly tune while elaborately delivering the lyrics with his boisterous and agile vocals, gradually inciting all three of the other men to stomp and clap along with Wining Boy and each other. Through blues, community is reunited.

Wining Boy walks to the piano in order to sooth tension in the room and by so doing to create a mode of resistance to divisiveness emerging from slavery’s legacy. It is no coincidence that he chooses blues for this [End Page 76] purpose. In the Jim Crow South, blues emerged among black communities as a means, on the one hand, of expressing sadness and troubles, but more so of producing joy out of such expression, containing what Langston Hughes calls a “kind of humor that laughs to keep from crying.”18 Life throughout the rural South was crushingly oppressive for ex-slaves and their descendants, with dehumanizing juridical structures denying them rights and the constant threat of lynching making life itself precarious.19 Blues offered performers a way of escaping the sharecropping fields, but it also offered the community a unifying force. Despite the nearly omnipresent “I” as the subject of blues songs, the audience, according to Sherley A. Williams, “assumes ‘we’ even though the blues singer sings ‘I,’” and Barry Lee Pearson calls early blues musicians “spokespersons for their community”; Cornel West argues that the blues imperative is to “sing in such a way that others want to sing with you.”20 Moreover, as Amiri Baraka and others have shown, the musical structure distinctive of blues, although developed in the American South around the turn of the twentieth century, bears clear remnants of West African musicality and performance.21 Thus blues functions as a community-building performative conduit from African-American society back through slavery to West African origins. When blues made it to Northern cities like Pittsburgh where Wining Boy performs, that conduit grew in length, magnitude, and signification. Wilson’s stage direction at the opening of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone suggests that the Africans in America populating his play set in the North are “cut off from memory, having forgotten the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces.”22 That play’s griot, Bynum, insists that the key to cultural awakening is for a person to find his or her song, and throughout Wilson’s oeuvre the song engendering identity for his black Americans is blues.

By performing blues, Wining Boy unleashes a powerful unifying force upon a fractured society. It will soon rupture again, just as it did after the unification of the work song performance, but the immediate effect of the song is to bring the men together around a performance that references a complex matrix of cultural connections. Because blues invokes such a long lineage of cultural performance, the men, while dancing to Wining Boy’s song, dance also with their ancestors, both free and slave, as well as their broader contemporary community, strengthening the bond that defines them as a unit. [End Page 77]

In the space of The Piano Lesson’s second scene, then, a fragile community grows stronger whenever performance invoking cultural history brings the men together around the common purpose of remembering and embracing the trauma of the past. Rather than moving the men away from their slave ancestors, the various performances of the scene usher those ancestors to the stage in order to reclaim the humanity necessary to constitute community. The scene therefore suggests that the most productive method of maintaining such a community is to embrace a shared burden of testifying to cultural history through performance. The scene’s transition from the work song to piano blues makes Wilson’s claim clear. The work song represents a transitory aesthetic period in African-American history: slaves were freed, but the promises of Reconstruction were broken by Jim Crow, while peonage farms and exploitative share cropping muddied the differences between freedom and slavery. The performance of a work song like the one in this scene at a place like Parchman would invoke many generations of slavery as well as the powerful desire for freedom. When the men of The Piano Lesson perform this song, they place themselves in the painful liminal space between slavery and freedom, finding strength in each other as well as the generations of ancestors they invoke. As the scene progresses through Doaker’s long story of the piano and Wining Boy’s urban blues performance, it traces the movement away from peonage farms and the struggle to keep their memory fresh. Doaker as griot works hard to enliven the sanguinary history of the piano and the Charles family, but when his performance fails to capture the soul of Boy Willie, Wining Boy turns to blues to reunite the community. With the memories of slavery and the struggle to transcend it growing faint, blues enters the social scene as a unifier. From work song through oral history to blues, this scene exemplifies The Piano Lesson’s neo-slave narrative dimension as it traverses black aesthetic responses to the oppressive twentieth century in order to explore how communing with cultural history can provide comfort, unity, strength, and direction to the contemporary African-American community. [End Page 78]

Performing History and the Legacy of Suffering

In the performances of The Piano Lesson’s second scene, Wilson and his characters do not escape New World slavery’s memory, but rather work toward the increasingly difficult neo-slave narrative task of reviving the experience, embracing past horror in order to understand better the present. Ultimately, this is Wilson’s aesthetic mission. His Cycle performatively seeks out—for himself, his characters, and his audience—a more complex understanding of the African-American experience that by necessity involves wrestling with the legacy of slavery. Wilson asserted often that black manners of responding to the world were importantly distinct from culturally dominant white practices, and the engagement with history is no different. If the dominant white method of engaging history is historiography, a practice that often ignores black history, Wilson’s method is performance. As Elam recognizes, history for Wilson operates very much like performance as “an active process that occurs in the now.”23 We see his unification of history and performance in the very fact that his historical Cycle is performative art for theatre, and his stress on performance also emerges repeatedly throughout the plays. Elam points out that especially for Wilson, “theater and performance are always sites of surrogacy, where the figurative becomes charged increasingly with symbolic import and where collective recognition, empathy, and sentiment can be generated in the shared experience of spectatorship.”24 Wilson as playwright was constantly attempting to generate these notions of collective recognition and empathy, but Elam’s observation is especially apt for the music and performance within Wilson’s plays. When the men in The Piano Lesson sing about Berta, or the community in Joe Turner performs the Juba, or Aunt Ester and company perform the rites that send Citizen Barlow to the City of Bones in Gem of the Ocean, they are all constructing a symbolic realm that creates a continuity throughout the history of Africans in America on toward the future. Music or performance exists prominently in the seven Cycle plays set in the first seven decades of the century, waning once the Cycle reaches the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, a time in African-American history that Wilson found particularly worrisome. Usually, music and performance in Wilson seek to commune with cultural history. This is true of Citizen Barlow’s trip to the City of Bones, of the [End Page 79] Juba in Joe Turner, and of Corey and Raynell bonding at the end of Fences by singing their father’s blues. Even Sterling and Risa finally find common ground in the music of Aretha Franklin in Two Trains Running. Little was more important to Wilson than identifying and embracing a cogent through line of African-American cultural history, and his preferred method for doing so was through music and performance.

The neo-slave narrative force of Wilson’s work, then, emerges in the Cycle’s constant urge to define through performance the history of Africans in America as an experience that began in 1619 and continues uninterrupted through the present into the future. He defined himself as “a race man,” which he explains to mean “simply that I believe race matters—that is the largest, most identifiable and most important part of our personality.”25 As a race man and an artist, Wilson turns his attention to unpacking the racial experience surrounding his art. That doing so put him in dialogue with his slave ancestors reveals in him a neo-slave imperative: his work argues that to understand the black experience more fully must be to finger the jagged grain of slavery. Rushdy argues that neo-slave narratives “intervene in debates over the significance of race, and its literary politics as these texts make statements on engagements between texts and between mainstream and minority traditions.”26 Wilson’s work argues that the significance of race is paramount, and it does so by foregrounding minority traditions of cultural historiography. Doaker and other Wilsonian griots pass history on orally, as Wining Boy and Wilson’s other musicians perform history through music, and all Wilson’s performances are concerned with the literary politics of exploring the echoes of slavery in the contemporary landscape. Frustrated by what he deemed a dangerous trend of Africans in America forgetting their history and seeking advancement through assimilation, Wilson turned to performative neo-slave narrative in order to resuscitate connections to slavery and thereby to enliven his and his audience’s contemporary condition.

To regard Wilson’s body of work as a performative neo-slave narrative allows for productive insights into both Wilson and the field of neo-slave narratives. First, it demonstrates how crucial the vitality of slavery is to Wilson’s work, and how he as an artist working in the late twentieth century was in dialogue with a broad range of African-American writers. [End Page 80] We can therefore see Wilson as part of a chorus of African-American writers who, in the latter half of the twentieth century, were arguing that an effective negotiation of the black American experience required a direct engagement with the experience of slavery and its legacy. Moreover, including Wilson and drama in critical explorations of the neo-slave narrative genre productively reveals the form’s most significant concerns: the aesthetic urge of an artist to work through the contemporaneous racial experience by engaging the residual pain, fear, anger, and oppression that are the cultural legacy of slavery, and by so doing to explore and revive the creative ways African Americans have survived that trauma and gone on to thrive artistically, socially, and spiritually. Wilson’s plays exist most fully in the performative present of the theatre, and as such, their performative engagement of cultural history makes the story they tell powerful and urgent.

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Signature Theatre, Pershing Square Signature Center, New York City. August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Pictured (l–r): Chuck Cooper (Wining Boy), Jason Dirden (Lymon), Brandon Dirden (Boy Willie), Rosly Ruff (Berniece).

Photo ©Joan Marcus.

[End Page 81]

Patrick Maley
Centenary University
Patrick Maley

Patrick Maley is Associate Professor of English at Centenary University, and the author of After August: Blues, August Wilson, and American Drama (University of Virginia Press, 2019). His scholarship appears in Modern Drama, Eugene O’Neill Review, Field Day Review and elsewhere. He is also an active theatre critic in New York and New Jersey.


A great many thanks to Robert Battistini for his insightful comments on this essay.

1. August Wilson, Preface, King Hedley II (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2005), vii.

2. August Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2001), 20.

3. Keizer argues that in Dream on Monkey Mountain, Walcott’s “articulation of a specifically masculine sexuality imbricated with slavery and colonialism redefines a particular, black, New World masculine subjectivity.” Arlene R. Keizer, Black Subjects: Identity Formation in the Contemporary Narrative of Slavery (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004), 101.

4. Ashraf H.A. Rushdy, “Neo-Slave Narratives,” in The Oxford Companion to African American Literature, ed. William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, Trudier Harris (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 533.

5. Harry J. Elam Jr., The Past as Present in the Drama of August Wilson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006), xix.

6. Dinah Livingston, “Cool August: Mr. Wilson’s Red-Hot Blues,” in Conversations with August Wilson, ed. Jackson R. Bryer and Mary C. Hartig (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006), 57.

7. Bernard W. Bell, The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987), 289.

8. For his part, Wilson supported Boy Willie’s efforts, arguing that because “Berniece cannot even touch the piano—she’s the one who is denying everything, she’s the one trying to run away from the past,” while Boy Willie’s use of the piano to buy land his family worked as slaves would be him coming “full circle.” Elsewhere he says “Boy Willie empowers himself. He has a very good clear plan.” Wilson as reader overlooks the fact that selling the piano—just like not playing it—is departing from the Charles ancestors rather than dwelling among them. Bonnie Lyons, “An Interview with August Wilson,” in Bryer and Hartig, Conversations with August Wilson, 217; Richard Pettengill, “The Historical Perspective: An Interview with August Wilson,” in Bryer and Hartig, Conversations with August Wilson, 170.

9. David Savran, “August Wilson,” in Bryer and Hartig, Conversations with August Wilson, 25.

10. Elam, The Past as Present, 3.

11. August Wilson, The Piano Lesson (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007), 34. All references to The Piano Lesson are to this edition and are hereafter cited parenthetically in the text by page number.

12. We do not know for certain that the hobos were black, but the disregard for their lives shown by white men suggests as much, and certainly they share in the Charles family’s community of suffering by being subjected to the capricious violence of white power.

13. Elam, The Past as Present, 27–28. Elam here quotes from Wilson’s stage direction to open Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Wilson says that recent African-American migrants to the North seek “to give clear and luminous meaning to the song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.” August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 2007), 6.

14. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Random House, 1953), 78.

15. Richard Schechner, Between Theater and Anthropology (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985), 35.

16. Joseph Roach, Cities of the Dead: Circum Atlantic Performance (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 36.

17. Michael Morales, “Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the Representation of Black American History,” in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, ed. Alan Nadel (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press: 1994), 106.

18. Langston Hughes, “Songs Called The Blues,” in Write me a Few of Your Lines: A Blues Reader, ed. Steven C. Tracy (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), 392.

19. On the connection between the Jim Crow South and blues, see especially Adam Gussow, Seems Like Murder Here: Southern Violence and the Blues Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002); R. A. Lawson, Jim Crow’s Counterculture: The Blues and Black Southerners 1890–1945 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2010); Giles Oakley, The Devil’s Music: A History of the Blues (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1997); Houston A. Baker Jr., Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

20. Sherley A. Williams, “The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry,” in Tracy, Write me a Few of Your Lines, 446; Barry Lee Pearson, Jook Right On (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005), xvii; Cornel West, “Hope on a Tightrope” (lecture, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN, February 23, 2009).

21. See especially the chapter “African Slaves/American Slaves: Their Music” in Amiri Baraka, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Harper Perennial, 2002).

22. Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, 6.

23. Elam, The Past as Present, 233. Alan Nadel argues: “If reality is authorized for black Americans by performance and for white America by text, Wilson’s plays, as both text and performance, mediate between the site of dominant discourse and the practices of black American life. In this regard, we can view his project to create a decade-by-decade cycle of plays as an attempt to make history, that is, an attempt both to construct an event and to construct the story in which it figures.” “Boundaries, Logistics, and Identity: The Property of Metaphor in Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” in Nadel, May All Your Fences Have Gates, 103; Felicia Hardison Londré makes a similar point: “there is plenty of history in The Piano Lesson; it is simply not the kind of history we learn in school. Each major character in the play is a repository of family and community history, and these histories augment one another, sometimes conflicting in the details, but collectively preserving through storytelling an awareness of elements of the past that contributed to the lives they are presently living.” “The Piano and its History: Family and Transcending Family,” in The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, ed. Christopher Bigsby (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 114.

24. Elam, The Past as Present, xvii.

25. Wilson, The Ground on Which I Stand, 14.

26. Ashraf H. A. Rushdy, Neo-slave Narratives: Studies in the Social Logic of a Literary Form (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 3.

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