(A reading of Blogs #37-#41is a good introduction, but not necessary, to the subject matter of this entry; the series concerns Daenya’s process of personal identification with Berniece from August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson.) Today we’ll begin looking at the importance of the script. Of course, Daenya had read the play before beginning her analysis of Berniece’s character; first she had prepared a scene and later began working on the monologue in Act Two, which she has approached over and over again, but never conquered. Constant re-reading of the script is necessary, especially when changing focus from one acting process to another. At this moment, it seems that Daenya is switching from subjective (sense memory) to objective (script analysis), but I hope to demonstrate that in the case of the actor, subjective and objective are inseparable.
Daenya is not planning to write a scholarly paper on the subject of Berniece in relation to African/American relations in the 1930’s – no, she is going to embody her. Not just her head, but surely her whole body and something indefinable, which many would call her ‘soul.’ However, to walk in Berniece’s shoes Daenya needs to know more not less, than a scholar about what it ‘feels like’ to be Berniece. She is going to be ‘Berniece in motion.’ The scholar is helped by identifying emotionally with the character he is writing about, but he can sit hunched over his computer spinning out words, while Berniece has to get up in an audition and convince a group of strangers that she is Berniece.
The script is always very important, but in the case of The Piano Lesson, it’s about as important as a piece of dramatic writing can get. It won a Pulitzer Prize, the second of Wilson’s plays to do so, as well as a Tony and the Outer Critics Circle Award. I haven’t seen it, and I wonder if anything could surpass Wilson’s superb, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, which I had the privilege to view during its first incarnation.
I also re-read The Piano Lesson, partly because I wanted to see it through Daenya’s eyes, which were now so much more open after all the work she had done on researching and re-experiencing her background and the troubled relationship with her mother. But nothing could have prepared me for the personal epiphany that awaited me in the final scene.
Why does a play win a Pulitzer Prize – or a film an Oscar - or a Palme D’Or at Cannes? There are many reasons, of course, but the one that is most interesting to me is how the central idea of a dramatic piece speaks to the audience through the development of its characters. This is normal, since I work with actors to embody the characters. In reading The Piano Lesson this last time what I did not expect was my own sense of identification with Berniece, which is of interest here because it relates to my own sense memory work - for acting, for teaching others to act and also for my own writing.
I’m going into a bit of a digression here, because this way of reading to act a role is very difficult to clarify, and I want to make it as accessible as possible. In a much earlier Blog entry (labeled blog #2, August 2011) I explained in detail how I, myself, had begun to understand the workings of sense memory. I’m sorry to talk about myself so much, but this is the only way to make this particular point. I have mentioned the fact that my mother died of cancer when I was four, and I have always known that I had to find how the trauma of her death had affected me.
I had totally disassociated myself from memories related to her death, and although I could remember the placement of the furniture in the house we had back then, I was incapable of remembering her inhabiting that house. I described a memory I had as a child, looking out my bedroom window at the road that lay at the end of a lane in front of our house. After this memory kept coming up again and again, I finally realized that I was waiting for my mother to return – and that I had spent my whole life, up to the point when I became aware of this memory, unconsciously awaiting her return. I realized that I always waited instead of acting on impulses about things I wanted to do, and this was the reason: the trauma of my mother’s death had been so great that I had been unable and unwilling to actually ‘live’ my life, because I was actually living in a state of expectation that she would come back.I’ve gone through many stages of awareness with this memory and learned various ways to harness its energy in various acting and teaching opportunities. In my next blog entry I will endeavor to explain how this memory - having spawned creative responses of different sorts, ultimately lead me to an instantaneous and profound awareness of Berniece’s state of mind in this play…