(In order to follow my line of reasoning here, it would be helpful to read the last entry.) Previously, I discussed what it felt like when I discovered, through sense-memory, that I was ‘waiting’ for my mother to come back from the dead and – basically – help me decide what to do with my life. This memory is thick with details from my childhood; i.e. the immediate sensory elements like the exact texture of the twilit insect-saturated air, subdued chatter of birds slowing down before nightfall, heavy fragrance of new mown grass, a burst of laughter from the next door neighbors having a cocktail before dinner, the emptiness of the road toward which I kept redirecting my gaze. These ‘primary’ sensory objects have accrued over the years many ‘secondary objects’ which attach themselves to the ‘primary ones.’ A ‘secondary object’ appears in your mind either immediately or soon after – sometimes long after – you have experienced the ‘primary object.’ It reveals why the object is important. For example, the realization that my mother never showed up in a car that turned off the road and came down the lane to our house was a spin-off of seeing the empty road over and over again. In that way ‘the sight of the empty road’ is a precise icon for the deeply repressed pain of losing her. I couldn’t possibly access it directly, my unconscious would reject this barbaric proposition and I’d get very frustrated. But focusing on the road with the help of the other senses works well – and it never loses its power. When the conscious and unconscious work together in this manner, the result creates a lasting bond, and through constant awareness and practice one acquires an inexhaustible supply of contact points that adhere easily to characters and scripts.
There is some fallout from this work. On the very rare occasions that I return to my childhood home in real life, I feel sad and uncomfortable because the unconscious pain quickly rises to the surface. This is one reason why I am not tempted to use recent memories for the purpose of grounding my characters. They are too close to my everyday life and for that reason cause confusion. Besides, recent memories don’t work for other reasons. There is a place for them, just not as a source of one’s deepest response mechanism. For me, it is important to use only memories from very early in my life. The only others that are strong enough are related to my children, but I feel that these early childhood ones have shaped my relationship to everything, even my children, so they underlie even the mother bonds going forward.
This process is closely related to a careful reading of The Piano Lesson, as I look for places in the text where I can begin my congruence with Berniece. An incident occurs toward the beginning of the play which greatly assisted my research in paralleling Wilson’s intention in writing the play in general and the character of Berniece in particular.
The central symbol of the play is the piano, inherited by Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie. It holds horrific memories for Berniece and she is neither able to play the instrument nor part with it. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano and move on with his life. (The brother and sister represent the two principal, equally negative, responses to slavery. Their fights about their opposite solutions to ‘the problem of the piano’ –belligerence or passivity - escalate as the play continues. In the first act, Berniece is heard crying out offstage; shortly afterwards she enters but is so upset she is unable to speak. Another character states that Berniece has seen a ghost – a man who is intimately connected to the piano itself and everything that is most oppressive in the legacy of slavery. In the initial battle between the brother and sister culminating in this ghostly reincarnation of the past, I saw my opportunity to be ‘possessed’ by Berniece. The ghost touched it off, but the piano is the essential element
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I was immediately there – at dusk, looking out my childhood bedroom window and down at the empty road; in that moment Berniece and I came together. Obviously, there is no question that Berniece, a poor black woman living in the ‘thirties, had an infinitely more difficult life than I have experienced, as a somewhat pampered white woman of a later era. But right then, looking at that road, I felt the full weight of a child who cannot bear the fact that God - in whom she is being trained to believe and who wields all the power and the glory - has taken her mother away.
Both Berniece and I were brought up in religious systems that taught us to feel that the tragedies we have suffered originated in ourselves – that there must be something wrong with us to have been punished in this horrible way. Berniece stares at her beloved piano and gives up her greatest pleasure, the desire to elicit beautiful sounds from it. For me, there was the belief that nothing could alter the deep despair I felt those many, many times when I stared at that road and my mother didn’t turn into the lane. I have investigated that memory tirelessly over the years and it never ceases to inform me about my own behavior, as I vacillate between a sense of worthlessness and incredible ambition to leave my mark on the world; the former mirroring Berniece’s unwillingness to play the piano and the latter her refusal to give it to her brother to sell.
I’ve had to work very hard at this process, it doesn’t come easily – but it is worth the trouble for both actors and writers, and perhaps others, as well. In the end, the sight of ‘the empty road’ pulls in a whole process combining deep emotion with critical thinking – practically an oxymoron in the usual way of doing things in the world. But what makes it work every time is the ‘object’ itself. I can think about it a lot, just not when I call it up as a ‘sensory object’ for acting or writing.Have a wonderful Fourth of July! I will take a vacation from writing the blog this month and will return in August - hopefully with some fresh and interesting insights…