Writing in Concert comprises two parts: teaching a common text and writing about the experience using memoir, reportage, and criticism. This year's text will be the play, The Piano Lesson, by two-time Pulitzer prizewinner, August Wilson.
August Wilson (1945-2005) grew up poor in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, but better off, he believed than his parents. "My generation of blacks knew very little about the past of our parents," he told The New York Times in 1984. "They shielded us from the indignities they suffered." Wilson's play illuminate that past, its complex difficulties and its legacy.
Wilson wrote a series of ten plays, each set in a different era, from the 1900's through the 1990's. He won five New York Drama Critic Circle Awards, numerous Tony awards, and two Pulitzer Prizes. The Piano Lesson is set in the Great Depression of the 1930's, and it is one of the plays that won the Pulitzer. The drama pits brother against sister in a contest to decide the future of a treasured heirloom, a piano, carved with African-style portraits by their grandfather, an enslaved plantation carpenter. The brother wants to sell it to buy land, while the sister adamantly insists that the instrument carries too much family history to part with.
English 145 students will study the common text in close reading, discussion and preliminary essay exercises. The idea is to develop an intimate relationship with a text, learn about yourself as a writer from your responses to it, and then, by creating a mini-course syllabus and lesson plans, learn how to help readers at different stages in life and literacy find their own ways to enter the text. Learning the work takes three to four weeks; teaching requires four to six, with some overlap. On February 6th, students will participate in a workshop for teachers of August Wilson's work led by New Freedom Theater's Johnnie Hobbs. We also work with intensity and focus on issues of learning and teaching to prepare students to teach at several urban learning sites, each with its own challenges and charisma: high school English classes, a church-based book group, adult education centers, a recovery house, a homeless shelter. In March, we will attend the Arden Theater's production of The Piano Lesson. Teaching, learning, experiencing the work are all subjects of short journal and prompt assignments throughout the term, along with the writing of other, focused writing: syllabi, lesson plans, letters.
On Thursday, April 10th, students from the various sites come together to attend a panel discussion and reading directed by New Freedom Theater's Johnnie Hobbs with student-actors from University of the Arts performing a unique collage of Wilson theater and describing, as they weave together various famous Wilson scenes, the body of work that these separate pieces comprise. This citywide project that makes deep connections among the academy, literature, writers, readers, and learners.
The final essay will reflect each student's experience with the play, teaching, and the Reading in Concert performance. The course requires that each student submit the essay, or an excerpt for publication, and to post it on the Art Sanctuary website. Clearly, the emphasis during the term is on focus, practice, learning, relationships, revision, and language. It comes at you from all sides, a literary bum's rush meant to dislodge comfortable writing habits and push you toward intense, carefully thought, and deeply-felt nonfiction prose.
Here's a taste of what some Reading in Concert students have written:
Community grows me. This is the point I must make here. If I don't start by saying it I'll try to convince myself otherwise. The praise of community is a painful admission for me. I don't want to have to need people. I don't want to admit that community is far more powerful than my own devices. I cannot harvest myself. I cannot truly grow without other people. Every point of my life affirms this need for others. I have never thrived on my own. Yet I can't shake the notion that maybe, if I just give solitude enough time, a break through will come. For some reason I keep my expectations of the future separate from my experiences of the past. I expect to be able to accomplish great things on my own but it has never happened that way. I expect to be disappointed or misunderstood by others yet this has rarely been the case. I expect that teaching Sonia Sanchez will require an outpouring of my intellect and wisdom, yet my most profound moments of learning have come through community experiences. --Josh Macha
As the class dissected Sanchez's words, I realized that I hadn't truly appreciated "Poem No. 8" until that moment. I was more engaged with the text then than I had been at any earlier point in the semester. Sitting at my desk and pulling out my hair while trying to memorize a passage or write a haiku, I had wasted my time battling my inner demons. But there was no time for my inhibitions at this moment; I needed to be present for my students and inhabit the literature with them. For the first time, I let go of my fears, and rose to the occasion. --Rebecca Sherman