Monday, October 31, 2005

Eating and Judgment: Foie Gras Edition

I learned judgment in a restaurant, so eating and literary criticism are deeply intertwined for me. When I was eleven or so, my mom went to Los Alamos for a week to visit her mother. During those seven or so days, we had Chef Boy-ar-dee twice (on the first and last nights, I think) and, for the middle four or five, we (my sister and I) went out to dinner with my father. Each night, we ordered Shirley Temples with our dinner and cheesecake for dessert.

My father would ask how the Shirley Temple compared with last nights, and we would speak seriously about the advantages of extra grenadine, of two maraschino cherries, of 7-up versus ginger ale, and of the quality of the plastic cocktail pick. One night, sitting in a velvet and brass booth in a fern bar, eating a burger and nursing a Shirley Temple, my father asked us if we knew who was singing. We did not. “That’s Frank Sinatra,” he said. “He’s a great singer, but he’s not a nice man. Your mother will tell you that Bing Crosby is a better singer. He is not. He is a nice man [this was before his family came out against him], but he is not as good a singer as Sinatra.”

Great but not nice: this was revelatory for me and I count it as the moment of origin in my life as a critic.

My parents were in town this weekend and we ate our way through Manhattan. Tastes do change over the decades, though. I can now say, with amusement and pride, that I can compare the relative merits of the foie gras appetizer at three restaurants (and this is in addition to the wonderful one at 71 Clinton Street)…

Thursday, October 27, 2005

We are Gentlemen from Japan

If you must know who we are
We are gentlemen from Japan

Last Friday, I had coffee with a student just back from two weeks in Japan; he was helping a colleague settle in for a Fulbright year there. Most days, I read Ty’s blog about his year in the JET program: he’s teaching in Japan. Out of the blue, last month, I got a postcard from my oldest friend who was on vacation in Japan.

What’s a homebound Anglophile to do? Well, that was me, tapping my feet to The Mikado on the train this morning. Very little can beat Gilbert and Sullivan. It’s not exactly Japan—it really is pretty far from Japan—but the Victorian version of what might be interesting about Japan is hilarious, rousing, lovely, and makes a nice counterpoint to the vagaries of the commute.

When I first got my iPod, I loaded it with the Fernham equivalent of smooth jazz: lots of Brazilian jazz and soulful world music, nothing too loud or strange. That was lovely. But now, the floodgates are open and I am just putting every single thing onto it. It makes shuffle a little unnerving (Willie Nelson came on the other day. How can that be? Well, he’s on the Johnny Cash retrospective…), but I must say that it’s lovely to have the Gilbert and Sullivan option.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005


Today’s “assembly” was a Zen “sitting” for beginners. This was an event meant to bring freshmen together with professors and staff and it did. I enjoyed it and enjoyed the stray thoughts that the luxury of ninety minutes of guided meditation brings. What was it like? It was slightly more stressful than a Quaker meeting (because you have to sit in a special way—though I opted for chair and not cushion) and slightly less (because you never have to talk or worry that the spirit is not so moving you).

I found myself charmed by the teacher (the roshi)’s humility and his utter unwillingness to “sell” Zen practices to us. This was a step up from the proselytizing I remember from meditation practices in Seattle in the seventies. So, I found myself remembering the guided visualization I did during drama class in the gym at the Orca School. (I kid you not.) At the time, I hated those moments, on the floor, eyes closed, listening to a record of whale sounds. (Again, you may think I jest unless you, too, remember Seattle or Seattle-like places in the seventies.) But, I must have liked them or been moved or impressed by them because I remember them vividly. And that memory always takes me to a purely happy one, of my Creative Dramatics Class, years earlier, in the basement of the University District Public Library. At the end of every class, we got to pick out a couple ribbons and pretend to be sea anemones by running around in circles waving the fabric. That is about the most fun I have ever had. I was four.

I also shocked myself almost to giggles with my own small vanities, thinking “she’s not very good at sitting still”; “she needs to turn that phone OFF”; “he certainly seems to be concentrating”; “boy, my hands are stubby.”

During a moment of questions, one young man asked what to do with the thoughts that come during a sitting.

You must endure them, came the answer.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Well, La Di Dah

I was eleven when “Annie Hall” came out in 1977. My parents were Woody Allen fans and I remember seeing it all the time, it seemed, on television, which must mean more than once since this was before VCRs or DVDs. My mom, who would watch Allen kissing beautiful women with a hilarious combination of shock and attraction (O my god! Gross! Look!), encouraged me to adopt some of Diane Keaton’s Annie Hall style and I did occasionally wear neckties and caps to middle school. Diane Keaton was the only movie star that ever received any kind of official parental endorsement and it was clear to me that their admiration—and mine—was warranted. She was incredibly cool.

Last week, I wanted to write a brief piece in appreciation of Daphne Merkin’s essay on jolie-laide in the Times’ T magazine. The moment passed, but the Merkin-Keaton combination in this Sunday’s magazine is irresistible. Merkin’s got a lovely cheerful tone—a nice way of coming across as a smart woman who likes to write about trivial things. She’s neither condescending about matters like movie stars and make-up nor is she dazzled by them.

A theme of Merkin’s profile is Keaton’s own sense of minor regret—she should have been more courageous, less afraid of intimacy—and the fact of our (America’s Hollywood’s) utter failure to appreciate her talent. What struck me is how much wealth Keaton’s self-diagnosed timidity has brought to her life: an array of interesting lovers instead of marriage, the financial freedom to pursue hobbies (such as home decorating and renovation) at a high level, a career unlike anyone else’s, chances to edit, direct, and photograph, motherhood on her own schedule (She is 59; she adopted the first of her two children at 50.). She is still incredibly cool—and Merkin is the right writer to show it.

The profile made me deeply and giddily happy again, as Keaton’s Hall always has done, but it also left me stumped: how could anyone bring these two together again? Clearly, Merkin needs to write a screenplay…

Monday, October 24, 2005

BBC’s Byron

I cannot say much about the BBC’s Byron which aired this weekend since it was on past my bedtime. I set my reading (the wonderful Brick Lane) down at 9:45 or so on Saturday, clicked on the t.v. and found the show that my former student had told me about over coffee on Friday. I got through a good forty minutes—enough to make me wish for greater stamina or a dvd. It’s fitting that this should be so: Byron conducted his whole life past my bedtime.

Jonny Lee Miller (Trainspotting) plays Byron and he struck me as just right: irritiating, immoral, sexy, imperious, petulant. I also found the depiction of Byron’s friendship with Shelley to be just what I wanted. When I studied Romantic poetry in college, Byron did not even rank and Shelley was held up to us as a great political hero, a revolutionary and poet who fulfilled the ideas that the first generation Romantics—well, really, mainly Wordsworth—espoused and then backed away from. But I could never get excited about Shelley. It was not just his generic mistreatment of women. (His first wife killed herself; Mary Shelley was consistently belittled for taking the deaths of her children too hard.) I just found the whole idea—Terry Eagleton’s and others’—of Shelley as somehow the best, most moral poet as somehow annoying. I preferred Coleridge.

From Byron’s point of view, however, Shelley comes off as a real prig and I find that small revenge on Shelley somehow satisfying. Often right about important things (such as Byron’s shocking neglect of his daughter Allegra), Shelley shows up at Byron’s house occasionally to remind him of his duties, to call him back to himself. In this moral universe, Byron’s complete lack of interest in what others think is a more truly revolutionary stance than Shelley’s complicated dance of revolutionary politics and forays back into respectability. I guess, in the end, Shelley still cared that others like him while Byron enjoyed notoriety more.

Friday, October 21, 2005

Goops and How to Be Them

Gelett Burgess (1866-1951), an American humorist and author of light verse (notably the one about the purple cow), wrote Goops and How to Be Them in 1900. It’s a delightfully illustrated book of light verse on manners. (Burgess did the drawings, too.) The children, good and bad, are little bald creatures with completely round heads and strangely elastic bodies. The adults, more realistically rendered, tower over them and wear more detailed Victorian clothes.

My father gave a copy to us and we loved it. The book is dedicated “to Agnes who is Not (always) a Goop!” and all the poems have that same mischievous spirit: endorsing good manners while winking at the fun of misbehaving:
The Goops they lick their fingers,
And the Goops they lick their knives;
They spill their broth on the tablecloth—
Oh, they lead disgusting lives!
The Goops they talk while eating,
And loud and fast they chew;
And that is why I’m glad that I
Am not a Goop—are you?
Now, the beloved toddler, not yet three, is requesting nightly readings from Goops, or “Folks,” as she calls it, laughing and trying to remember the right name. Forty years ago, my admiration, fostered by my father, was an eccentric taste for an old book of comic poems about etiquette. Now, in 2005, what does it mean? Good manners are in fact important to me, more so than I would have thought, and I love this way of teaching them. Having the book that I had makes me confident in the message; it feels less connected to the dubious morality of groups like the Moral Majority with whom I (probably) agree on table manners but disagree on most everything else. What interests me almost equally is the eccentricity. When does encouraging her to be an individual and introducing her to things that I care about move from powerful fun into willed eccentricity? Time will tell, no doubt but in the end, parenting (mine at least) continues ad hoc.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Vita and Virginia

No, not that old pair of Sapphists.

I’m happy to report that Farrar Strauss Giroux has published a translation of Melania Mazzucco’s Vita, a sweeping historical novel of Italian immigrant life. The translator is my dear friend Ginny, Virginia Jewiss. I’ll give you the full report once I’ve read it but the notices are good (one in the New Yorker this week—not the architecture one, the one after that) and most don’t mention the translation—alas, usually a good sign. Those that do, have only praise. Of course, I expect no less from Ginny whose Italian is flawless and who, one memorable Easter, came to my tiny apartment with a guest, a merry Italian poet who taught me the expression “fuore come un balcone” (spelling?). Literally, “crazy like a balcony,” but meaning something like “so far out that she’s not even in the house.”

Bravissma, Ginny!

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Mrs. Dalloway, Again

The change of seasons has hit hard here at Fernham and the fatigue is intense. Ten hours of sleep sounds just about right. So, after two days home with a slightly peaked, deeply whiny, and yet still much beloved toddler, what passes for getting back to work is not very impressive.

As I procrastinate my way toward approaching this essay on teaching Mrs. Dalloway, I’ve been reading the new edition. I s-l-o-w-l-y read my friend Mark’s general introduction to the new Harcourt edtion and now, with equally painstaking care, am reading Bonnie Kime Scott’s introduction to the novel.

Savoring these familiar details, I see that in reading, I’m not that unlike the beloved toddler herself: “Tell me again about how her mom died when she was thirteen; tell me the one about how Bloomsbury started again; tell me what you think about her marriage to Leonard; tell me again about starting the Hogarth Press.” It’s intoxicating. I read about the deceased Thoby Stephen’s college friends gathering at the Bloomsbury house of his sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, to talk and I hunger to start my own salon. It happens every time.

Finding Woolf again, and again, and again, I feel boring and lucky. Mostly lucky.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Summer Guest

When my mom sent along Broken for You she said that the one she really wanted me to read was Justin Cronin’s The Summer Guest (2003; a second novel—he won a PEN/Hemingway award for Mary and O’Neil).

So, I read it.

It’s a lovely and moving book. And, in the category of uplifting books about the terminally ill, head and shoulders above the Kallos. But that’s unfair. The book, set in a fishing camp in rural Maine (about an hour north of Waterville, so inland and remote, lake country not the coast), follows the lives of employees and guests one summer when a very rich frequent guest comes to the camp with some quite specific final requests. It’s one of those one-character-at-a-time, flashback heavy novels but in this case, the device builds suspense rather than feeling cheap. And the way that kind people cope with missed chances in life is really movingly handled. It’s rare to read a book that has so many adults in it, so many characters who create good lives even after disappointment. For example, the prologue describes a man—lawyer and veteran, disfigured by a shell in WWII, taking his wife and infant son to live in remote Maine. He cannot stand to live where everyone pities his ravaged face. His wife, once a concert-level pianist, comes along with some trepidation. But this doesn’t turn into a story about a bitter marriage or soured hopes or a sad and lonesome retreat. I worried, with this set up, that I might be reading a paler, sadder Angle of Repose, but Cronin’s characters accept their fate and build their lives as best they can from there. The characters are rich, the plot is both surprising and satisfying, and the language is assured, sensitive and intelligent. A really, really fine and diverting read.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Rain Boots

When we lived in Indiana, I didn’t do much walking. I was teaching in a village and living in the country. I drove everywhere; we even drove to the trail where we ran. Now, a city girl again, I need rain boots. Last spring, I got myself some fine ones from L. L. Bean: inexpensive rubber wellies in a multi-colored stripe--the kind of fun, happy boots that I had as a child and that I was seeing on grown women all over the city. The rain left before I got to wear them but they sit proudly on the floor of my closet/study and I admire them daily.

Today, it rained and rained and rained. It rained as it does here—more than Boston, harder than Seattle. It rains so that you want to lay in lumber to build an ark. I didn’t wear the wellies, though; I wore my spiffy new black Timberlands. It’s still early enough in the fall that being all in black feels special and cool. Still, the wellies call me. Tonight, on WNYC, Margaret Juntwait said her feet became so sopping on the way to work, she stopped in a shoe store and bought a pair of those brightly colored Wellingtons that everyone seems to be wearing. So hip, am I, I thought! I hopped online and found a similarly exuberantly striped pair at Land’s End (no big spender, I) for the beloved toddler.

Just ten minutes ago, my husband poked his head in my closet, “You know, those boots,” pointing down at my multi-stripe wellies, “are gone this year. None of the NYU students were wearing them today.”

Sigh. Middle age.

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Food Writing

I’ve been thinking a lot about food writing lately & it seems others have, too. Over the summer I bought a copy of Gastronomica which I enjoyed but, alas, not as much as I’d hoped. It’s a beautifully produced quarterly with lovely images, few ads, and a range of articles, essays, and creative work on food. Although I liked it enough to go back for their Julia Child Tribute issue (unread, at the bottom of a pile somewhere around here), I also read it thinking that there was still a lot of room in the food-writing category.

It doesn’t look like Julie Powell or Doug Psaltis are rushing in to fill the gap. The bad reviews of their new books have brought me many smiles these past few days. David Kamp in the Times admonishes Powell to avoid what he sees as
a larger, troublesome trend among young memoirists, who seem to think that repeated references to their poor hygiene and the squalidness of their surroundings give texture and depth to their work. No, no, no! Being subjected over and over again to images of your piled-up dirty dishes and backed-up plumbing (bodily and otherwise) only makes me want to put down your book. Stop it!
I love the “Stop it!” Much better than the currently ubiquitous “ick!” it manages to be both humorous and scolding at once. A lovely moment.

Over at Tingle Alley, you can find a skeptical read of Powell’s book (Julie and Julia, which emerged from her blog and chronicles her efforts to cook every recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year). That book—Child’s book—has epic status in my home, too. Years ago, before I was born, my father went on a business trip to New York City. My parents were newlyweds and my mother was new to Seattle. Every night, so my mother says, she turned down invitations to dine in order to stay home by the phone. But he did not call. He came home, happy and full of stories of many wonderful meals out in the City. Her present? Mastering the Art of French Cooking with recipes marked: he was hoping she could recreate some of that fine dining at home. She was...steamed? frosted? Let's say, as she might, that she found it interesting that he would offer this as a gift. The final straw was his request for Filet de boeuf Prince Albert a recipe for truffle-stuffed beef that contains multiple sub-recipes and takes pages and pages of Child et al.'s book. My mom put her foot down with that one: never! But, she did learn to cook with Julia (as did I). And, for my father’s 65th birthday, my sister and I helped her make the dish for my dad. It was delicious. But, as my mother says, she’ll never make it again.

As for Doug Psaltis, Bookdwarf charts with amusement the little tangle of some very important chefs who seem to have blurbed the book proposal, not realizing the book itself would be so nasty. The Times has some lovely quotations from Jacques Pepin—whose own memoir was so lovely—and Mario Batali, both of whom are distancing themselves from the difficult Psaltis.

So, for now, thinking of going back to M. F. K. Fisher (I love "Young Hunger" and haven't read it in years), looking at the unopened Brillat-Savarin on my shelf, and I’m sticking with Andrea Strong. Strong's weekly newsletter always makes me hungry and happy: that’s good food writing!

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Copyright & Google Again

I’m beginning to write an essay for a book on how to teach Mrs. Dalloway (it will be part of the MLA’s Approaches to Teaching series. And, in looking at the preface to Approaches to Teaching Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I found one of the best explanations of why current copyright law works against scholars, teachers, students, and common readers:
Originally slated to come out of copyright in 2002, seventy-five years after publication, To the Lighthouseis no under copyright in the United States until 2022, in conformity with the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act….In England,…Woolf’s works went into the public domain [briefly] (1992-95)….In Canada, Woolf’s works are now out of copyright.

Virginia Woolf died in 1941. Her husband died in 1960. They had no heirs. Keeping her work in copyright until 2022 insures huge profits for her U.S. publisher, Harcourt who has—and will have--no competition.

Capitalizing on the success of The Hours, Harcourt hastily published a Mrs. Dalloway Reader. It was sloppily researched and full of misleading information. Material written long after the novel was presented in the Reader as if it were a prelude and there was little in the way of information to lead a curious reader to accurate sources on Woolf’s life, writing, and works. To their credit, Harcourt responded to a letter from a group of Woolf scholars and published a corrected volume. And, out of the same protest, Harcourt learned that teachers wanted annotated editions of Woolf’s novels—not cumbersome ones, but the kind that help undergraduates or people reading on their own get a foothold on some basic facts about London in the 20s, etc. Now, they have actually published a nice, lightly annotated edition of Mrs. Dalloway. But Penguin and Oxford did their treatment to all of Woolf’s novels in 1992: for the past thirteen years, I have had those editions in my personal library but been unable to teach from them because I cannot order English books (and now they’re not available in England, either). I don’t see how copyright law serves anything but Harcourt. I don’t hate them nor am I broadly anti-corporation, but I think that the Copyright Extension Act is absurd.

Elsewhere,Over at Moorish Girl, guest writer Marcy Dermansky recommends a personal favorite of mine: Antonia White’s stunning, heartbreaking Frost in May. Read it!

and I recently earned a little money reviewing a book (a textbook) and sent 25% of it off to Book Relief: this seems like a great Katrina relief charity for readers. They’re working—with generous donations from publishers—to help children, schools, and libraries affected by the hurricane rebuild their personal libraries. Publishers are donating the books, so a mere fifty cents gets a book to a child.

71 Clinton Fresh Food

Last spring, Andrea Strong wrote a column/rant in the Strong Buzz urging New Yorkers to go to restaurants with challenging menus. If New York is to remain a world-class restaurant city, she argued, New Yorkers need to support chefs who stretch themselves beyond a really nice roast chicken. High on that list of restaurants was wd-50, Willie Dufresne’s Lower East Side restaurant.

Still, I wasn’t sure I wanted challenging for my birthday dinner, so we had a drink at wd-50 and headed across the street to Dufresne’s first restaurant (now under its third chef), 71 Clinton Fresh Food. The menu at wd-50 looked even better in person than it had on the web; the restaurant even prettier at night than it had walking past one midday last spring. Our drinks were lovely; the bartenders knowledgeable and friendly (a nice combination). In short, we were a bit sorry to have been conservative in our choice.

But the meal at 71 Clinton did not disappoint. My husband started with a salad of heirloom tomatoes and goat cheese curd. It was lovely but my appetizer was stratospheric: a foie gras nougat (a huge, creamy dollop of foie gras) sitting on a bed of what looked like tiny grape nuts but were caramel crunchy things, and covered in pale green basil foam. To the side was a small lump of pink gelatin with a rosy-citrusy taste. I was in heaven. It was so pretty and really one of the yummiest things I’ve ever tasted.

My veal (and yes, I ordered foie gras and veal: with a babysitter about four times a year, each event ought to be a real blow-out, I think) was a little intimidating. I don’t think I liked it—well, I know I didn’t like it but it was interesting enough and good enough that I’m willing to believe I might be partly to blame. Anyway, it was a very big, very, very pink piece of meat: about six or seven thick two-bite pieces. In college, I had a friend from Pakistan who complained that all the meat in the states really tasted of meat; she was used to cooking with lovely masking sauces and vegetables in which you weren’t so aware of eating flesh. I thought of her.

My husband’s chicken was divine. Cooked sous vide (under empty?—the waiter says they seal it in a pouch and poach it), it was pale, pale, pale (more meatiness, but less jarring to me) and tender as butter. It sat atop a little pile of swiss chard next to a small pile of gnocchi—the best, lightest potato pillows!—all bathed in a brown butter and foie gras (mmmm…) sauce. His chicken matched my appetizer.

For dessert? Chilled peach soup with vanilla shortbread cookies and a generous dollop of crème fraiche gelato. Delicious.

Clinton Street and the Lower East Side in general was hopping after dark—I love just being out and feeling myself part of a scene—and Malcolm Gladwell was seated just a few tables away from us inside, so all in all, it was a good night. And, thanks to the New Yorker writer with the huge forehead and crazy hair, I even managed to get a smidge of literature in this post…

Monday, October 03, 2005

August Wilson, R. I. P.

On October 17, the Virginia Theater will be renamed in honor of playwright August Wilson, who died yesterday in Seattle. His achievement, a ten-play epic, chronicling a century of African-American life (one play for each decade) is magnificent. Wilson announced his terminal cancer late this summer, the announcement about the theater-naming (Broadway’s first theater named for a black playwright), and the premier this year of his tenth play: this confluence of events means, I hope, that Wilson himself got to hear some of the praise that will continue to pour his way in the weeks to come.

In college, I took a course in African-American literature and we made a field trip down to New York. We walked around Harlem, lunched at Sylvia’s, and then went to see Courtney B. Vance star in “Fences.” My professor had been Vance’s at Harvard (where he’d discouraged Vance from acting) and so we got to meet the actor afterwards. Somewhere, I still have a snapshot of the two of them, surrounded by us, twenty undergraduate women. And I remember the set, tall and intimidating with huge verticals separating the apartment wall from the tiny yard, reminding you at all times of the hemmed-in life of this middle class family. I liked “Fences,” but I also found it very talky and a little depressing. (I was twenty, after all.) The play, about a frustrated man taking his anger out on a gifted son, was hard for me to watch then: one does not want to think that adulthood can be disappointing on the cusp of it. Growing up in Seattle, in a little racial utopia, it was hard to see the real consequences of racism on lives, to see wasted talent. I wanted so badly to believe that the world was hungry for talent, that the world hated to see gifts of any kind go to waste.

In grad school, you could get a great deal on tickets at the Yale Rep: a season for about five dollars a play, so I saw “The Piano Lesson” and “Two Trains Running.” Lloyd Richards, Wilson’s longtime collaborator and the Yale Rep artistic director did a wonderful job on those productions, but my memory of them is imperfect. I remember the set of “Two Trains Running” as gorgeous and I remember rooting for the characters, for their love even as I worried the worst would happen. I knew that we were lucky and it was special to have these things premiering in front of our eyes. Still, snob that I was, I dismissed Wilson’s plays at times as too like Lorraine Hansberry’s. Having seen “A Raisin in the Sun” countless times (including one memorable and terrific performance at Holy Names High School starring my friend Bob Smith), I thought that his plays were just too realistic, too ordinary. Now, I find it hard to imagine a cooler achievement. He set himself a really interesting long-term project; he spent twenty years working on it but did not—at least as far as I can see—force himself to stick to too many rules other than the loose one of a play per decade. If writing “A Raisin in the Sun” is an achievement worthy of a lifetime, what does it mean to have written ten?

May he rest in peace.

The Times obituary is good. And, for those of us who could use the refresher, Newsday helpfully put the cycle in order:

"Gem of the Ocean"
Set in: 1904
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, April 2003
Plot: A young man seeks an old seer's counsel about a violent incident, while a former Underground Railroad guide frets over his sister and a black constable tries to enforce the white man's law.

"Joe Turner's Come and Gone"
Set in: 1911
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1986
Plot: A mysterious man in search of his wife, accompanied by his young daughter, arrives at a boarding house where a neighbor tries to help him rediscover his identity.

"Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Set in: 1927
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 1984
Plot: In a Chicago recording studio, Ma Rainey and her band -- exploited by the white-run music industry -- fall into strife among themselves.

"The Piano Lesson"
Set in: 1936
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, November 1987
Plot: Boy Willie, a sharecropper from the South, wants to sell his family's ancestral piano. His Pittsburgh sister Berniece insists on keeping it -- the piano has the carved faces of their great-grandfather's wife and daughter, who were sold in exchange for the piano during the days of slavery.

"Seven Guitars"
Set in: 1948
Premiere: Goodman Theatre, Chicago, January 1995
Plot: A group of neighbors in the backyard of a tenement house returns from a funeral, and the play flashes back to the final week of the young singer-songwriter who died.

Set in: 1957
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, May 1985
Plot: A former Negro League baseball player who was born too soon to make the transition to the major leagues now collects garbage and nurses grudges against his athletic 17-year-old son.

"Two Trains Running"
Set in: 1969
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, March 1990
Plot: A group of regulars hangs out at a cafe that might be condemned -- or might be bought by the nearby mortuary owner. Romance blossoms between an ex-con and a waitress.

Set in: 1977
Premiere: Allegheny Repertory Theatre, Pittsburgh, 1982
Plot: The owner of an unlicensed cab business faces the threat that his building will be demolished, while his son -- out of prison after 20 years -- seeks a reconciliation.

"King Hedley II"
Set in: 1985
Premiere: Pittsburgh Public Theatre, December 1999
Plot: The title character, just out of jail, is saving money to open a video store but instead becomes a bank robber.

"Radio Golf"
Set in: 1997
Premiere: Yale Repertory Theatre, April 2005
Plot: While Aunt Ester's house is scheduled for demolition, Harmond Wilkes II wants to teach kids in the neighborhood how to play golf -- and wants to become Pittsburgh's first black mayor. His partner helps a white radio investor take advantage of minority ownership tax breaks.