The Piano Lesson deals with the historical phenomenon of the African American migration from the southern, agrarian way of life to the large industrial cities of the North in search of freedom, dignity, and economic opportunities. As such, the play has two settings, the onstage setting of Doaker’s house, located in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh in the present, and the setting of the past in the South from which all the characters in the play have come. It is through the collective memories of the characters that the southern, offstage setting is brought to life by talk of shared experiences, acquaintances, and family relations.
The sparsely furnished setting, “lacking in warmth and vigor,” of Doaker’s house captures the quality of life of those African Americans who have migrated to the North, where they are cut off from their family roots and history. Their life is stark, cold, and often lonely, and they live a life of grim necessity, hard work, and poverty. It is contrasted with life in the South, where, even though prejudice abounds, African Americans live close to the earth and their familial homes, close to the struggle, the suffering, and the meager triumphs of their ancestors, from which they draw spiritual sustenance.
The temporal location of the play is the year 1937, a time when the black migration northward was gaining momentum. Wilson is intrigued by this phenomenon and has said that he believes that it was a mistake for African Americans to leave the South, where they could have eventually gained economic power by owning the land. Instead, in the North they still encountered prejudice and found themselves huddled in squalid neighborhoods and working in menial jobs.
The conflict of The Piano Lesson is classic in its naturalistic simplicity. Two people are obsessed with conflicting desires: Boy Willie is determined to sell the piano, and Berniece is...
(The entire section is 790 words.)