In August Wilson's The Piano Lesson, how does the piano represent the family's freedom from oppression in many ways?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In August Wilson’s 1990 play “The Piano Lesson,” the significance of the piano is only hinted at through much of the first act, when Boy Willie and his friend Lymon show up at the door of Boy Willie’s sister Berniece home, where she lives with her uncle, Doaker Charles.  In no time, the purpose of this surprise visit becomes clear.  Boy Willie wants to sell an old piano in Berniece’s possession so that he can use the money to buy land from the heir to the white slave owner who owned as slaves Boy Willie and Berniece’s ancestors and who had purchased the piano for his wife Ophelia. In order to purchase the panel, the slave owner, Sutter, sold Mama Berniece and her son, Walter, thereby splitting the family.  Mama Berniece’s husband carved images of the family into the piano, thereby imbuing the instrument with a sentimental and spiritual importance that would key the plot of Wilson’s play.  The piano ends up in the Pittsburgh home of Doaker, having been stolen from Sutter’s heirs by the Charles family.  Apparently, the ghost of Sutter haunts the Charles family, as it seeks to be reunited with the piano.  As mentioned, early in the play, the significance of the piano is hinted at in Boy Willie’s explanation as to the challenge he faces in selling the instrument:

"I’m gonna talk to her. She been playing on it? DOAKER: You know she won’t touch that piano. I ain’t never known her to touch it since Mama Ola died. That’s over seven years now. She say it got blood on it.”

This is followed by additional suggestions of the piano’s significance and the notion that it is somehow haunted and has a hold on Berniece that will not allow her to part with it:

"Just go on and leave. Let Sutter go somewhere else looking for you. BOY WILLIE: I’m leaving. Soon as we sell them watermelons. Other than that I ain’t going nowhere. Hell, I just got here. Talking about Sutter looking for me. Sutter was looking for that piano. That’s what he was looking for. He had to die to find out where that piano was at...If I was you I’d get rid of it. That’s the way to get rid of Sutter’s ghost. Get rid of that piano.”

As Boy Willie’s machinations continue, over the objections of Doaker and, when she becomes aware of her brother’s plans, Berniece, the full importance of the piano is made clear.  It is Doaker who enlightens Boy Willie by telling his nephew the history of the piano and its relationship to his grandmother, Mama Berniece, and father, the young man Walter. It is Berniece, however, who, exhausted with Boy Willie’s efforts to sell the piano, finally reveals the piano’s significance to her:

“You ain’t taking that piano out of my house. [She crosses to the piano.] Look at this piano. Look at it. Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Thensherubbedthebloodin...mixeditupwiththerestofthebloodonit. Every day that God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it. “Play something for me, Berniece. Play something forme,Berniece.”Everyday.“Icleaneditupforyou,playsomethingforme, Berniece.” You always talking about your daddy but you ain’t never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mama. Seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what? For a piano? For a piece of wood? To get even with somebody? I look at you and you’re all the same. You, Papa Boy Charles, Wining Boy, Doaker, Crawley . . . you’re all alike. All this thieving and killing and thieving and killing. And what it ever lead to? More killing and more thieving. I ain’t never seen it come to nothing. People getting burned up. People getting shot. People falling down their wells. It don’t never stop.”

The piano has a disturbing hold on Berniece, suggestions of ghosts and demons contribute her reluctance to upset the status quo with regard to its place in her life and in the home in which she, Doaker, and Berniece’s 11-year-old daughter Maretha live.  Berniece will not part with this vital family possession; the piano represents the history of her family and is her only link to her family’s past.  She won’t play the piano, but she cannot part with it.  In the end, having finally defeated Boy Willie’s plans and acknowledging the visiting preacher Avery’s failure to exorcise the demons that haunt her, she sits and plays the piano.  Only by playing the piano and pleading for help from the late Mama Berniece is the home finally exorcised of the ghost of Sutter, and the play ends with Boy Willie preparing to leave town and telling Berniece to keep on playing lest he and the ghost of Sutter once more return:

“Hey Berniece . . . if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano . . . ain’t no telling . . . me and Sutter both liable to be back.”

To which Berniece can only say, “thank you.”

The piano in Wilson’s play represents the family’s freedom from oppression only to the extent it is actually played. It is Berniece’s final action -- the playing of the instrument --  that brings peace to her home, not the removal of the piano, which doesn’t occur.  The carvings in the piano and the price Sutter had paid for its purchase – the Charles family ancestors – imbued it with a special significance, but it had to be played to remove the yoke of oppression that haunted the family through generations. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial