How is the piano a symbol of the Charles' family spirituality in The Piano Lesson by August Wilson?

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Lori Steinbach | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The Piano Lesson by August Wilson centers, unsurprisingly, around a piano. This piano has a complicated history, but it begins as a simple musical instrument given as a gift to Ophelia Sutter by her husband, Robert. Sutter paid for the gift in trade; he traded two slaves for the piano. Those two slaves were members of the Charles family, the ancestors of the current keeper of the piano, Berniece Charles.

Because he lost his wife and son in the piano trade. Papa Boy Willie Charles asks permission, which he receives, to carve the faces of his wife and child as well as a kind of panorama of the Charles family history into the piano. It is a kind a family tree, of sorts.The piano stays with the Sutters through the Emancipation, but later it is stolen by the Charles family. They justified the criminal act by stating that their family would never be free until the piano (with their representative legacy carved into it) was in the hands of a Charles.

This is the history of the piano, but this does not tell us everything we need to know about it. Berniece always had a kind of spiritual connection to the piano. When her mother was alive, Berniece would play the piano and something unusual would happen. She says:

[W]hen I played [the piano] she could hear my daddy talking to her.

Somehow the piano has the ability to speak on behalf of dead family members. That sounds rather other-worldly, of course, and in a way it is. In another way, it is not surprising that Berniece's mother would hear her husband's voice, as he is the member of the Charles family who lost his life in the effort to recover the piano. The piano is his symbolic voice, and Berniece's mother's tears are now part of the piano.

There is a kind of spirituality connected with the piano and the playing of it, and Berniece could sense it.

I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house.... I don't play that piano cause I don't want to wake them spirits. They never be walking around in this house.

Knowing the power of this piano, she refused to play it for many, many years because she wanted the spirits of her family members, particularly her father's, to remain at peace.

Later, after her brother callously wants to sell the piano for his own selfish gain, Berneice fights to keep him from touching it. To him, the piano is just a means to an end and he even offers to split the piano in half so he can make some money on it. Even this has a spiritual implication, as it is reminiscent of the biblical story of Solomon and the two mothers who fight over a baby.

Reverend Avery appears on the scene, as well, adding another layer of spirituality to the piano. When there seems to be a spiritual war of sorts being waged in her house (actually around the piano) between the Charleses and the Sutters, Avery gives Berniece this command:

"Walk over here and claim it as an instrument of the Lord." 

Eventually she does. As she plays, Berniece calls upon her ancestors, as well as all people of her race, to come and eradicate the Sutter ghost. It seems to work, and the spiritual battle ceases--as does her brother's battle for his share of the piano. He finally realizes that there is something spiritual connected to the instrument, something his sister has almost always known and understood.

The piano embodies, in a spiritual sense, the family's strength as well as its pain. As a symbol, the piano represents the spiritual legacy of the Charles family, and now Berniece is the keeper of that legacy. 

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