The Piano Lesson

by August Wilson

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In the play The Piano Lesson, what does the piano mean to each character?

In The Piano Lesson, the piano represents the Charles family's history as well as the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their identity, language and culture in the generations following slavery. The play takes place in 1936 in Pittsburgh. It is set in Mama Ola's house, which is a symbol of the past, where Mama Ola kept her dead husband's ashes. The stage directions read: It is a large room with a high ceiling and an attic stairway at right center rear. There are two windows on either side of the door downstage left. A wall separates off the kitchen area at right rear. The floor is bare except for three old rugs: one by each window, another covering most of center stage area.

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In his play, The Piano Lesson,August Wilson uses the piano to represent the Charles family's history as well as the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their identity, language, and culture in the generations following slavery.

The piano originally belonged to Robert Sutter, the owner of Bernice and Boy Willie's great grandmother and father. He bought it as an anniversary present for his wife, Miss Ophelia, by trading Berneice (great grandmother of Berneice and Boy Willie) and her grandfather for the piano from a neighboring slave owner, Mr. Nolander. At first she loved the piano, but soon she began to miss her slaves and fell sick that they were gone. As Doaker tells us when giving the history of the play:

Miss Ophelia got to missing my grandmother . . . the way she would cook and clean the house and talk to her and what not. And she missed having my daddy around the house to fetch things for her. So she asked to see if maybe she could trade back that piano and get her [slaves] back. (Act 1)

Mr. Nolander refused to trade back, so Sutter had Willie Boy carve their faces on the piano to allow Miss Ophelia to still see them. However, Willie Boy didn't stop there. He carved their family history on the piano.

He made them up out of his memory. Only thing . . . he didn’t stop there. He carved all this. He got a picture of his mama . . . Mama Esther . . . and his daddy, Boy Charles. (Act 1)

Even after slavery was outlawed, the Charles family felt as if by still possessing the piano, the Sutters still owned a piece of them. Berneice and Boy Willie's uncles, Doaker and Winning Boy, and their father, Boy Charles, stole the piano on July 4, 1911, after years of listening to Boy Charles pushing to get the piano back. The night of the theft, Doaker and Winning Boy took the piano to Mama Ola's house, but Boy Charles stayed behind to prevent any suspicion. Things do not go as planned; when he saw them coming he jumped on a train, the Yellow Dog. Doaker explains that Sutter and his men "stopped the train and found Boy Charles in the boxcar with four of them hobos. Must have got mad when they couldn’t find the piano cause they set the boxcar afire and killed everybody."

Despite the death of Boy Charles, their family kept the piano in Mama Ola's house until her death. Berneice tells us that her Mama thought she could communicate with the dead through the piano and that at night the spirits of her ancestors carved on the piano came to life.

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. Then she rubbed the blood in... mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it....

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Every day that God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it. (Act 1)

When the play occurs, Mama Ola is deceased and Berniece and Doaker have the piano. Berneice refuses to play the piano for fear that she will end up like her mother talking to ghosts on the piano; however, at the end of the play it is only when she finally plays on the piano, and calls on the help of her ancestors, that the ghost of Sutter is finally banished from their home.

The meaning of the piano is different for each member of the Charles family.

To Doaker, the piano symbolizes their family history. The carvings represent their stories and the dignity of those who were enslaved. It also represents the violence of slavery; when he and his brothers stole the piano, his brother Boy Charles died by being set on fire while hiding in a boxcar.

To Berniece, the piano is her complicated connection to her family's past. She loves her mother and is still angry that her father died while stealing it—leaving her mother alone to raise their children. She is also angry that her husband died, also leaving her alone to raise their daughter. As a child, she hated having to play the piano for her mother, but in the climax of the play, it is she who banishes ghost Sutter by playing the piano. At the end of the play, she has embraced the power (and history) of the piano and is no longer afraid of it.

To Boy Willie, it appears at first that the piano doesn't mean anything to him but a way to get some quick cash to buy land; however, by the end of the play he recognizes the importance of the piano to his family and leaves without it.

To Maretha the piano is her connection to her family's past. As she continues to play the piano, she honors what her family has gone through, and now that she knows their past she is able to carry on their legacy and memories.

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The piano is an object that the characters use to make music and it has artistic value; it is a family heirloom, and a symbol of the deeply contradictory relationship that Americans have with the roles of slavery in the country’s past. For those who want to sell the piano, it also stands for the possibility of financial independence, and keeping the piano would be like continuing a life without liberty—another kind of slavery.

Doaker is sensitive to the economic connection between the piano and the family’s enslaved members in the past, whom the masters valued less than the instrument. Similarly, he is ambivalent toward the carvings and the sentiments they express.

The joint ownership between Berniece and Boy Willie encapsulates the general issue of family dynamics in facing the difficulty past. Berniece is particularly conflicted, knowing of the piano’s value as it represents culture; she wants her daughter to play. She believes it should stay in the family in part because it stands for the enslavement of their people, which the family should not forget. Her own resistance to playing embodies the contradictions in her thinking about the family past, and when she begins to play, the audience may catch a glimmer of hope.

Boy Willie is the character who is most detached from sentiment, even as he is attached to the Southern land, and he tries to look forward rather than backward. The piano is a burden, where it could bring liberation, at least partial, is with the money it could bring to help him farm.

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In August Wilson’s powerful play, The Piano Lesson, the piano is one of the most important symbols in the story. The piano itself is over a hundred years old and has carvings on it of slaves that Miss Ophelia requested be put on it. The piano represents something different to each character. Throughout the play, Doaker tells the history of the piano and also tries to maintain the peace in the house. Berniece wants to keep the piano because it’s meaningful to her. She thinks it is both cursed and sacred. She hasn’t played it since Mama Ola died and so she also wants to keep the piano to preserve her memory.

However, Boy Willie wants to sell the piano and along with the money from the watermelons he’s selling, buy Sutter's land; this is where his people used to work when they were slaves and he wants to get in back. There is conflict between Berniece and Boy Willie because she wants to keep the piano and he wants to sell it. Wining Boy plays the piano, passing on some of the family history by doing so. Maretha, the young girl, wants to play the piano, which shows that she is the new generation and not as tied to the history and emotions where the piano is concerned. 

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