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....
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.