The Piano Lesson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by American playwright August Wilson. The Piano Lesson is the fourth play in Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle," also called his "Century Cycle": a series of ten plays exploring the African American experience in the 20th century. Nine of the plays, including The Piano Lesson, are set in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, and each play is set in a different decade. The Piano Lesson is set in 1936, in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
Boy Willie Charles is described by Wilson in the stage notes in the published version of the play.
BOY WILLIE is thirty years old. He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name. He is brash and impulsive, talkative and somewhat crude in speech and manner.
Boy Willie and his friend, Lymon, have driven for two and a half days and 1,800 miles from Sunflower County, Mississippi, in a beat up old watermelon truck which broke down three times on the way, with a full load of watermelons they plan to sell. Boy Willie want to sell the family piano and use the money to buy a share of land that he's sharecropping in Mississippi where his ancestors once worked as slaves.
Boy Willie's sister, Berneice, who is half-owner of the piano, is opposed to selling the piano. She considers the piano a family heirloom. Their father, Boy Charles, died stealing the piano, and the piano represents to her the family's history and legacy, as well as a reminder of their ancestors's enslavement and emancipation.
Despite his boyish attitude and infectious grin, Boy Willie is loud, stubborn, and prone to getting into fights and breaking the law, which is the reason he was sent to Parchman Farm, a prison plantation in Mississippi, from which he was only recently released.
Boy Willie is also a dreamer. He dreams of becoming a landowner and a farmer in his own right, unlike his father, Boy Charles, who never owned any land.
Boy Willie is also practical and unsentimental. He doesn't see the piano as a family and cultural treasure but simply as a means to accomplish his dreams. He's not above using his father's failures, and even his father's death, to support his argument for selling the piano to make something of himself, equal to any white man in the Jim Crow South of Mississippi.
BOY WILLIE. If my daddy had seen where he could have traded that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now. He spent his whole life farming on somebody else’s land. I ain’t gonna do that. See, he couldn’t do no better. When he come along he ain’t had nothing he could build on. His daddy ain’t had nothing to give him. The only thing my daddy had to give me was that piano. And he died over giving me that. I ain’t gonna let it sit up there and rot without trying to do something with it. (Act 1, scene 2)
Ultimately, and with the help of the Charles family ghosts, Boy Willie comes to realize the importance of the piano and what it represents to him and to his family.