What is the lesson from The Piano Lesson?

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Through focusing on a material object, August Wilson explores the abstract concepts of heritage and legacy. The siblings Berniece and Boy Willie in particular have highly contrasting views on the meaning of the piano—not just to themselves but to the whole family and to the African American community. The fact that the piano is intrinsically connected to their family’s enslaved past creates much of the ambiguity surrounding its significance. Rather than taking a firm stand supporting the perspective of any specific character, Wilson delves into the kinds of motivations that have led them to cherish or disdain the piano.

Berniece must acknowledge that the piano no longer serves her as a way to make music, but she steadfastly resists the idea that it is wasted. Its very size and mass are part of what she values, as the piano is an obvious reminder of the legacy that the siblings maintain from their deceased relatives. It stands for the value that the slave masters placed on them as well as reminds her of their painful past. In the end, Berniece reconnects with the music-making capabilities not just of the material possession but of herself as she plays it once more.

Boy Willie, however, sees a different kind of value in the piano. To him, it is worth money, and lack of money is an important component that distinguishes them from other people. The piano raises unpleasant memories of white people’s abuses when they valued objects over people. When Boy Willie relents, the audience sees that he values his relationship with his sister probably more than he agrees with her perspective.

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