In The Piano Lesson, however, Wilson traces the play's historical complications back three generations, to an incident in the family's slave legacy that has left them to face the present in terms of a history that, seventy-five years later, is not just personal, but communal and familial. As a result, we see nearly a century of history in the play, which shows us how slavery and other issues of the past are intricately intertwined with the present. In fact, they seem to exist in the present. More specifically, Berniece cannot let go of the memory of the father who died retrieving the piano from the slave-owning family that possessed it. She cannot see past the sweat of her slave grandfather who carved the faces of her family on its wooden surface or the tears of her mother as she played it, mourning over her lost husband. Berniece only associates the past with pain, which is why she cannot deal with her future. Only when she acknowledges the past and finally plays the piano to help relieve the home of Sutter’s ghost, is Berniece free and able to pass it on (with knowledge) to future generations. Through this example, Wilson shows that the past is valuable, something that needs to be faced and understood and then shared. Without that understanding a person will only find misery
The play takes place in the 1930s, and the U.S. was in the midst of an economic depression that stemmed from weaknesses in our economy after World War I. In just three years, from 1929 to 1932, the number of people who had no job increased from 1.5 million to 15 million people. By the mid-1930s, the depression had hit rural areas hard, especially in agriculture, forcing many black farm laborers to lose their jobs. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt led to reforms through his New Deal plan, and most African Americans changed their political party to the Democrats, in support of Roosevelt.
Even though slavery was outlawed, it would be the 1950s and 1960s before civil rights legislation would be passed, legally forcing white Americans to give black Americans the same rights and freedoms that was promised to all Americans in the Bill of Rights.
Well it was the Great Depression, but Wilson chose to write in an "alternate" universe, where the community of Pittsburgh was striving enough that opportunities presented themselves enough that 1)the watermelons weren't stolen from the back of Lymon's truck 2) Avery could hold down a job as an elevator operator and find an opportunity to build up a church and "finally" 3)most importantly that any man, not just a black man could have enough capital to purchase anything let alone any amount of land. This play is not a good reference to the reality of what was going on, but it is a great example of showing northern and southern blacks in a positive light, showing everyday family issues i.e. siblings having issues regarding family heirlooms, as well as issues unique to black culture i.e. ancestral spirits, the use of music in telling a story and healing, and the struggles with faith.