The play opens in Act 1 in the kitchen and parlor of Doaker Charles' home, which he shares with his niece Berniece and her daughter Maretha. This is Pittsburgh in the 1930s. The most arresting piece of furniture in this scene is an old piano which is decorated with African sculptural art.
It is early (five o'clock in the morning) when Berniece's brother, Boy Willie, pounds on the door to be let in. He is with his partner, Lymon, who he claims has been helping him sell watermelons. The main reason Boy Willie wants to see Berniece is to try to negotiate with her to let him sell the piano, which was originally owned by the Sutter family. The Sutter family owned slaves from the Charles family, and the piano was a wedding anniversary gift from Robert Sutter to his wife Ophelia. Members of the Charles family stole the piano from the Sutter family after the Emancipation of the slaves. Boy Charles, Boy Willie's father, belonged to the group responsible for stealing the piano and he is killed when Sutter's son burns the boxcar he is hiding in.
Boy Willie wants to start his own farm and have other people working for him; he feels that he has a right to Sutter land after all that has gone on. Doaker tries to reason with Boy Willie that Berniece would never sell the piano; he asserts that the piano "has blood on it." Besides, Doaker also tells him that Maretha (Berniece's eleven year old daughter) plays on the piano from time to time, prompting Boy Willie to respond that Maretha can play on a guitar instead.
Boy Willie is undeterred by his sister's lack of enthusiasm for selling the piano. He tells Doaker that "if Berniece don't want to sell that piano…I'm gonna cut it in half and go on and sell my half." He wants to buy Sutter's Land, and now that Sutter is dead, he sees an opening to realize his dream. All he needs is the money from the watermelons and Berniece's piano. Berniece also blames Boy Willie for her husband Crawley's death and is in no hurry to sell the piano. Boy Willie stresses that she is wasting what their father left to them, prompting her to retort that
"You always talking about your daddy but you ain't never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mama."
Furious at what she thinks is Boy Willie's role in Crawley's death and his callous disregard for the history of the piano in their family, she lashes out at him. He does not move to defend himself physically, and Act 1 ends with Maretha screaming because she thinks that she has seen Sutter's ghost.