The Piano Lesson Summary
by August Wilson

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(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Boy Willie Charles and his friend Lymon arrive at the Pittsburgh home of Berniece, Boy Willie’s widowed sister. The two men have driven to Pittsburgh from Mississippi in a truck full of ripe watermelons. When he arrives at his sister’s home, Boy Willie announces to Berniece an ambitious plan that will require her cooperation: He wants to buy a parcel of land in Mississippi on which the Charles family’s ancestors served as slaves and sharecroppers. Boy Willie has saved some of the money he will need to make the purchase, and he intends to sell the watermelons in his truck to raise more. For Boy Willie to acquire enough cash to make the purchase, however, Berniece must agree to sell the old piano sitting in her living room and split the proceeds with her brother. Although the piano has been in Berniece’s possession since she moved to Pittsburgh, Boy Willie claims half ownership of the instrument.

Berniece strongly opposes the sale of the piano, which is imbued with symbolic value. Doaker and Wining Boy, Berniece and Boy Willie’s uncles, detail the complicated history of the instrument. The piano was originally acquired in 1856 by Robert Sutter, the man who owned members of the Charles family. The piano was an anniversary gift from Sutter to his wife, Ophelia. Lacking cash for the purchase, Sutter acquired the instrument by trading two Charles family slaves, Mama Berniece and her nine-year-old son Walter. Papa Boy Willie, Mama Berniece’s husband, wished to memorialize Mama Berniece and Walter. An expert wood sculptor, he obtained Ophelia’s permission to carve their portraits and other memorable Charles family scenes into the wood of the piano.

The piano remained with the Sutters after the emancipation of the slaves, but on July 4, 1911, members of the Charles family stole the piano from the Sutters’ home. The group included Doaker, Wining Boy, Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, and Boy Charles, the grandson of the woodcarver and Mama Berniece. Boy Charles maintained that as long as the Sutter family had possession of the piano, the Charles family was still spiritually enslaved; by stealing the instrument, Boy Charles believed he would finally liberate his family from the Sutters. After the theft, Boy Charles hid from Sutter and the police in a yellow train boxcar. When Robert Sutter’s son discovered the theft and Boy Charles’s whereabouts, he burned the boxcar where Boy Charles was hiding, killing him. Sutter never recovered his stolen piano; it remained in the Charles family, and Berniece took the instrument to Pittsburgh when she moved there in 1933.

Berniece is unwilling to part with the piano because she considers it a sacred relic that holds the Charles family’s history through slavery, emancipation, and Reconstruction. Hearing that his sister will not agree to sell the piano, Boy Willie offers a King Solomon solution to their dispute: cut the piano in half and let Berniece retain her part while he sells his half. To Boy Willie, the instrument holds only sentimental value: Since his sister is neither playing the piano nor giving lessons to earn a profit from it, it is, in his view, a useless family heirloom. By contrast, the land that Boy Willie wishes to acquire from the sale of the piano would give him standing and even a degree of equality with whites in the Jim Crow South. Berniece, however, believes that the piano embodies the Charles family’s history. She points out to Boy Willie that their father gave his life to wrestle the piano from the Sutter family. Indeed, Berniece tells her brother that their mother, Mama Ola, polished the piano with her tears and prayed for her husband’s soul over the instrument. In Berniece’s view, selling the instrument would dishonor her father’s sacrifice and her parents’ memory.

According to Doaker, another party is laying claim to Berniece’s piano. Doaker maintains that the ghost of the recently deceased James Sutter, Ophelia’s grandson, is restlessly...

(The entire section is 1,293 words.)