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,...
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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 searching for his family’s missing piano. According to Doaker, the ghost periodically visits Berniece’s home at night and plays the piano. Doaker reports hearing piano music late at night. When he goes into the living room to find out who is playing, he sees the piano keys moving without a human being nearby. Charles family ghosts are also reportedly creating mischief. According to local legend, several Sutter family members, including James, have died by the hand of the ghost of the Yellow Dog railroad, by being pushed into wells—revenge for the killing of Boy Charles.
Despite his sister’s protest, Boy Willie makes arrangements to sell the piano to a used musical instrument dealer in Pittsburgh. When he and Lymon try to move the piano, however, they cannot budge the instrument. As Boy Willie and Lymon consider how to move the piano, the Reverend Avery, a minister in Pittsburgh, arrives to exorcise Sutter’s ghost from Berniece’s home. While Avery exhorts the ghost to depart the premises, Berniece begins to play the piano, invoking the names of her family’s slave ancestors as she plays. Boy Willie, suddenly sensing Sutter’s presence, rushes upstairs to grapple with Sutter’s ghost. After a struggle, Boy Willie is able to eject Sutter’s ghost from the premises. Convinced by the ordeal that the piano is more than a sentimental family heirloom, Boy Willie relinquishes his claim on the instrument and returns with Lymon to Mississippi.
The Piano Lesson brought Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize in drama, and, as in Fences, its subject is a family conflict. The story is set in 1930’s Pittsburgh, where Doaker Charles lives with his niece, Berniece, and her young daughter, Maretha. The arrival of Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, from Mississippi sets the plot in motion, as Boy Willie declares his intention of selling a piano that holds a unique place in the family’s history.
Originally owned by a man named Sutter, who had received it in payment for Doaker’s grandmother and father, the piano was carved by Doaker’s grandfather with scenes depicting the family’s life in slavery. Berniece refuses to part with such a powerful symbol of her family’s terrible history, while Boy Willie hopes to earn enough from the sale to buy Sutter’s land from his descendants.
At the center of the pair’s disagreement is the issue of confronting rather than rejecting the African American heritage of slavery. For Berniece, the piano is a source of strength; it reminds her of the courage and endurance shown by her ancestors, and she believes that selling the piano would be a denial of that history. Boy Willie believes in looking only to the future, and he cannot understand his sister’s refusal to part with the instrument.
An unexpected dimension is added to the story with Berniece and Doaker’s declarations that they have seen the ghost of Sutter’s grandson, whom Berniece believes Boy Willie murdered in order to get his land. The ghost is a very real presence in the play; Wilson was not afraid to incorporate aspects of the supernatural in his work and also did so in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
In both plays, phenomena that might be dismissed as fantastic are embraced as an outgrowth of African culture and are incorporated into the story in imaginative and effective ways. The Piano Lesson’s dramatic conflict is resolved when Boy Willie does battle with the ghost as Berniece draws on the power of the piano itself to exorcise the spirit. The action is both dramatically compelling and a stunning symbolic evocation of the power that black history can bring to those who embrace it.