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...
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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.