The Piano Lesson

by August Wilson

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Characters Discussed

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Boy Willie Charles

Boy Willie Charles, who is thirty years old, with an infectious grin and a boyish charm. He is brash, impulsive, and talkative. He is proud, and he believes that he and whites occupy the world equally. Boy Willie is an independent thinker and possesses a strong sense of what he believes. His immediate goal in the play is to get a piece of land, because, as he says, when you “got a piece of land you’ll find everything else fall right into place.” For him, land is the key to equality, dignity, and freedom.


Berniece, Boy Willie’s sister. Thirty-five years old and a widow, she still blames her brother for the death of her husband three years earlier. She now lives with her uncle, Doaker, and has come to Pittsburgh to work. She is strong, determined, serious-minded, intense, religious, and superstitious.

Doaker Charles

Doaker Charles, the uncle of Berniece and Boy Willie. Forty-seven years old, tall, and thin, he has been a railroad cook for twenty-seven years. He has retired from the world, has no fight left in him, and tries to serve as a peacemaker in the quarrel between Berniece and Boy Willie.


Lymon, Boy Willie’s companion. Twenty-nine years old, he talks little, but when he does it is with a straightforwardness that is often disarming. In his old truck loaded with watermelons, he has come with Boy Willie to Pittsburgh with the intention of selling the watermelons and remaining to find work, have fun, and find a woman.


Avery, a thirty-eight-year-old man, honest and ambitious. He wears a suit and tie with a gold cross around his neck and carries a small Bible. He wants two things: to start his own church and to marry Berniece.

Winning Boy Charles

Winning Boy Charles, Doaker’s brother. Fifty-six years old, he tries to present the image of a successful musician and gambler, but everything about him is old.


Maretha, Berniece’s eleven-year-old daughter.


Grace, a woman who goes home with Boy Willie and later with Lymon.

Boy Willie Charles

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Boy Willie is Berniece’s brother and Doaker’s nephew. Unlike them, he has remained in the South, farming the land that their family worked for generations. He dreams of raising enough cash to buy land from the diminished Sutter family so that he can become an independent farmer rather than a debt-ridden share-cropper. Boy Willie plans to raise the cash by selling a load of watermelons and the family piano, which he part owns with Berniece. To this end, he travels North to Pittsburgh. Berniece refuses to sell the piano, however, and there are additional troubles in the past that divide brother and sister. During Boy Willie’s last visit, he was involved in an illegal racket and fell into trouble with the local police. He lied to Berniece’s husband, Crawley, about the racket; Crawley tried to protect him from the police and was killed. Boy Willie departed hastily. His grieving, hostile sister is thus doubly opposed to his plan to part with the family legacy.

Boy Willie complains that Berniece never uses the piano, and he uses this observation to justify his decision to sell it. His complaint is a good example of his pragmatic approach to life: why should not an unused piano be sold to purchase productive land? But it does no justice to Boy Willie’s character to describe him as simply interested in ‘‘getting ahead.’’ Boy Willie reverences the family past in a different way from Berniece. He seeks to revitalize the land worked by his enslaved ancestors and to make...

(This entire section contains 292 words.)

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that land finally theirs by owning and working it himself. Moreover, he seeks to educate his niece, Maretha, about her background, believing that pride in the past will help her hold her head high.

Other Characters

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Avery was one of Boy Willy’s acquaintances down South but like so many other southern African- Americans he migrated to the North. He now works in Pittsburgh as an elevator operator. Avery has also become a preacher and is trying to raise funds to build a church. His dream of becoming a preacher and ministering to a congregation represents one of the traditional ways in which African Americans rose to prominence within their communities and reminds the audience of the importance of religion within African-American culture.

Avery’s dream includes Berniece: he courts her and hopes that she will agree to marry him and play piano for the church congregation. But when Avery repeats his proposal of marriage to Berniece in Act Two, scene two, she refuses to talk about it seriously. Instead, she asks him to return the next day to exercise Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Avery promises to do so. Avery’s exorcism ceremony is unsuccessful, however. It is up to Berniece to call upon another spiritual source—the power of her ancestors—to rid the family of Sutter’s presence.

Berniece Charles
Berniece, Boy Willie’s sister, long since left the South for Pittsburgh. There she married Crawley and had a daughter, Maretha. Widowed for three years, she works as a domestic to support her small family. Recently, an old acquaintance from down South, Avery, has begun to court her; however, Berniece is very ambivalent about his interest. She feels angry that her family and friends are pressuring her to marry again: ‘‘Everybody telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man.’’

Berniece’s attitude toward the piano is also profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, she is fiercely protective of it and refuses to allow Boy Willie to sell it. She also encourages Maretha to play the piano. On the other hand, she refuses to play the piano herself, claiming that she only played it while her widowed mother was alive out of respect. After her mother’s death, she ceased to play it because she was bitter about the pain it had brought the family.

In the last scene in the play, Lymon and Boy Willie attempt to remove the piano, but Berniece threatens them with Crawley’s gun. The potentially tragic confrontation between sister and brother diffuses when Sutter’s ghost appears. While Boy Willie tries to wrest it physically from the house, Berniece turns to the past—to African-American spiritualism—to exorcize its presence. The siblings’ joint battle with the past thus reconciles them in the present.

Doaker Charles
Doaker is Berniece and Boy Willy’s uncle. He is a dignified, wiser older man who used to earn his living building and working the railroads and now works as a railroad cook. If Boy Willie and Berniece are two out-of-kilter wheels, their uncle Doaker is the frame that holds them together. He is the play’s chief story-teller: in fact, he does a better job of remembering and narrating the family history than either Berniece or Boy Willie.

It is through Doaker that the audience learns about the importance of the piano: ‘‘See, now . . . to understand about that piano . . . you got to go back to slavery time.’’ Doaker’s description of the piano’s place in their family history is powerful stuff, and although he plays a neutral role in the siblings’ dispute, his narration of the story suggests that he sides with Berniece.

Maretha Charles
Maretha is Berniece’s eleven-year-old daughter. She is mainly important because Berniece and Boy Willy clash about how she should be raised. Should she be told her family’s history, particularly the history of the piano that her mother is encouraging her to play, or should she be encouraged to forget it and thus be freed from the ‘‘burden’’ of the past? The resolution of this question has particular importance because Maretha, as the next generation of the family, represents the future of not only her own family but of the African American people.

Wining Boy Charles
Wining Boy is Doaker’s brother and thus Boy Willie and Berniece’s uncle. He is a failed musician and gambler, by turns charming and affectionate, at others, selfish and irresponsible. As his name implies, he is something of a ‘‘wino‘‘—a heavy drinker— and also something of a ‘‘whiner‘‘—a bluesman. In Act One, scene two, Wining Boy reminisces about old times with Doaker. He also succeeds in conning money from Lymon and Boy Willie, both of whom are flush with cash after selling their watermelons. His role in the play is not critical but in some ways his presence is a reflection upon the present fate of the piano: the failure of the music within.

Grace’s appearance on-stage is brief. She and Boy Willie have a brief encounter in the living room before Berniece, outraged, orders them to stop or leave the house. They leave.

Lymon is Boy Willy’s friend from ‘‘down South.’’ He is in trouble with the local sheriff back home and has traveled North with Boy Willy to escape prosecution and to sell their truck load of watermelons. Lymon plans to stay in Pittsburgh. It is, however, his first time in the North, and for much of the play he is more concerned with exploring the dazzling city lights than with selling the watermelons and finding a job.

His inexperience and naivete provides much humor in Act Two, scene one, when Wining Boy cons him into parting with six hard-earned dollars for a cheap suit, shirt, and pair of shoes. His naivete is also apparent in Act Two, scene three, when he tells Berniece that Boy Willy picked up the woman Lymon had been angling after.

During this scene, Lymon compliments Berniece on her nightgown and gives her a bottle of perfume. They kiss. Their brief intimacy suggests that Berniece is melting the barriers she erected after Crawley’s death; this prefigures the play’s positive resolution.




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