Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732

The compelling debate between Berniece and Boy Willie at the heart of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is a debate over how African Americans should view their ancestors’ tragic experience of slavery. Boy Willie would like to erase the past and focus on the present; he wishes to get rid...

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The compelling debate between Berniece and Boy Willie at the heart of August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is a debate over how African Americans should view their ancestors’ tragic experience of slavery. Boy Willie would like to erase the past and focus on the present; he wishes to get rid of the family piano that is so problematically entangled with his family’s embarrassing history of enslavement. He wants to buy land, farm it, and earn his own living; he craves an economic independence enjoyed by few African Americans in the South during the first half of the twentieth century. Moreover, by purchasing the parcel of land on which his ancestors were held as slaves and on which they worked as sharecroppers, Boy Willie believes he will symbolically negate the legacy of slavery: He will own the tract of land on which his ancestors were bound as human property.

The acquisition of land was an important first step for many former slaves and their descendants in their quest to become economically free from the legacy of slavery and to achieve economic and social equality with white Americans. Soon after the Civil War, some American lawmakers proposed various plans to compensate former slaves for their unrequited labor by offering them forty acres of land to farm and a mule to plow it. Such plans were never realized, and millions of slaves and their descendants, like Berniece, moved North toward economic opportunity and away from overt racial repression in the South. Those African Americans who remained in the South often labored for white employers for low wages, never attaining economic empowerment. By acquiring land, Boy Willie believes he can achieve a version of the American Dream.

To Berniece, however, the piano symbolizes her family’s noble endurance through slavery and Reconstruction. By stealing the piano from the Sutter family, the descendants of their former owners, Boy Charles and his brothers attempted to free themselves from slavery’s legacy. They would own the instrument that was used to break up their family during antebellum days; in a sense, they would thereby negate the sale of their enslaved ancestors. The images carved into the piano remind the contemporary Charles family of their ancestors’ experience during slavery—and their endurance through that national nightmare. In Berniece’s view, the Charles family’s past, though painful and humiliating, must remain alive, carried forward by her mother, her uncles, and herself to her daughter Maretha and generations of African Americans removed from slavery by the passage of time.

Both Boy Willie and Berniece offer compelling arguments. In a sense, the siblings in Wilson’s play articulate a variation of the debate between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois at the turn of the twentieth century. In his famous Atlanta Exposition Address of 1895 and elsewhere, Washington advised African Americans to move beyond the humiliating legacy of slavery and to focus their efforts on learning trades and developing economic opportunities rather than on agitating for civil and social rights. In The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches (1903) and his many other writings, Du Bois articulated his belief that economic opportunities would come only after African Americans had achieved social and political rights. He also believed in keeping the African American culture and its past alive, though it might be painful and tragic. In his play, Wilson resolves the debate between Berniece and Boy Willie by giving Berniece the victory. Her brother learns that living with dignity in the present and achieving selfhood require acknowledging the past by keeping alive its symbols and, if necessary, by wrestling with its ghosts. That is the piano lesson at the heart of Wilson’s play.

The Piano Lesson, which won the Pulitzer Prize in drama and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1990, is part of Wilson’s ten-play cycle about African American life during the twentieth century. Wilson devoted more than twenty years to this ambitious project, in which each play is set in a different decade of the twentieth century and articulates issues and themes that confronted African Americans during that decade. Other plays in the cycle include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences (pr., pb. 1985), Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986, pb. 1988), and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984, pb. 1985). Wilson completed the final play in the cycle, Radio Golf (pr. 2005, pb. 2007), shortly before his death in 2005.

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Critical Context (Comprehensive Guide to Drama)

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