All the action of the play takes place in the kitchen and parlor of Doaker Charles’s house, which, though sparsely furnished, has an old upright piano in the parlor. The piano’s legs are covered with mask-like figures, artfully carved in the manner of African sculpture.
When the play begins, it is five o’clock in the morning and Boy Willie is at the front door banging and shouting. Doaker admits Boy Willie and Lymon, who have just arrived from the South with a truckload of watermelons. Boy Willie soon informs Doaker that Sutter, a descendant of the white family that once owned the Charles family, has died, that Sutter’s brother wants to sell Boy Willie the remaining one hundred acres of Sutter’s farm, and that he, Boy Willie, intends to sell the piano as a means of helping him buy the land. Doaker calmly tells him that Berniece “ain’t gonna sell that piano.”
After Berniece is heard screaming from upstairs because she has seen Sutter’s ghost, Maretha comes downstairs, greets Boy Willie, and plays a song for him on the piano. Soon, Avery Brown arrives and tells the story of how he has been called to preach. By scene’s end, Boy Willie confronts Berniece with his intention of selling the piano, to which Berniece rejoins that if he has come to Pittsburgh to sell the piano, he “done come up here for nothing.” As the scene ends, Boy Willie announces that “I’m gonna cut it in half and go on and sell my half.”
Scene 2 begins three days later, with Doaker and Winning Boy sitting around drinking and reminiscing about their lives. Boy Willie and Lymon enter, and, in a crucial scene, Doaker tells Lymon the story of how his grandmother, also named Berniece, and her little boy, who grew up to become Doaker’s father, were traded by their owner, Robert Sutter, to another white man for a piano that Sutter wished to give to his wife, Miss Sophie, on their wedding anniversary. Because Miss Sophie started missing her slaves and could not get them back, Sutter ordered pictures of Berniece and her son to be carved into the piano by one of his slaves, who also added pictures of other members of the family as well as of important family events. After Miss Sophie’s death, Doaker’s father, Boy Charles, became obsessed with the idea that he must take the piano away from Sutter. When he did and was found hiding in a railroad boxcar along with four hobos, the boxcar was set on fire. Not long afterward, the suspected murderers started falling down wells, and the legend was created that it was the ghosts of the boxcar who were doing the pushing. When Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, the sound of Sutter’s ghost is heard, and then Maretha from upstairs screams at the sight of Sutter’s ghost.
In the first scene of act 2, Doaker tells Winning Boy that he too has seen Sutter’s ghost in the house. Boy Willie and Lymon come home to announce that they have had good luck selling the watermelons, Winning Boy convinces Lymon to buy his old but fancy clothes, and Lymon prepares to go out with Boy Willie to find some women.
In scene 2, Avery arrives to tell Berniece that he has found a place for his church and that what he now needs is a wife. Berniece tries to get Avery to rid the house of Sutter’s ghost by blessing it. Meanwhile, Avery tries to persuade Berniece to donate her piano to his new church, where she could play it and even start a choir.
Later on that night, in scene 3, Boy Willie arrives with Grace, a woman he has just met, but Berniece chases them both away. Lymon then arrives and, after complaining about his luck with women, offers perfume to Berniece, kisses her, and is rebuffed by her.
In scene 4, Boy Willie wakes up Lymon to tell him he has been offered $1,150 for the piano. Together they try, but fail, to move the piano, which elicits the sound of Sutter’s ghost, while Doaker informs Boy Willie that they are not taking the piano anywhere until Berniece comes home. Boy Willie leaves, telling Doaker that...
(The entire section is 4,947 words.)