The Play

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 926 words.)

The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

A play about family inheritance and legacy, The Piano Lesson revolves around a piano that has been in Berniece and Boy Willie’s family for several generations. The play opens with Boy Willie and his friend Lymon driving from Mississippi to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to sell watermelons. Boy Willie has another motive for going to Pittsburgh: He has his mind set on selling the family piano to raise enough money to buy a farm. Boy Willie believes that once he owns land, he can be the master of his own destiny. However, his sister Berniece disagrees; she refuses to sell the piano, although she hesitates to touch it. Avery, a self-anointed preacher and Berniece’s boyfriend, is also interested in the piano. He wants Berniece to give the piano to him so that he can raise money to build his own church. Berniece, however, wants to keep the piano in the family.

Doaker, Berniece and Boy Willie’s uncle, recounts the story behind the piano. It was originally owned by Joel Nolander. Robert Sutter, who owned Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandparents as slaves, wanted to buy his wife, Ophelia, an anniversary present. Since he had no money, he traded Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandmother and their grandfather for the piano. After a while, Ophelia missed having Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandmother around. At Sutter’s request, Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandfather, a first-rate woodworker, went to Sutter’s house and carved...

(The entire section is 541 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Wilson’s thematic accentuation of the continuity of history in The Piano Lesson takes on an epic scope that is emphasized in the characters’ names. For example, Berniece is named after the great-grandmother who was traded for the piano, and Boy Willie is named after a great-grandfather named Willie Boy. Doaker and Wining Boy also remind the audience of the bards in Greco-Roman epics, whose responsibilities are to ensure that the past and the present are connected. Both Doaker and Wining Boy are storytellers. Doaker is down to earth and makes judgments mainly on empirical experience. Because of his strong ties to the past, Wining Boy enjoys reliving the past in his stories more than he is interested in keeping up with the present. His sense of humor provides a thematic as well as stylistic contrast to Doaker’s seriousness. Both Doaker’s and Wining Boy’s stories are moving and mesmerizing. They are imbued in the richness, cadence, and rhythm of the African American vernacular tradition. Their stories provide historical information that makes possible fusions of the past and the present and of history and reality.

The epic scope of The Piano Lesson is also circumscribed by the presence of ghosts who are as much engaged in fighting for the possession of the piano as the living African Americans who are struggling to identify their relationship with history. The Piano Lesson is filled with ghost figures that reflect the...

(The entire section is 426 words.)

Historical Context

(Drama for Students)

Slavery and Reconstruction
The widespread importation of slaves to America began in the 1690s in Virginia. Although...

(The entire section is 989 words.)

Literary Style

(Drama for Students)

Naturalism is often confused with realism; however, although the two styles both represent ‘‘real...

(The entire section is 1114 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Drama for Students)

Topics for Further Study

(Drama for Students)

Wilson was inspired to write The Piano Lesson by Romare Bearden’s painting Piano Lesson. Examine the painting, then consider the...

(The entire section is 223 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Drama for Students)

Immanu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) is an African-American playwright whose writing encompasses...

(The entire section is 412 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Drama for Students)

Barnes, Clive. ’’Piano Lesson Hits All the Right Keys’’ in the New York Post, April 17,...

(The entire section is 377 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Henry, William. “Exorcising the Demons of Memory.” Time, April 11, 1989, 77-78. A profile of August Wilson, his life, his work, and his beliefs. Surveys his work to this date.

Migler, Rachael. “An Elegant Duet.” Gentleman’s Quarterly 60, no. 4 (April, 1990): 114-144. Wilson and Lloyd Richards, the director of Wilson’s plays, are profiled. They discuss their effort on The Piano Lesson. Biographical information on each is given.

Savran, David. “August Wilson.” In In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights. New York: Theatre Communication Group, 1988. A probing...

(The entire section is 204 words.)