Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Piano Lesson deals with the historical phenomenon of the African American migration from the southern, agrarian way of life to the large industrial cities of the North in search of freedom, dignity, and economic opportunities. As such, the play has two settings, the onstage setting of Doaker’s house, located in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh in the present, and the setting of the past in the South from which all the characters in the play have come. It is through the collective memories of the characters that the southern, offstage setting is brought to life by talk of shared experiences, acquaintances, and family relations.

The sparsely furnished setting, “lacking in warmth and vigor,” of Doaker’s house captures the quality of life of those African Americans who have migrated to the North, where they are cut off from their family roots and history. Their life is stark, cold, and often lonely, and they live a life of grim necessity, hard work, and poverty. It is contrasted with life in the South, where, even though prejudice abounds, African Americans live close to the earth and their familial homes, close to the struggle, the suffering, and the meager triumphs of their ancestors, from which they draw spiritual sustenance.

The temporal location of the play is the year 1937, a time when the black migration northward was gaining momentum. Wilson is intrigued by this phenomenon and has said that he believes that it was a mistake for African Americans to leave the South, where they could have eventually gained economic power by owning the land. Instead, in the North they still encountered prejudice and found themselves huddled in squalid neighborhoods and working in menial jobs.

The conflict of The Piano Lesson is classic in its naturalistic simplicity. Two people are obsessed with conflicting desires: Boy Willie is determined to sell the piano, and Berniece is...

(The entire section is 790 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

The Piano Lesson is about building one’s future by establishing one’s ontological and cultural relationship with the past. Berniece has spent her entire life trying to run away from her problems; after her husband died, she left the South for the North to look for a new beginning and to distance herself physically from what she does not want to reexperience emotionally. Not wanting to wake the piano’s old spirits, she “shut the top on that piano” after her mother’s death. In trying to avoid confronting the painful memories of the family’s past, Berniece has uprooted herself from the family tradition and history, thereby exposing her vulnerability to that which she fears the most, making her susceptible to the frequent visits of Sutter’s ghost.

Boy Willie represents the new generation of African Americans growing up in the South. He believes that the only way for African Americans to gain freedom, dignity, and respect is to stand up for what belongs to them: “If you got a piece of land you’ll find everything else fall right into place. You can stand right up next to the white man and talk about the price of cotton . . . the weather, and anything else you want to talk about.” Like many characters in August Wilson’s plays, however, Boy Willie has a complexity that defies black-and-white, right-or-wrong analyses. He holds firmly onto what he believes and is not easily influenced by other people’s opinions. However, his...

(The entire section is 504 words.)