Themes and Meanings

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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...

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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 equally determined that he will not. At the heart of the play is the piano itself, which evolves into a rich symbol as well as a powerful dramatic device. To Berniece, the piano, with its carved faces of family members and events, represents the history of the pain and oppression of their family, including their father’s own death. To Boy Willie, the piano represents opportunity for the future; by selling it for cash, he hopes to buy the land on which their ancestors were slaves. Berniece, who has moved to the North and is cut off from her family roots, sees the piano as her connection with her past and her own personal identity. Boy Willie, who has stayed close to his family roots in the South, views the piano as a means of gaining equality with the white landowners, which would also mean achieving dignity and personhood.

As a dramatic device, the piano is a catalyst for much of the action. Not only do Berniece and Boy Willie create dramatic tension by fighting about the piano, but also the whole suspense of the climactic scene is built as Boy Willie makes elaborate preparations for moving the piano while Berniece gets her gun to stop him. Moreover, it is by means of the piano that much of the family history is brought forth. Berniece, who has not touched the piano in many years because of the cruel memories that it contains for her, begins to play the piano in the last scene and thereby invokes the spiritual power of their ancestors through its music. The “piano lesson” of the title is not a lesson in how to play the piano but a lesson in what the piano means.

Another powerful dramatic device that is also rich with symbolic value is the ghost of the white landowner, Sutter, which symbolizes the memory of the enslavement and oppression of African Americans by whites. The drive of the play is toward the liberation of these people from that history, which can come about only through a sense of self-worth, which is what both Berniece and Boy Willie seek. Although the piano belonged to the Sutters, the Charles family believed that it belonged to them, not only because their grandfather had carved their family history on it but also because it was paid for with their flesh and redeemed by their blood. After her father’s death, Berniece’s mother made her play the piano because she understood that it was a form of possessing it. When Berniece is about to lose the piano through Boy Willie’s scheme, she repossesses it by playing it and thus exorcises Sutter’s ghost. Boy Willie gives up his plan because he then understands that the family has its identity and pride intact, and he does not need land to gain those qualities.

Themes and Meanings

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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 youthful energy and enthusiasm sometimes impugn the soundness of his judgment. In asking Berniece to cut the piano in half so that he can sell his half, he reveals his childish mentality. At the same time, he challenges his sister’s religious beliefs and exhorts her that she “got to believe in it all”; she “can’t go at nothing halfway.” However, he seems only interested in the passages in the Bible that support and justify his vengeful spirit. His self-righteousness is also underlined in his not wanting to listen to people who disagree with him.

The Piano Lesson dramatizes the struggle of African Americans to reclaim their sense of history and identity. The question at issue is not whether the piano belongs to Berniece and Boy Willie but how to claim what belongs to them. As is demonstrated by Berniece’s ambivalent feelings about the piano, the legitimacy of one’s heritage cannot be upheld unless it is claimed. Berniece’s fear to embrace that which belongs to her legitimizes the visit of Sutter’s ghost—which, according to Doaker and Boy Willie, is looking for its piano. Berniece’s fear also threatens her connections with her family history and her true identity. The Piano Lesson suggests that people cannot change history but can solicit its help in their attempts to establish meaning for the present and the future. To reclaim one’s sense of history, one needs to collect enough courage to face the past, no matter how painful that process may be.

Themes

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Past and Present
Wilson’s cycle of plays concentrates on African- American experience during the twentieth century, but they are all also focused—in either direct or indirect ways—upon the experience of slavery.

The Charles family in Wilson’s play is almost a textbook example of the southern black experience in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and it is certain that Wilson intended his characters to be representative of that history. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, most ex-slaves remained on the land, renting from their former masters as tenant-farmers (sharecroppers). The returns from their labor were low, the risks of natural disasters were high, and the costs of living were artificially inflated because it was mainly whites who owned the stores at which blacks bought and sold their goods. Many sharecroppers were locked into a cycle of debt to their former masters and lived in grueling poverty. This paucity and debt were compounded further by white hostility.

The promises of the Reconstruction Era were cut short, and the introduction of ‘‘Jim Crow’’ laws that segregated whites and blacks confirmed the enduring influence of American, and particularly southern, racism. The accelerating industrialization of the North in the last decades of the nineteenth century promised workers higher wages, improved work conditions, and a better standard of living. Many rural blacks migrated North, and when demand for labor peaked during and after World War One this steady flow North became a torrent.

In the play, the Charles family were once owned by the Sutters and worked the Sutter land as slaves. After emancipation, they remained on the same land but became sharecroppers for the Sutters, renting the land from their former masters and working it for themselves. Finally, a part of the family migrated North to Pittsburgh, leaving only Boy Willy behind.

Boy Willie refuses to abandon the land and migrate North. His dream of finally owning, rather than renting, the Sutter land, is an extraordinary anomaly, and it reflects Wilson’s own curiosity about what ‘‘the fabric of American society would be like if blacks had stayed in the South and somehow found a way to develop [economically] and lock into that particular area.’’ His father’s desire to reclaim the piano is later paralleled in Boy Willie’s desire to remain on the land. Both father and son believe that reclaiming the heritage of slavery—and transforming it through labor and ties of affection—will alter their relationship to their family and to their history.

Boy Charles believed that the piano symbolized ‘‘the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it . . . we was still in slavery.’’ Boy Willie also tries to alter the family’s relationship to their slave history—to break the bond of master and slave, of owner and renter, by becoming an owner himself, the master of the very land that the Charles family has worked for so many generations.

The central conflict in the play, the battle over the future of the piano, is generated by Boy Willie’s desire to transform the past by altering the present. However, the battle takes place precisely because the piano’s history is so important: each family member has strikingly different responses to its past. In part, then, the piano’s lesson is a lesson about the past: history can sound dramatically different depending upon who is telling a story and why they are telling it. Understanding this lesson is crucial to understanding contemporary race relations in America and the extraordinary divide between black and white experience in the past.

Just as the play’s central conflict originates in Boy Willie’s desire to remake the past, so too can the conflict be resolved only by Berniece’s decision to return to the past. When her mother died, Berniece refused to perform the ‘‘ancestor worship’’ that her mother had demanded of her (playing the piano to invoke, and also to honor, the blood sacrificed for it). Ironically, Berniece’s attitude towards the piano is now almost as pragmatic as Boy Willie’s: both of them see it as ‘‘a piece of wood.’’

But when Avery’s Christian exorcism fails, Berniece returns to her mother’s ritual practices in order to save her brother and to exercise Sutter’s ghost. She plays the piano and calls upon the spirits of the dead to help her. Wilson describes her actions as ‘‘a rustle of wind blowing across two continents,’’ and her plea to her ancestors and her gratitude at their help recalls African rituals of ancestor worship. The piano’s lesson, then, is also a lesson that asks African Americans to value family ties and to acknowledge their personal involvement in the legacy of slavery.

The American Dream
One of the themes that Wilson explores in all of his plays is the conflict between the American dream and African-American experience of poverty and racism. In The Piano Lesson each of the central characters has a different vision of their future, and the contrast between then defines Wilson’s exploration of the barriers African Americans faced in achieving the American dream.

The phrase ‘‘the American dream’’ describes the belief in the possibility of advancement in American society: an immigrant who arrives at Staten Island with nothing in his pockets can, with hard work, eventually earn and save enough to enable him to buy and own his own house and to live in reasonable prosperity. Boy Willie’s dream of owning his own land resembles the traditional American dream.

Avery also has a dream, but it differs markedly from Boy Willie’s. Avery has ‘‘been filled with the Holy Ghost and called to be a servant of the Lord.’’ He now works in his spare time as a preacher while trying to raise funds to build a church. Both Avery’s dream of becoming a preacher and ministering to a congregation, and Boy Willie’s dream of becoming a farmer and owning his own land, represent two key elements of African-American experience— religion and the land. Likewise, Avery’s ecstatic religious language is the other side of the black southern dialect in which Boy Willie speaks.

Their dreams represent two ways blacks could ‘‘make it’’ in this period; however, there were other possibilities for economic advancement. The character of Wining Boy represents another of the few avenues of advancement traditionally open to blacks: music. Wilson explored this path in the first play in his cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), and his critique of white exploitation of black musical talent in that play is echoed in his characterization of Wining Boy, a failed ‘‘recording star,’’ a piano player whose luck has run out. Not everyone, however, is lost to the lure of hope: while Berniece is pragmatic about her own position in society, she nonetheless nurtures the dream that her daughter will advance socially by becoming a piano teacher, while Lymon, too, hopes to make it in the big city.

Perhaps the most important dream in the play, however, is Papa Boy Charles’s dream that possession of the piano will alter the family’s relationship to their past. His dream of removing the piano from Sutter’s house and restoring ‘‘the story of our whole family’’ to his kin is accomplished at the cost of his life. The Sutters’s murder of Boy Charles reiterates their past violence to the Charles family. Moreover, the ‘‘liberation’’ of the piano and the murder of Boy Charles on the railway (a powerful symbol of escape and liberation for blacks, because it was one of the routes North used by fugitive slaves) occurs on the Fourth of July. Wilson thus points to the original limits of the American Revolution—in which white citizens won freedom from British tyranny while maintaining their own tyranny over black slaves— and the limits of its rhetoric for African Americans living in the segregated 1930s.

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