The Piano Lesson Themes
by August Wilson

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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 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...

(The entire section is 2,614 words.)