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The Piano Lesson



August Wilson was born poor into a family of seven in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Due to the
intense racism, he left school at age sixteen, opting to educate himself independently at the
city library. While working a variety of jobs, Wilson began to write, eventually founding, in
!"#, the $lack %ori&on on the %ill theater company. 't was not until !(#, however, when
he moved to )t. Paul, *innesota, that Wilson began to produce mature dramas. %is first
piece, Jitney, a tale of a group of workers and travelers in a taxi station, was well+received
locally and praised especially for its experiments in black urban speech. Fullerton Street,
however, Wilson,s subse-uent play, brought no comparable success. Wilson turned to an
unfinished project that would prove to be his breakthrough.
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, which concerns a black blues singer who takes advantage of a
group of musician in a recording studio and their various experiences with racism, eventually
brought Wilson to the .ale /eparatory 0heater and then to $roadway in !#1. Ma Rainey
also enabled Wilson to make contact with .ale /eparatory director 2loyd /ichards, who has
continued to collaborate with Wilson on his productions. Wilson then wrote his Puliti&er+
winning Fences, in which a former star athlete forbids his son from following his path and
accepting an athletic scholarship, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, which tells of an ex+
convict,s search for his wife upon his release from prison. 'n !!3, Wilson won his second
Pulit&er with The Piano Lesson. %is more recent work includes To Trains Runnin! 4!!56,
which concerns a diner on the verge of being torn down, and Se"en Guitars 4!!76, Wilson,s
homage to $lues guitarist 8loyd $arton.

The Piano Lesson concerns the struggle of two siblings over a precious family heirloom, a
piano carved with images of their African ancestors and crafted their enslaved grandfather.
0he 9reat Depression serves as the historical backdrop to the play as well as black migration
during this period from south to north. )uch migration increased steadily until stabili&ing in
the !:3s and creating new black communities that would be devastated by the economic
ruin. Wilson took inspiration for the play from a /omare $earden painting by the same
name, seeing in its scene of a teacher and student an allegory for how African Americans
must learn to negotiate their history. As critic )andra )hannon explains, Wilson formulated
two thematic -uestions to address in his work; <What do you do with your legacy, and how do
you best put it to use=< 4The #ramatic $ision o% &u!ust 'ilson, 1"6.

'n a sense, Wilson,s entire body of work concerns itself with analogous -uestions. >ot only
do his plays emerge from meticulous research into the dialect and everyday life of its given
eras, but they also raise issues of history, history,s representation, memory, and legacy as
their primary sources of conflict. 't is important to note The Piano Lesson is part of Wilson,s
projected ten+play cycle on African American history, written in a moment when he appeared
especially concerned with what he identified as the <foreign< representations of African
American experience that dominated the mass media of the !#3s. The Cos(y Sho provides
an obvious example.

0he importance of such counter+representations of history notwithstanding, one may hear, in
Wilson,s call to represent African American history in <non+foreign< fashion, the echoes of a
cultural nationalism that characteri&es his earliest work.

Plot Overview

The Piano Lesson is set in Pittsburgh in !:", with all the action taking place in the house of
Doaker ?harles. A :(+year+old, upright piano, decorated with totems in the manner of
African sculpture, dominates the parlor.

0he play opens at dawn. $oy Willie, Doaker,s nephew, knocks at the door and enters with his
partner, 2ymon. 0wo have come from *ississippi to sell watermelons. Willie has not seen his
sister $erniece, who lives with Doaker, for three years as he has been serving a sentence on
the Parchman Prison 8arm.

Willie asks his uncle for a celebratory drink; the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog have drowned
)utter in his own well. Willie intends to sell the family piano and use the money to buy
)utter,s land, the land his ancestors once worked as slaves. Doaker, however, is sure $erniece
will not part with the piano. 'ndeed, Avery $rown@a preacher who has been courting
$erniece since her husband ?rawley died@has already tried to get her to sell it. Willie
schemes to get in touch with the prospective buyer himself.

)uddenly $erniece cries out off+stage, <9o on get away.< $erniece claims she has seen )utter,s
ghost, calling $oy Willie,s name. )he is convinced that her brother pushed )utter into the
well. )haken, she refuses to cooperate with his plans.

0hree days later, Doaker,s brother Wining $oy, a wandering, washed+up recording star, sits
at the kitchen table discussing the recent events with the men. Wining $oy mentions that he
heard Willie and 2ymon were on Parchman 8arm. Willie explains that some whites had tried
to chase Willie, 2ymon, and $erniece,s husband ?rawley from some wood they were
pilfering. ?rawley fought back and was killed while the other two went to prison. 0he men
reminisce about Parchman and sing an old work song.

Doaker then explains the piano,s history to 2ymon. During slavery, a man named /obert
)utter, the recently deceased+)utter,s grandfather, owned the ?harles family. %e wanted to
make an anniversary present out of his friend,s piano but could not afford it. 0hus he traded
a full and half grown slave@Doaker,s grandmother $erniece and his father@for the
instrument. 0hough initially )utter,s wife loved the piano, she eventually came to miss her
slaves, falling desperately ill. )o, )utter asked Doaker,s grandfather, Willie $oy, to carve the
faces of his wife and child into the piano. Willie $oy did not only carve his immediately
family, however, but included his mother, father, and various scenes from the family history.
.ears after slavery, $erniece and $oy Willie,s father, $oy ?harles, developed an obsession
over the piano, believing that as long as the )utters held it, they held the family in bondage.
0hus, on Auly 1, !, he, Doaker, and Wining $oy stole it. 2ater that day, lynchers set $oy
?harles,s house on fire. %e fled to catch the .ellow Dog, but the mob stopped the train and
set his boxcar on fire. $oy ?harles died along with the hobos in his car, all of whom became
the ghosts of the railroad.

Bnce Doaker has finished his story, Willie and 2ymon attempt to move the piano. $erniece
enters and commands Willie to stop, since the piano is their legacy. $erniece invokes the
memory of their mother, who attended to the piano until the day she died. )he attacks $oy
Willie for perpetuating the endless theft and murder in their family, blaming him for the
death of her husband. )uddenly, *aretha, $erniece,s daughter, is heard screaming upstairs
in terror, as )utter,s ghost has appeared again.

0he following morning, Wining $oy enters with a suit he has been unable to pawn. )hrewdly,
he sells his suit to 2ymon, promising that it has a magical effect on the ladies. 2ymon and
$oy Willie plan to go out the local picture show and find some women.

2ater that evening, $erniece appears preparing a tub for her bath. Avery enters and proposes
to $erniece anew. $erniece refuses and wonders why everyone tells her she cannot be a
woman unless she has a man. ?hanging the subject, $erniece asks Avery to bless the house in
hopes of exorcising )utter,s ghost. Avery suggests that she use the piano to start a choir at his
church. $erniece replies that she leaves the piano untouched to keep from waking its spirits.

)everal hours later, $oy Willie enters the darkened house with 9race, a local girl. 0hey begin
to kiss and knock over a lamp. $erniece comes downstairs and orders them out. As $erniece
is making tea, 2ymon returns, looking for Willie. %e is tired of one+night stands and dreams
of finding the right woman. *using on Wining $oy,s magic suit, he withdraws a bottle of
perfume from his pocket and gives it to $erniece and they kiss.

0he final scene begins the next day with Willie telling *aretha of the 9hosts of .ellow Dog.
%e has already called the buyer about the piano. $erniece enters and once again orders Willie
out of her house. 0hey argue anew and Willie invokes the memory of his father, arguing that
he only plans to do as he might have done. Willie and 2ymon begin to move the piano.
$erniece exits and reappears with ?rawley,s gun.

)uddenly a drunken Wining $oy enters, comically breaking the tension of the scene. %e sits
down to play a song he wrote in memory of his wife, shielding the piano from Willie. A knock
at the door follows, and 9race enters. )he and 2ymon have a date for the picture show and
suddenly )utter,s presence asserts itself. 9race flees with 2ymon, leaving only the members
of the ?harles family and Avery in the house.

Avery moves to bless the piano. $oy Willie intercedes, taunting )utter as Avery attempts his
exorcism. %e charges up the stairs, and an unseen force drives him back. %e charges back up,
and then engages with )utter in a life+and+death struggle. )uddenly, $erniece reali&es what
she must do and begins to play the piano. <' want you to help me,< she sings, naming her
ancestors. A calm comes over the house. Willie reappears and asks Wining $oy is he is ready
to catch the train back south. Willie says goodbye to his sister, and $erniece gives thanks.
Character List

Doaker Charles + $erniece and $oy Willie,s uncle and the owner of the household in
which the play takes place. Doaker is tall and thin and forty+seven years old. %e spent his life
working for the railroad. %e functions as the play,s testifier, recounting the piano,s history.
2ike Wining $oy, the other member of the family,s oldest living generation, Doaker offers a
connection to the family,s past through his stories
Boy Willie + $erniece,s brash, impulsive, and fast+talking brother. 0he thirty+year+old $oy
Willie introduces the central conflict of the play. ?oming from *ississippi, he plans to sell
the family piano and buy the land his ancestors once worked as slaves. $y selling the piano,
he avenges his father, $oy ?harles, who spent his life property+less.
Boy Willie (In-Depth Analysis)

Lymon + $oy Willie,s longtime friend. 0he twenty+nine+year+old 2ymon is more taciturn
than his partner, speaking with a disarming <straightforwardness.< 8leeing the law, he plans
to stay in the north and begin life anew. An outsider to the family, he functions particularly in
the beginning of the play as a sort of listener, eliciting stories from the family,s past.
Bbsessed with women, he will also appear prominently in his seduction of $erniece, where
he helps bring her out of her mourning for her dead husband.

Berniece + )ister of $oy Willie. Cnlike other characters, the stage notes for $erniece are
somewhat sparse, describing her as a thirty+five+year+old mother still in mourning for her
husband, ?rawley. )he blames her brother for her husband,s death, remaining skeptical of
his bravado and chiding him for his rebellious ways.
Berniece (In-Depth Analysis)

Maretha + $erniece,s eleven+year+old daughter. *aretha is beginning to learn piano. )he
symboli&es the next generation of the ?harles, family, providing the occasion for a number of
confrontations on what the family should do with its legacy.

Avery Brown + A preacher who is trying to build his congregation. Avery moves north
once $erniece,s husband dies in an attempt to court $erniece. 0hirty+eight years old, he is
honest and ambitious, having <taken to the city like a fish to water,< and found opportunities
unavailable to him in the rural )outh. 8ervently religious, he brings ?hristian authority to
bear in the exorcism of )utter,s ghost.
Wining Boy + A wandering, washed+up recording star who drifts in and out of his brother
Doaker,s household whenever he finds himself broke. Wining $oy is one of the most
memorable characters of the play. A comic figure, he functions as one of the play,s primary
storytellers, recounting anecdotes from his travels. %e is one of the two older players in
Wilson,s scenes of male camaraderie, providing a connection to the family,s history. 8inally,
Wining $oy also appears as the other character in the play speaks with the dead, conversing
with the 9hosts of .ellow Dog and calling to his dead wife, ?leotha.
Wining Boy (In-Depth Analysis)

Grace + A young, urban woman whom $oy Willie and 2ymon each try to pick up.
Analysis of Major Characters


At the heart of The Piano Lesson is a brother and sister couple at war over the -uestion of
using the family legacy. $erniece, the sister, fiercely protects the piano from being sold. )he
figures as the guardian of the family,s past. Cnlike other characters, the stage notes for
$erniece are somewhat sparse, describing her as a thirty+five+year+old mother still mourning
for her husband, ?rawley. )he blames her brother, $oy Willie, for her husband,s death,
remaining ever skeptical of his bravado and chiding him for his rebellious ways
$erniece still constantly thinks about ?rawley and has refused to re+marry. 0hough the play
ultimately stages her seduction by 2ymon@in some sense to recuperate her femininity@it is
crucial that she figure as a woman+in+mourning. 'n this respect, she doubles as her mother,
*ama Bla, a woman who, in her mourning for her husband, spent the rest of her days
attending to the piano that cost him his life. $erniece will continually invoke her memory
against her brother and his own appeals to his father, thus appearing as heir to a certain
maternal legacy. 'ndeed, her mother led her to the piano in the first place.

$erniece played for her mother as a child, and served as priestess in the channeling of the
family,s ghosts, her music enabling her mother to speak with her dead father and animating
its carved figures. 0he adult $erniece now leaves the piano untouched in an attempt to lay
these spirits to rest. *oreover, she has refused to pass the piano,s history onto her daughter
and celebrate it within the family. $erniece can do nothing but carry the past and its traumas
with her. 'n the final struggle between Willie and )utter,s ghost, $erniece will play the piano
and resume her old role as priestess, calling the family,s spirits to assist in the exorcism.
*ystically, she will at once speak from the family,s place of origin 4Africa6 and address the
family,s spirits from the present. $erniece thus assumes her duties as the link to the

Boy Willie

$erniece,s brash, impulsive, and fast+talking brother, the thirty+year+old $oy Willie
introduces the central conflict of the play. ?oming from *ississippi, he plans to sell the
family piano and buy the land his ancestors once worked as slaves. %is impulse is to use the
family,s legacy practically@that is, convert it into capital. 'n this sense, Willie will appear
guilty of a denial or turn away from his family,s traumatic past.

Willie approaches everything with a certain boyish and occasionally crude bravado. %e is
especially vehement on -uestions of race. Declaring himself the e-ual of the white man, he
continually refuses to accept the racial situation that he imagines the others accommodate
themselves to. 0hus he insists that he lives at the <top< rather than the <bottom< of life and
remains intent on leaving his mark on the world. Aware of the fear he arouses in whites, he
knows that he wields the <power of death<@that is, the power both to risk one,s life and kill if
necessary@that ostensibly e-uali&es all men. 0hough the white man may wield the legal and
political authority to punish him, he will only follow laws that he considers just.

Willie seeks )utter,s land as a means of standing shoulder+to+shoulder with the white man.
*oreover, in a play intimately concerned with memory and inheritance, he imagines this
purchase in terms of a certain paternal legacy. $y selling the piano, he avenges his e-ually
brash and impetuous father, $oy ?harles, who spent his life property+less, doing as he might
have done. 0he mark he would leave on the world memoriali&es the father. )imilarly, he
proposes that the family should consider the day that $oy ?harles stole the piano their own
holiday and their own Day of 'ndependence. 'n light of this legacy, it is also not for nothing
that Willie,s namesake is his grandfather, Willie $oy, the slave who transgresses white
authority, the carving of the piano, and leaves a literal <mark< on the world that sets the story
in motion. 'n the final scene, $oy Willie comes to incarnate these paternal ancestors,
engaging in a battle with )utter,s ghost that allegori&es the struggle between white and black
across the generations. 0hough $erniece,s call to the ancestors will lead him to understand
the importance of the piano, he in a sense he already lives in the memory of his ancestral

Wining Boy
Bne of the most memorable characters of the play, Wining $oy is a wandering, washed+up
recording star who drifts in and out of his brother Doaker,s household whenever he finds
himself broke. A comic figure, he functions as one of the play,s primary storytellers,
recounting anecdotes from his travels, glory days, and the family history. %e is one of the two
older players in Wilson,s scenes of male camaraderie, playing a sort of godfather to 2ymon
when he deftly sells him <magic suit< with the promise that it will assist him in the arts of
seduction. 8inally, Wining $oy also appears as the other character in the play who can speak
to the dead, conversing with the 9hosts of .ellow Dog and calling to his dead wife, ?leotha.
As with $erniece, his musical abilities apparently put him in closer communication with the
deceased, the call and response of the play,s many songs oftentimes a call across the grave as


Doaker is $erniece and $oy Willie,s uncle and the owner of the household in which the play
takes place. %e is a <tall, thin man of forty+seven years, with severe features, who has retired
from the world.< Doaker has spent his life working on the railroad, representing one of the
play,s more explicitly historical portraits of !:3s black experience. Within the plot, Doaker
attempts to remain neutral with regards to the conflict over the piano, washing his hands of
the piano in his guilt over his brother,s death. %e also functions as the play,s testifier,
recounting the piano,s history. 2ike Wining $oy, the other member of the family,s oldest
living generation, he offers a connection to the family,s past through his stories.
Themes Motifs an! "ym#ols


Memory/Historical Legacy

As noted by Wilson, the two -uestions that pervade The Piano Lesson are; <What do you do
with your legacy, and how do you best put it to use=< 0he ?harles, legacy is incarnated by the
piano, an artifact and record of the family,s history under slavery. ?onse-uently, implicit in
the -uestion of legacy are those of vengeance, debt, and reparation across the generations.
0he two characters primarily confronting these -uestions are $erniece and $oy Willie.
Whereas $oy Willie would sell the piano in the name of his future, a future that would avenge
his ancestors and secure his success, $erniece clings to the heirloom in memory of the blood
that stains its wood. At the same time, she leaves the piano untouched, never playing it and
keeping its history from her daughter in fear of literally waking it anguished spirits. 'n
contrast, her brother would proclaim its history with pride, enjoining her to pass it onto the
future generations.
0he siblings, reconciliation comes in the play,s final scene, a struggle between $oy Willie and
)utter,s ghost that allegori&es their families, and races, battle across time. Playing the piano
anew, $erniece will serve as a priestess who links the household to its ancestors, calling upon
them to assist the family in its struggle against the specter of the master. 0hus $oy Willie
comes to understand the importance of the piano@an importance beyond material concerns
@and $erniece finds herself able to use her legacy.



As play concerned with trans+generational memory, The Piano Lesson is appropriately
haunted by ghosts; the ghost of )utter, the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog, the ghosts of the
ancestors, and, in a less supernatural sense, those of ?rawley and ?leotha. 0his profusion of
ghosts reveals a blending of ?hristian, folkDsuperstitious, and African mystical traditions. 8or
example, the final exorcism or Avery,s description of the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog as the
<hand of 9od.<

0he more supernatural ghosts wage war in a larger struggle between the )utters and ?harles
@allegorically, the whites and blacks@across the generations. 0hese ghosts primarily
concern themselves with vengeance; )utter returns to avenge his murder and reclaim the
piano, and thus the ?harles familyE the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog avenge their own murder by
murdering )utterE these ghosts met their end when living in $oy ?harles,s attempt to avenge
the ancestors. 'n some sense, their insistence on revenge makes it impossible for the living to
mourn them, since their debts cannot be erased. 'n contrast, ?rawley and ?leotha are ghosts
their survivors are attempting to mourn, and have pasts their survivors are attempting to
work through. $erniece in particular appears to begin to work through her grief over ?rawley
in her seduction by 2ymon.

The Call to the Dead

0hroughout the play, a number of characters address the dead across the grave, the speech of
the dead becoming a central vehicle by which the living assume their legacy. Bften this call
takes place in music, the call structuring the traditional song also serving as the call across
the grave. Wining $oy, for example, engages in a direct dialogue with the 9hosts of the
.ellow Dog at a railroad junction, finding new strength and fortune in their voices. $erniece,
distinguishes herself far more powerfully as the family,s priestess, her song calling the dead
into the present and connecting the living to their place of origin. )he assumes this role in
childhood, playing the piano so her mother can hear her dead father speak. 'n the present,
she returns to the piano as supplicant, forcefully imploring the ancestors to assist in the


Fxamples of African American musical traditions in The Piano Lesson are abundant, such as
the work song, the traveling song, the blues, and the boogie+ woogie. As Wilson has noted,
the trope of music and, as the title suggests, the musical lesson allegori&es the confrontation
with one,s historical legacy and attempt to understand how one should use their past. Almost
pedagogical in their intent, the numerous musical interludes in the play serve to document
particular moments in black history. Gey examples include the men,s song about the
Parchman Prison 8arm or Doaker,s railroad song. 0he latter consists largely of place names
that trace a travel route through the )outh. *ore subtly, the play,s epigraph, a verse from
)kip Aames, serves by dint of a dou(le entendre as a cryptogram, or a piece of writing in
secret characters, for the ?harles family,s history; <9in my cottonD )ell my seedD $uy my
baby< 0he echoes of the slavery and its traffic in human flesh are inescapable, the song
encoding the traumatic legacies at hand. Whether as document or cryptogram, music
becomes a <lesson< in the African American legacy.

The Paternal and Maternal Line
At the heart of The Piano Lesson is a sibling couple who represent two attitudes toward the
family legacy. 0hese attitudes are explicitly gendered, articulated in the name of the father, in
the case of $oy Willie, and the mother, in the case of $erniece. 'n selling the piano, $oy
Willie imagines himself as acting as his father might have and winning the property he could
only work to the benefit of others. 'n doing so, he leaves his mark on the world, just as $oy
?harles did with his theft. Against her brother, $erniece will conjure the image of *ama Bla,
mournfully tending to the piano until the day she died. 2ike her mother, $erniece figures as
the guardian of the family,s past sufferings.

The Mark

'n the play,s final scene, $oy Willie declares that he wants to leave his mark in the world. %e
would do so by buying )utter,s land. 0he trope of the mark invokes a larger paternal
tradition. As Willie notes in the same scene, $oy ?harles left his <mark< on the calendar the
day he stole the piano, providing the family with its own Day of 'ndependence. Willie $oy
literally left his mark on the piano, inscribing the family,s history in the language most
readily available to him. 0he mark on time@a certain <making< of history@is crucial to the
preservation and continuation of the family,s legacy.


The Piano

0he central symbol of the play is the :(+year+old piano, an object that incarnates the family
history. 't takes on a number of meanings through the course of its life. A gift purchased
through the exchange for slaves, it originally exemplifies the interchangeability of person and
object under the system of slavery. 0his traffic in flesh reaffirms a white kinship network at
the expense of black ones. >ote that the piano is an anniversary present. ?arved to placate
*iss Bphelia, the piano,s wooden figures indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and
ornament for the master. As Doaker notes, <>ow she had her piano and her niggers too.< 0he
slave is the master,s gift and accessory.

Cnder Willie $oy,s hands, however, the piano also becomes both a symbolic attempt to keep
the family together and the physical record of the family,s history. $oy ?harles especially
understands the carvings as narrative. As Doaker recalls; <H$oy ?harles wouldI )ay it was the
story of our whole family and as long as )utter had it he had us. )ay we was still in slavery.<

Bnce $oy ?harles dies, the piano becomes a medium of sorts, an altar that *ama Bla tends
until the end of her days and a means by which she converses with the dead. $erniece
facilitates this dialogue with the dead as a sort of priestess, playing to wake those beyond the

The Piano Lesson

Act $ "cene %&Part $$

The action of the play taes place in the itchen an! parlor of Doaer"s sparsely f#rnishe! ho$e in %&'(s
)itts*#rgh+ The ol!, #pright piano, its legs !ecorate! -ith $as-lie tote$s in the $anner of African
sc#lpt#re, !o$inates the parlor+ .Note


The play opens at !a-n+ Wilson calls for a portento#s /stillness/ ain to the gathering of a stor$+ Boy Willie
nocs at the !oor an! calls for his Uncle Doaer+ Doaer lets hi$ in, an! Willie enters -ith his $ore tacit#rn
partner, Ly$on+ The t-o ha0e co$e fro$ 1ississippi in a ricety tr#c to sell -ater$elons+ Ly$on plans to
stay in )itts*#rgh+

Against Doaer"s a!$onish$ents, Willie calls for his sister Berniece+ 2e has not seen her in three years,
ha0ing spent ti$e on the )arch$an )rison 3ar$+ She enters on the stairs an! chi!es her *rother for $aing
so $#ch noise+ Willie then ass his #ncle for a !rin for they all ha0e ca#se to cele*rate4 the Ghosts of the
5ello- Dog ha0e !ro-ne! S#tter in his o-n -ell+ As -e learn later, the S#tter fa$ily o-ne! the 6harles
!#ring sla0ery+

Berniece ref#ses to *elie0e s#ch foolishness+ S#spicio#s, she ass ho- the *oys proc#re! their tr#c+
Ly$on *o#ght it, nee!ing a place to hi!e fro$ the sheriff an! 7i$ Sto0all+ Berniece presses hi$ to e8plain
an! -e -ill learn Ly$on"s story later+ She -ants the$ o#t of her ho#se as soon as possi*le+ In!ee!, she is
s#rprise! they ha0e not -oen her !a#ghter, 1aretha+ Willie i$$e!iately calls 1aretha !o-n+ Berniece
ret#rns #pstairs in fr#stration+

6hanging the s#*9ect, Willie ass a*o#t Doaer"s *rother an! e8-recor!ing star, Wining Boy+ In his $i!!le
age, Wining Boy has *eco$e a -an!erer, ret#rning to his fa$ily -hen *roe+

Ly$on then ass a*o#t the piano+ Apparently Willie inten!s to sell it an!, -ith the profits fro$ the
-ater$elons as -ell, #se the $oney to *#y S#tter"s lan!+ S#tter"s *rother has presente! hi$self as eager to
sell to Willie o-ing to their fa$ilies" share! history+ Willie is all too a-are that he is trying to cheat hi$ *#t is
*ent on starting his o-n far$+

In any case, Doaer is s#re Berniece -ill not part -ith the piano+ While 1aretha is taing piano lessons,
Berniece has not to#che! it since 1a$a Ola !ie!+ 3or her, it has *loo! on it+ In this sense, the piano has
*eco$es a ta*oo o*9ect for her, or so$ething sacre!+ In!ee!, A0ery Bro-n:a preacher co#rting Berniece
-ho follo-e! her to )itts*#rgh -hen her h#s*an! 6ra-ley !ie!:trie! to get her to sell her piano to a local
-hite $an collecting instr#$ents an! help hi$ start his ch#rch, *#t Berniece ref#se!+ Willie sche$es to get
in to#ch -ith the prospecti0e *#yer hi$self+

S#!!enly Berniece cries o#t off-stage4 /Go on get a-ay+/ Willie r#shes #p, passing her has she enters+
Berniece clai$s she has seen S#tter"s ghost, !resse! in a *l#e s#it an! hol!ing the top of his hea! to eep it
fro$ co$ing off+ Staring at her, he calle! Boy Willie"s na$e+ Willie is incre!#lo#s, thining that his sister is
i$agining things+ It re$ains #nliely that S#tter co#l! fin! his -ay to )itts*#rgh an! tra0el so far in the first
place+ Berniece is con0ince! that her *rother p#she! S#tter into the -ell+ She or!ers the $en o#t ane-,
*la$ing Willie for 6ra-ley"s !eath+ Willie protests, saying that S#tter is not looing for hi$, *#t for the piano,
an! Berniece sho#l! get ri! of it+ Utterly e8asperate!, she goes #pstairs -ith Doaer to -ae 1aretha+


The Piano Lesson *egins -ith a ;#otation fro$ Sip 7a$es, a 1ississippi *l#es $#sician !isco0ere! in
the %&'(s4 /Gin $y cotton Sell $y see! B#y $y *a*y <0erything she nee!+/ In so$e sense, this epigraph
con!enses -hat $ost critics i!entify as the central the$atic conflict of the play4 the ;#estion of -hat to !o
-ith one"s legacy+ This conflict o0er legacy appears as the choice *et-een forging ahea! an! cli$*ing the
econo$ic la!!er or atten!ing to the $e$ory of past in9#stices+ Th#s, early in the scene, Boy Willie -ill
repeat Sip 7a$es"s refrain in !escri*ing his plans to start his o-n far$4 /Gin $y cotton+ Get $y see!+/ With
his sche$e, Willie -o#l! achie0e the econo$ic self-s#fficiency only recently $a!e possi*le for *lacs in
A$erica+ I$plicit in this self-s#fficiency, as the song $aes clear (/B#y $y *a*y. <0erything she nee!/), is a
concept of $asc#linity4 as his *rash post#ring s#ggests, the far$ -ill $ae Willie $ore of a $an+ In!ee!, in
*#ying the lan! his fa$ily once -ore! on as sla0es, Willie -ill later i$agine hi$self as the son follo-ing in
an! s#rpassing his father"s legacy, as the heir a0enging his ancestors+

Willie"s ascension to the position of lan!o-ner, ho-e0er, is contingent on the sale of an heirloo$ that
incarnates his ancestral history, -hich is staine! -ith the fa$ily"s *loo! #n!er Berniece"s 0igilant protection+
As -e learn soon after this scene, this history *egins -ith sla0ery+ In this light, the Sip 7a$es lyrics *eco$e
a !o#*le enten!re4 /Sell $y see!.B#y $y *a*y+/ The tra#$a at the heart of this fa$ily history is precisely the
traffic in h#$an flesh echoe! in the song, the sale of the tote$ic fig#res !epicte! on the piano"s legs+ This
sale rent the 6harles fa$ily in t-o, splitting it *et-een sla0e o-ners+ Th#s piano"s reco0ery at one le0el
sy$*oli=es for the ens#ing generations the a0enging of this sale, the reco0ery an! re#nion of the ones lost+
6ar0e! in a 0ag#ely African $anner, the lost fig#res also clearly represent a connection to a lost $other
Africa+ With this in $in!, the sale of the piano, a sale that -o#l! re!#ce it to capital, *eco$es a t#rn a-ay
fro$ the past an! its tra#$as in the na$e of a!0ance$ent+ Th#s Willie"s insistence on econo$ic
a!0ance$ent -ill often appear as a !enial of the s#ffering an! *loo! that stains the fa$ily history+
Thro#gho#t the play, the past -ill -eigh hea0ily on e0en the apparently easy-going !ialog#e+

It is not for nothing that the preser0ation of this past falls #pon Berniece, along -ith the fig#re of the !ea!
1a$a Ola, pict#re! as conscientio#sly polishing it e0ery !ay+ The rather #nfort#nate gen!ere! !i0ision of
la*or the play presents in $anaging the fa$ily legacy -ill *eco$e clear in the si*lings" #lti$ate
reconciliation+ The !istinction is *et-een the son -ho -o#l! literally #se his legacy as capital an! the
!a#ghter -ho cannot #se her legacy at all+ Berniece lea0es the piano #nto#che!+ As -e -ill learn, she has
not passe! on its history either+ As the stage notes #n!erline, she is a*o0e all a -o$an in $o#rning, #na*le
to -or thro#gh the fa$ily"s $any tra#$as, tra#$as that:as the Berniece"s $e$ory of 1a$a Ola s#ggests
:persist across generational lines+ Berniece -ill constantly or!er the constantly for-ar!- looing Boy Willie
an! all the /conf#sion/ he *rings o#t of her ho#se+

With all these conflicts o0er legacy, this scene can only *e ha#nte!+ Along -ith the tote$s staring o#t at the
ho#sehol!, t-o other ghosts appear e8plicitly+ The Ghosts of the 5ello- Dog, the ghosts of Willie an!
Berniece"s $#r!ere! father an! his ho*o co$panions, an! the ghost of S#tter l#ring #pstairs+ S#tter"s
ghost -ill literally -eighs !o-n on the ho#sehol! thro#gho#t the play, ha0ing co$es to a0enge its !eath or
perhaps e0en reclai$ the piano an! the fa$ily it once o-ne!+ A sho-!o-n *et-een the$ see$s i$$inent+

As -e -ill see, #nna$e! ghosts ha#nt this scene as -ell+ These ghosts incl#!e, for e8a$ple, the si*lings"
father or their gran!father an! Boy Willie"s na$esae, Willie Boy an! sc#lptor of the piano+ The effects of
these ghosts $anifest the$sel0es in the a$*ig#ity a$ong the agents an! actors of the play, an a$*ig#ity
pro!#ce! in the -ay the past ha#nts the present+ We are #ns#re -hether the ghosts or Willie ill S#tter+ As
the arg#$ent *et-een Berniece an! Willie in!icate, it is #nclear -hether he co$es for his $#r!erer or for
the piano that recor!s his cri$es+
The Piano Lesson

Act $ "cene %&Part two


When Doaer ret#rns, he a!$its that he *elie0es his niece an! that the s#it she !escri*e! is pro*a*ly
S#tter"s *#rial cost#$e+ Doaer *egins to coo *reafast, an! Willie 9oingly ass a*o#t his s#ccess -ith the
la!ies in the co#rse of his railroa! tra0els+ Doaer has -ore! the railroa! for al$ost thirty years+ 2e reflects
on -hat he has learne! on the railroa!, $#sing ho- passengers ten! to get on trains going in the -rong
!irection, ho- often they fin! the$sel0es forgotten at their points of !estination, an! ho- e0eryone sho#l!
stay in one place+ Thanf#lly Willie interr#pts Doaer"s ra$*lings+
1aretha enters, an! Willie greets her+ 2e in0ites her to play the piano+ She plays a short *eginner"s song,
an! Willie replies -ith a si$ple *oogie--oogie+ 2e ass if she no-s the significance of the piano"s
car0ings+ To his s#rprise, Berniece has not e8plaine! the$+ 2e pro$ises to re0eal their secret to 1aretha if
her $other !oes not+

A0ery then enters an! greets his ol! frien!s+ 2e has an appoint$ent -ith Berniece at the *an to proc#re a
loan for his ch#rch, the Goo! Shepher! 6h#rch of Go! in 6hrist+ 6#rrently he -ors as an ele0ator operator
in to-n+ When ase! ho- he *eca$e a preacher, A0ery reco#nts a !rea$+ Sitting in a railroa! yar!, he
co$es #pon three ho*os tra0eling fro$ Na=areth to 7er#sale$+ They entr#st a lit can!le to hi$+ A0ery then
appears *efore a ho#se+ 2e enters, an! an ol! -o$an lea!s hi$ into a roo$ fille! -ith people -ith *leating
sheep hea!s+ The three ho*os !ress an! anoint hi$, an! 7es#s charges hi$ -ith lea!ing the sheep-people
thro#gh a 0alley of -ol0es+

Willie ass A0ery a*o#t the piano"s prospecti0e *#yer+ Berniece an! 1aretha then enter, an!, -hen the
for$er ass if they nee! any groceries, Doaer !eli0ers a set of long--in!e!, !eli*erate stip#lations on ha$
hocs+ 6as#ally, Willie ass his sister if she still has the na$e of that potential *#yer for the piano an! he
confesses his plan to *#y S#tter"s lan!+ Barely a!!ressing hi$, Berniece ref#ses her *rother an! a*r#ptly
-als o#t+ As he e8its to sell the -ater$elons, Willie tells Doaer that he -ill happily chop an! sell his half of
the heirloo$ if his sister -ill not cooperate+


A0ery"s acco#nt of his !rea$ is the $ost pro$inent speech in this section of scene %+ Of partic#lar
i$portance in this !rea$ are the three ho*os -ho atten! to hi$+ 6ertainly these train-hoppers !o#*le for the
1agi, or -ise $en, in the story of 7es#s" *irth+ At the sa$e ti$e, the ho*os also stan! in for the Ghosts of
the 5ello- Dog, the ghosts A0ery -ill !escri*e the$ later as the /han!s of Go!+/ The con!ensation of these
t-o sets of fig#res $ars a *len!ing of 6hristian an! fol tra!ition+ A0ery is heir to *oth, i$agining hi$self as
calle! *y *oth the -ise $en of the *i*le an! the spirits !e$an!ing 0engeance on the railroa!+

Also of i$portance in this scene is the *rief e8change *et-een Boy Willie an! 1aretha, the only /piano
lesson/ -e see in the play+ As note! in the 6onte8t, Wilson offers the piano lesson as a $etaphor for the
teaching an! learning of one"s legacy+ In the short lesson at han!, 1aretha re0eals that Berniece has not
tol! her of the piano"s history, ca#sing her #ncle to pro$ises to tell her of its past if her $other -ill not+ Willie
acco$panies this pro$ise -ith the !e$onstration of a si$ple *oogie--oogie+ 3or Willie, the *oogie--oogie
s#rpasses any *eginner"s e8ercise+ It is so$ething yo# can !ance to, play -itho#t sheet $#sic+ As Willie
i$agines it, the *oogie--oogie is so$eho- $ore inti$ate, /nat#ral+/ 1#sic:an! specifically African
A$erican $#sic:ser0es as the connection to one"s historical inheritance as -ell as a 0ehicle for its
preser0ation an! trans$ission+ The i$portance of $#sic -ill *eco$e clearer as the play progresses+
6losely connecte! to the f#nction of $#sic in the play is the !ialog#e"s e$phasis on storytelling, reportage,
an! testi$ony+ Lie $#sic, these $o!es of speech -ill ser0e as 0ehicles *y -hich to preser0e an! trans$it
the fa$ily legacy, th#s the /retrospecti0e str#ct#re/ of Wilson"s plays note! *y a n#$*er of critics+ 1ost
scenes in The Piano Lesson *egin -ith so$e either for$ of reportage that recapit#lates an! ela*orates the
e0ents pre0io#s or an anec!ote reco#nting so$e past e8perience+ 1#ch of this first scene prefig#res the
storytelling to co$e, pro0i!ing !etails re;#ire f#rther infor$ation+ In partic#lar, Ly$on -ill f#nction as an
o#tsi!er eliciting the fa$ily"s history+

As the trope of the piano.history lesson fig#res so pro$inently, -e sho#l! finally note ho- Wilson"s plays are
ten!entio#sly steepe! in history, -ritten to chronicle a partic#lar $o$ent in the history of *lac e8perience+
3or e8a$ple, the stage notes incl#!e the !escription of A0ery an! Doaer"s 9o*s, the references to c#linary
tra!itions, the all#sions to *lac $igration patterns fro$ north to so#th, the #se of collo;#ialis$s, the
$ean!ering, !igressi0e con0ersations that create the i$pression of /real life/ speech, an! on-ar!+ Tho#gh
-e sho#l! *e -eary of regar!ing these !e0ices as constit#ti0e of so$e /*lac e8perience,/ -e cannot
consi!er the$ as $ere e8ercises in realis$ either+ Thro#gh the realis$ of !ialog#e, setting, an! characters,
Wilson ai$s at the representation an! !oc#$entation of a history largely a*sent fro$ the A$erican stage+

Act $ "cene '&Part $


Three !ays later, Wining Boy sits at the itchen ta*le !rining as Doaer -ashes pots+ They !isc#ss the
recent e0ents+ Boy Willie an! Ly$on ha0e *een trying to sell their -ater$elons in the -hite neigh*orhoo!s,
*#t their tr#c eeps *reaing !o-n+ Berniece is still !eep in $o#rning for 6ra-ley, tho#gh Doaer s#spects
she $ay *e seeing A0ery+
Doaer 9oes a*o#t A0ery"s !rea$, an! Wining Boy tells hi$ of a $an -ho trie! to i$personate 6hrist:right
#p #ntil the ti$e ca$e for his cr#cifi8ion+ Thining of a -o$an he 9#st left in >ansas 6ity, Wining Boy $#ses
on the !eath of his e8--ife, 6leotha+ 2e rea!s a letter anno#ncing her !eath an! re$inisces on their
$arriage, a $arriage r#ine! *y his nee! to -an!er+ As long as 6leotha li0e!, Wining Boy co#l! *e certain he
ha! a ho$e+

Boy Willie enters -ith Ly$on an! they greet each other+ The Ghosts of 5ello- Dog an! their $any 0icti$s
co$e #p for con0ersation+ Wining Boy relates a ti$e -here he spoe -ith the Ghosts at the 9#nction of the
So#thern an! 5ello- Dog railroa!s+ The longer he stoo! there, the *igger he got? he left feeling lie a ing
an! ha! a stroe of goo! l#c for the ne8t three years+

Boy Willie then anno#nces that he has alrea!y sec#re! the sale of the piano+ Doaer an! Wining Boy
protest that the lan! he -ants is -orthless, that the intelligent -hite $an has alrea!y $igrate! to the cities,
an! that S#tter is pro*a*ly cheating hi$+ Willie re$ains #n!a#nte!+

6hanging the s#*9ect, Wining Boy $entions that he hear! Willie an! Ly$on -ere on )arch$an )rison
3ar$, -here *oth he an! his *rother spent ti$e+ Willie e8plains that so$e -hites ha! trie! to chase hi$,
Ly$on, an! 6ra-ley fro$ so$e l#$*er they -ere pilfering+ 6ra-ley fo#ght *ac an! -as ille!, -hile the
other t-o -ent to prison for theft+ Ly$on -as shot in the sto$ach+ <0ent#ally 1r+ Sto0all *aile! Ly$on o#t
on the con!ition that he -or for hi$+ Un-illing to ser0e Sto0all, Ly$on i$$e!iately fle!, planning to stay in
)itts*#rgh -here they treat *lacs *etter than in the So#th+

Willie !isagrees -ith his partner e0al#ation of the So#th, that -hites -ill only treat yo# as *a!ly as yo# let
the$+ Wining Boy conc#rs *#t #n!erlines an i$portant !ifference4 the -hite $an can $ae #se of the la-+
Willie !eclares he only follo-s la- -hen it is right+ Wining Boy respon!s that as a res#lt, he -ill en! #p *ac
on )arch$an+ The $en re$inisce a*o#t )arch$an an! sing an ol! -or song (/Oh Lor! Berta/)+

Willie then ass Wining Boy to play the piano+ Wining Boy $oans that he is tire! of carrying a piano on his
*ac+ /A$ I $e@ Or a$ I the piano player@/ he ass+ Willie re$ars that so$eone *etter play the piano
;#ic, rehearsing his plans to sell it an! clai$ S#tter"s lan!+ Once again Doaer insists that Berniece -ill not
sell it an! *egins to e8plain its history to Ly$on+


Scene A foc#ses on $ale ca$ara!erie, the first of t-o in the play, intro!#ces the ironically na$e! Wining
Boy, a -an!ering, -ashe!-#p $#sician -ho is clearly past his ti$e an! loos *ac #pon his life -ith an /o!!
$i8t#re of =est an! sorro-+/ A tra0eling $an, he f#nctions as one of the play"s pri$ary storytellers, !eli0ering
in this scene a n#$*er of the$atically significant speeches+ 6ertainly his call to the Ghosts of the 5ello-
Dog, a !ialog#e -ith the !ea! at the crossroa!s, once again #n!erlines ho- the play poses these
characters" ancestors as so#rces of strength an! rene-al+ Wining Boy is not only occ#pie! -ith the ghosts
of the rail-ay, ho-e0er, la$enting the passing of his -ife an! the certain ho$e she e$*le$ati=e!+ As the
o$nipresence of these ghosts s#ggest, The Piano Lesson is a play a*o#t $o#rning an! atten!ing to the
$e$ory of those lost+ As in Wining Boy"s stories of the crossroa!s an! 6leotha, this $o#rning -ill
specifically in0ol0e the a!!ress across the gra0e, a call to the !ea! *oth in speech an!, i$portantly, in

Tho#gh not na$e! e8plicitly, a$ong the ghosts -ith -ho$ the $en are in s#ch !ialog#e are those of
sla0ery, ghosts that assert the$sel0es in the gro#p"s $e$ories of the )arch$an )rison 3ar$+ As Wilson
largely lea0es this reference #ne8plaine! in the script, )arch$an re;#ires a *rief historical !eto#r+ The
)arch$an )rison 3ar$ opene! in %&(B *y Go0ernor 7a$es >+ /White 6hief/ Car!a$an as a highly
profita*le la*or ca$p+ Boasting o0er A(,((( acres an! co0ering o0er forty-si8 s;#are $iles, the prison
containe! a sa-$ill, a *ricyar!, a sla#ghterho#se, a 0egeta*le canning plant an! t-o cotton gins+ Unlie
$ost prisons that cons#$e! state re0en#e, )arch$an f#rnishe! the state treas#ry ann#ally -ith s#*stantial
profits fro$ the sale of cotton an! cottonsee!+

)risoners at )arch$an en!#re! con!itions an! cr#elty that parallele! the for$er !ays of sla0ery+ In$ates
li0e! in o0er-cro-!e! cells -ith *loo!staine! floors, o0erflo-ing -aste *#cets, an! 0er$in-co0ere! -alls+
6on0icts -ere force! to -or long ho#rs in scorching cotton fiel!s an! -ere *ar*aro#sly -hippe! *y /Blac
Annie,/ a three-foot long, si8-inch -i!e leather strap+ 6on0icts -ere al-ays strippe! to the -aist, an!
-hippe! in front of other $en+ An apprehen!e! escapee face! an #nli$ite! n#$*er of lashings+ )risoners
-ere s#per0ise! *y a han!f#l of pai! g#ar!s an! a large n#$*er of ar$e! prisoners calle! /tr#sty shooters/
-ith the a#thority to shoot escaping con0icts+

The $en"s share! history at )arch$an:a history share! across generations:an! enco#nters -ith a racist
legal syste$, $ars the specter of sla0ery in their li0es+ In partic#lar, Ly$on"s anec!ote of fleeing Sto0all
after his racist arrest an! sale into *on!age can only e0oe the $e$ory of the r#na-ay sla0e+ Also
connecte! to these $e$ories of )arch$an is Wining Boy"s allegory of the !ifference *et-een the -hite an!
*lac $an, a !ifference that lies in the -hite $an"s a*ility to #se the la-+ Nota*ly, Boy Willie re*els against
the fact of these racist con!itions, !eclaring that there is no !ifference *et-een hi$ an! the -hite $an, an!
that he can only follo- la-s he consi!ers 9#st+ This re*ellion against racis$ prefig#res his final o#t*#rst in
Scene D+
The Piano Lesson

Act $ "cene '&Part $$


Doaer tells the piano"s story+ D#ring sla0ery, a $an na$e! Eo*ert S#tter:the recently !ecease! S#tter"s
gran!father:o-ne! the 6harles fa$ily+ 2e -ante! to $ae an anni0ersary present o#t of his frien!, 7oel
Nolan!er"s, piano *#t co#l! not affor! it+ Th#s he tra!e! a f#ll an! half gro-n sla0e, Doaer"s gran!$other
Berniece an! his father, for the instr#$ent+ Tho#gh initially 1iss Ophelia, S#tter"s -ife, lo0e! the piano, she
starte! to $iss her sla0es an! atte$pte! to tra!e the$ *ac+ When Nolan!er ref#se!, she fell !esperately
So, S#tter calle! Doaer"s gran!father, Willie Boy, an! ase! hi$ to car0e the faces of his -ife an! chil! into
the piano+ Willie Boy -as no-n as a great crafts$an, an! th#s S#tter ept hi$ -hen Nolan!er offere! to
*#y hi$ to eep the fa$ily together+ Willie Boy co$plie! -ith S#tter"s or!er *#t !i! not only car0e his
i$$e!iately fa$ily, ho-e0er+ 2e incl#!e! his $other, father, an! 0ario#s scenes fro$ their fa$ily history+
Tho#gh S#tter hate! the car0ings, they thrille! 1iss Ophelia, -ho playe! the piano #ntil her !eath+

5ears later, Doaer"s el!est *rother an! Berniece an! Boy Willie"s father, Boy 6harles, !e0elope! an
o*session o0er the piano, *elie0ing that as long as the S#tters hel! their fa$ily"s history, they hel! the$ in
*on!age+ So, on 7#ly fo#r, %&%%, he, Doaer, an! Wining Boy stole it, storing it in the neigh*oring co#nty
-ith 1a$a Ola"s fa$ily+

Later that !ay, lynchers set Boy 6harles"s ho#se on fire+ 6harles fle! to catch the 5ello- Dog+ The $o*,
ho-e0er, stoppe! the train an!, -hen #na*le to fin! the piano, set his *o8car on fire+ Boy 6harles !ie! along
-ith the ho*os in his car+ The $#r!erer -as ne0er i!entifie!, tho#gh the s#spects soon *egan falling in their
-ells+ Local resi!ents attri*#te! their !eaths to the -or of their 0icti$s" spirits, !#**e! the Ghosts of the
5ello- Dog+

Once Doaer finishes his story, Boy Willie forcef#lly !eclares that these e0ents are in the past an! that his
father -o#l! ha0e !one as he -ants no-+ Doaer ref#ses to tae si!es in his !isp#te -ith Berniece? Wining
Boy, on the other han!, clearly thins he sho#l! lea0e it alone+

Wining Boy *egins to sing a fa$iliar song, /I"$ a ra$*ling, ga$*ling $an+/ Berniece an! 1aretha then
enter, an! the for$er greets her #ncle, an! then the t-o retire #pstairs+ Once they e8it, Willie an! Ly$on
atte$pt to $o0e the piano an! test its -eight+ As they start to $o0e it, S#tter"s ghost is hear!+ Only Doaer
notices it+ S#tter"s ghost $aes noise again, an! all tae notice+
Berniece reappears an! co$$an!s Willie to stop+ 2e cannot sell his so#l for $oney+ Willie retorts that he is
not selling his so#l, only a piece of -oo! for so$e lan!+ 2is father -o#l! ha0e $a!e so$ething o#t of the
piano, not left it rot in the parlor+ Berniece retorts -ith the $e$ory of their $other polishing the piano e0ery
!ay for se0enteen years #ntil her han!s *le!:the piano is sacre!+

She contin#es her tira!e that Boy Willie is 9#st lie all the $en in the fa$ily, g#ilty of nothing *#t theft an!
$#r!er+ In!ee!, he has the !eath of her h#s*an! on his han!s+ Willie ref#ses responsi*ility for 6ra-ley"s
!eath+ Uncon0ince!, Berniece attacs her *rother+ S#!!enly, 1aretha is hear! screa$ing #pstairs in terror,
an! the lights go o#t on stage+


The centerpiece of Scene A is the story of the piano+ An intensely sy$*olic artifact, the piano taes on
n#$*er of $eanings in the co#rse of its life+ Initially p#rchase! -ith sla0es, the piano first e8e$plifies the
interchangea*ility of person an! o*9ect #n!er the syste$ of sla0ery+ This traffic in h#$an flesh ser0es to
reaffir$ a -hite inship net-or at the e8pense of *lac ones:the piano is an anni0ersary present+ 6ar0e!
to placate 1iss Ophelia, the piano"s -oo!en fig#res then in!icate the interchangea*le nat#re of sla0e an!
orna$ent4 as Doaer notes, /No- she ha! her piano an! her niggers too+/ The piano $aes all too clear
that the sla0e is the $aster"s gift an! accessory+

Un!er Willie Boy"s han!s, ho-e0er, the piano *eco$es *oth a sy$*olic atte$pt to re#nite his *roen fa$ily
as -ell as the transcription of the fa$ily"s history thro#gh one of the fe- $eans a0aila*le to hi$+ Thro#gh his
craft$anship, Willie Boy recor!s a history all too easily lost, the history of those -itho#t the a#thority to -rite
official historical narrati0es+ As *oth sy$*ol an! narrati0e, the fig#res are no longer orna$ental, *#t tote$ic,
the $arers of a fa$ilial legacy+

S#tter"s o-nership of the piano for Boy 6harles is not only egregio#s in that its fig#res represent sla0es an!
sho- the ancestors #n!er sy$*olic ensla0e$ent+ S#tter"s o-nership of the fa$ily"s historical narrati0e also
eeps the 6harles fa$ily in *on!age+ As Doaer recalls4 /F6harles -o#l!G Say it -as the story of o#r -hole
fa$ily an! as long as S#tter ha! it he ha! #s+ Say -e -as still in sla0ery+/ It is also nota*le that the theft of
the piano occ#rs on In!epen!ence Day+ As Boy Willie -ill !eclare in the final scene, this theft $ars a
re-riting of history+ The fa$ily sho#l! -rite his father"s act on the calen!ar an! cele*rate it as their o-n

The trope of the $ar for posterity -ill rec#r -ith respect to Willie in the final scene as -ell+ Alrea!y this
scene $aes clear ho- Boy Willie i$agines hi$self as heir to his father"s legacy in his plans to clai$
S#tter"s far$+ Willie -o#l! $ae so$ething of the piano as his father -o#l! ha0e !one+ Against this 0ision of
self-i$pro0e$ent, Berniece in0oes the i$age of her $other, $o#rnf#lly scr#**ing an! praying o0er the
piano #ntil her !eath+ The si*lings" confrontation o0er the #ses of one"s legacy th#s also !i0i!es the$ along
paternal an! $aternal lines+ Note ho- the play !ra-s this !i0i!e across the generations+ Great-gran!parents
Willie Boy an! Berniece are reincarnate! in a sense in Boy Willie an! Berniece+ As his *rash father $ight
ha0e, Boy Willie re*ellio#sly loos to-ar! the f#t#re, striing o#t against racist society+ Lie her $other,
Berniece ser0es as g#ar!ian of the fa$ily"s past s#ffering, an! lie her $other, Berniece is also another
-o$an $o#rning her h#s*an!+ As note! earlier, these t-o approaches to the fa$ily"s legacy -ill fin! its
synthesis in the rit#al that closes the play+
The Piano Lesson

Act $$ "cenes % an! '


"cene %

The follo-ing $orning, Doaer appears ironing his pants -hile singing a song a*o#t the railroa!+ Wining Boy
enters -ith a s#it he has faile! to pa-n+ Berniece is o#t cleaning a ho#se, an! Boy Willie an! Ly$on are
selling their -ater$elons+ Doaer re$ars that 1aretha is no- scare! to sleep #pstairs+ Tho#gh he !i! not
tell Berniece, he a!$its to his *rother that he sa- S#tter"s ghost three -ees ago, playing the piano+ 2e
thins his niece sho#l! get ri! of the heirloo$+ Wining Boy !isagrees an! then ass his *rother to len! hi$
so$e $oney+
Boy Willie an! Ly$on enter, ha0ing fast-tale! their -ater$elons off on the local -hites+ Shre-!ly, Wining
Boy sells his s#it an! a pair of shoes to Ly$on, pro$ising that it has a $agical effect on the la!ies+ Ly$on
an! Boy Willie plan to go o#t the local pict#re sho- an! fin! so$e -o$en+

Wining Boy re$ars that Ly$on is as cra=y a*o#t -o$en as his father -as+ 2e reco#nts ho- he once
helpe! *ail his father:L+D+ 7acson, !escri*e! as /one *a!-l#c nigger/:o#t of 9ail after he -as arreste!
for fighting -ith a -hite yo#th+ In ret#rn, Ly$on"s $other in0ite! Wining Boy o0er for a night+

Declining Wining Boy"s in0itation to a ga$e of car!s, the yo#ng $en prepare to go o#t+ Wining Boy coaches
Ly$on on pic-#p lines4 /If yo# got the har*or, I got the ship+/

"cene two

Later that e0ening, Berniece appears preparing a t#* for her *ath+ A0ery enters an! he has gotten his loan+
2esitantly, he proposes to Berniece ane-, !eclaring that she is too yo#ng to /close #p+/ Berniece retorts that
she still has /a lot of -o$an/ in her an! is occ#pie! -ith 1aretha+ A0ery replies that she cannot contin#e
carrying 6ra-ley -ith her+

6hanging the s#*9ect, Berniece ass A0ery to *less the ho#se in hopes of e8orcising S#tter"s ghost+ She
re$ains con0ince! that Boy Willie ille! hi$+ A0ery, on the other han!, *elie0es in the Ghosts of 5ello- Dog,
recalling a preacher -ho #se! to !escri*e the$ as the han! of Go!+ Berniece contin#es her la$ent,
co$plaining that Doaer *la$es hi$self for Boy 6harles" !eath an! has -ashe! his han!s of the piano an!
that Boy Willie has *een a pro*le$ since he -as a little re*ellio#s *oy, 9#st lie his father+
A0ery s#ggests that she #se the piano to start a choir at his ch#rch+ Berniece replies that she has not *een
a*le to to#ch the piano since her $other !ie!+ She playe! for her $other alone+ When she playe!, her
$other co#l! hear her father speaing to her+ As a chil!, Berniece i$agine! that the fig#res -o#l! co$e to
life an! stal the ho#se+ She lea0es the piano #nto#che! to eep fro$ -aing those spirits+ In0oing the
po-ers of Go!, A0ery #rges Berniece to p#t the past *ehin! her, *#t Berniece cannot+


Breaing the tension of the scene pre0io#s, Act II opens -ith another scene of $ale ca$ara!erie+ Once
again, the scene consists of little action, largely relying on reportage an! storytelling+ As Scene % is so
!igressi0e, it is !iffic#lt to offer a synthetic analysis+ It *egins -ith Doaer"s rail-ay song, song that consists
al$ost entirely of place na$es+ Literally chronicling the stops on a rail-ay $an"s 9o#rney, this song once
again locates the play -ithin its historical $ilie#+ The re$ain!er of the scene largely consists of Wining Boy
co$ically pa-ning his s#it off on Ly$on an! a!0ising the t-o yo#nger $en on the local -o$en+ Tho#gh
sol!, the s#it re$ains a gift of sorts, Wining Boy in a sense passing on the s#ccess he once ha! -ith the
la!ies+ It is not for nothing that Wining Boy -as al$ost Ly$on"s father+ As he !eclares, /T-o stroes *ac
an! I -o#l! ha0e *een his !a!!yH/

The s#*se;#ent scene in0ol0es its o-n ga$e of co#rtship, A0ery rene-ing his proposal of $arriage to the
recalcitrant Berniece+ Note that for A0ery, Berniece"s persistent -i!o-hoo! calls her fe$ininity into ;#estion+
If she re$ains aloof $#ch longer, she is liely to /close #p+/ Tho#gh Berniece retorts that a -o$an can
stan! -itho#t a $an, A0ery points o#t that she herself /carries/ one -ith her at all ti$es:her h#s*an!

Scene A also ela*orates Berniece"s relation to the piano as a sacre! an! ta*ooe! o*9ect+ Berniece playe!
the piano for her $other alone, an! -hen she playe!, her $other co#l! hear her father speaing to her+
Th#s, the yo#ng Berniece, -ho is associate! -ith the $aternal line, appears as a sort of priestess in the
channeling of the fa$ily"s ghosts+ 2er $#sic ani$ates the tote$ic fig#res, f#nctioning as a sort of call that
her $other hears+

A0ery"s response is telling, an! it in0ol0es a series of *i*lical citations an! the in0ocation of 6hrist+ 2e
a!0ises Berniece to start a choir+ 2e *elie0es that -ith the strength of Go!, she can $o0e the /stones/ in her
path an! play as she once !i!+ In other -or!s, she sho#l! !o so$ething -ith her legacy+ In!ee!, A0ery
!eclares that she sho#l! /$ae it into a cele*ration+/ The trope of the cele*ration -ill rec#r in the final scene
-hen Boy Willie !eclares that the fa$ily sho#l! consi!er the !ay of the piano"s theft a holi!ay+

Also i$portant is the /$i8e!/ ;#ality of A0ery"s e8hortations, in0ol0ing the in0ocation of a n#$*er of local
tra!itions+ 3or e8a$ple, A0ery i!entifies the Ghosts of the 5ello- Dog, a fol $yth, -ith the /han! of Go!+/
As critics ha0e note!, these e8hortations prefig#re the e8orcis$ stage! in the final scene, one that -ill *len!
6hristianity, fol s#perstition, an! a 0ag#ely African $ysticis$+
The Piano Lesson

Act $$$ "cenes ( an! )


"cene (

Se0eral ho#rs later, Boy Willie enters the !arene! ho#se -ith Grace, a local girl he pice! #p, in to-+
Tho#gh the !arness an! lac of a *e! $ae Grace rel#ctant to stay, they *egin to iss on the co#ch+ In
their an8iety, they noc o0er a la$p+ Berniece co$es !o-n the stairs an! or!ers the$ o#t+ Un-illing to stay
-here she is not -ante!, Grace taes Willie *ac to her o-n flat+
As Berniece is $aing tea, there is a noc at the !oor+ Ly$on has ret#rne! looing for Willie+ 2e trie! to go
to a pict#re sho- -ith Grace"s frien!, Dolly, *#t en!e! #p lea0ing her after she ha! a fe- !rins at his
e8pense+ Initially Grace ha! sho-n interest in hi$, *#t Willie got to her first+

They !isc#ss Ly$on"s plans to stay in )itts*#rgh+ Berniece e8presses her !isappro0al of the local saloons+
Ly$on !efen!s their -o$en patrons, as $ost of the$ are 9#st lonely+ As for hi$self, he is tire! of one-night
stan!s, !rea$ing of fin!ing the right -o$an+ 2e -ants to fin! a 9o* an! set hi$self to pro0i!e for a -ife+ 2e
-on!ers -hy Berniece is not $arrie! an! enco#rages her to *eco$e A0ery"s -ife+

They chat f#rther+ Ly$on co$pli$ents Berniece"s nightgo-n an! prepares for *e!+ 1#sing on Wining Boy"s
s#ppose! $agic s#it, he -ith!ra-s a *ottle of perf#$e fro$ his coat pocet an! gi0es it to Berniece+ 2e
anoints her an! they iss+ Berniece e8its #p the stairs+ Ly$on stroes his s#it lo0ingly, s#re of its $agic+

Scene 4

Late ne8t $orning, Boy Willie r#shes in, -aing Ly$on fro$ the co#ch:apparently he has not spent the
night -ith Berniece+ 2e left Grace"s last night -hen her ol! lo0er, Leroy, s-#ng *y+ Willie has calle! the
*#yer a*o#t the piano, tho#gh perhaps !i! not con0ince hi$ to pay as $#ch as he -o#l! ha0e+ The t-o
atte$pt to $o0e the piano+ S#tter"s ghost is hear!, *#t the t-o !o not notice it+

S#!!enly Doaer enters an! or!ers the$ to stop an! -ait for Berniece to co$e ho$e+ The t-o $en
contin#e their efforts *#t to no a0ail+ Ulti$ately they e8it to fetch so$e rope an! a $aeshift !olly, Willie
ple!ging to sell the piano no $atter -hat+

Scene ' 9#8taposes t-o contrasting se!#ctions4 one *et-een Boy Willie an! Grace an! another *et-een
Berniece an! Ly$on+ While the play poses the first as a f#$*ling one-night stan!, it in0ites #s to consi!er
the secon! /$agical+/ To *e $ore precise, -e co#l! perhaps consi!er /$agical/ in the sense of
$eta$orphosis+ The first transfor$ation occ#rs in an earlier scene, -hen Ly$on !ons Wining Boy"s
char$e! s#it, a s#it that ostensi*ly $aes hi$ irresisti*le to his o*9ect of se!#ction+ This s#it is a $agical
cost#$e, transfor$ing hi$ fro$ co#nty *#$pin to a $an of the city+ )erhaps i$plicit in this cost#$e
change is a fantasy of $at#ration, Ly$on *eco$ing the gentle$an -ho stan!s in star contrast to the cr#!e
an! *oyish Willie+

Less e8plicitly, Berniece #n!ergoes her o-n transfor$ation as -ell+ With the iss, Berniece e$erges fro$
her grief o0er 6ra-ley an! it is no- possi*le for her to tae ne- lo0e o*9ects+ She *eco$es an erotic fig#re,
for the first ti$e in the play, #n!er Ly$on"s ga=e, his co$pli$ents an! gift a!!ressing her as a se8#al *eing+
With this transfor$ation in $in!, note Ly$on"s en#$eration of -o$en"s gar$ents, -hat one co#l! !escri*e
as the /signifiers/ of fe$ininity+ 3or e8a$ple, he co$pli$ents Berniece, telling her that fancy nightclothes
$ae -o$en"s sin /loo real pretty+/ 2e re$ars on the local -o$an4 /Got the$ high heels+ I lie that+
1ae the$ loo lie they real precio#s+/ These fetish o*9ects erotici=e the fe$ale *o!y an! !efine the
fe$inine+ O0er an! against the scene pre0io#s -ith A0ery, -here Berniece appears in !anger of /closing
#p,/ the en#$eration of these signifiers that lea! #p to the cli$atic iss ret#rns Berniece to her fe$ininity+

As this scene is certainly the $ost erotic in the play, a fe- ;#estions re$ain, s#ch as -hy Ly$on an!
Berniece apparently !o not cons#$$ate their ga$e of se!#ction+ We -on!er -hether the play resists
cons#$$ation for fear of co$pro$ising Berniece"s #nyiel!ing integrity, an! -hether the play insists on
Ly$on"s 0irt#e+ We also -on!er -hy this scene occ#rs, as neither character has sho-n interest in the other
#p #ntil this point+

We can only spec#late as to Berniece"s $oti0ations as this scene o0er-hel$ingly feat#res Ly$on in the
confessional $o!e+ At the o#tset of the play, Wilson characteri=ing Ly$on -ith a certain /!isar$ing
straightfor-ar!ness+/ 6ertainly his confessions to Berniece, -hich are free of Boy Willie"s *ra0a!o an!
Wining Boy"s post#ring, e8e$plify his can!i! nat#re+ Ly$on -ants a lo0er -ho recogni=es hi$, -ho
#n!erstan!s that they are #ni;#e in the -orl!, an! -ill e8plore ho- the t-o of the$ /fit together+/ 2e is tire!
of one-night stan!s, sa!ly relating the ti$e he spent the night -ith the prettiest -o$an he ha! e0er seen *#t
faile! to e0er loo at her+ Drea$ing only of fin!ing the /right -o$an,/ Ly$on yearns for the fantasy of $#t#al
recognition an! co$pati*ility that lo0e can offer+

Scene B is largely an interl#!e, prefig#ring the play"s s#pernat#ral !eno#e$ent in the follo-ing scene+
Atte$pting to $o0e the piano, Boy Willie an! Ly$on -ae S#tter"s ghost+ We -on!er if a s#pernat#ral force
eeps the piano in place+ Doaer forcef#lly inter0enes, #n-illing to let Willie r#n off -ith the piano -itho#t
Berniece"s consent+ The stage is set for a final confrontation+

The Piano Lesson

Act $$ "cene *


Scene D *egins later that !ay, -ith Doaer playing solitaire, 1aretha sitting at the piano, an! Boy Willie
scre-ing his !olly together on the sofa+ Willie is telling 1aretha of the Ghosts of 5ello- Dog+ Berniece enters
an! once again or!ers Willie o#t of her ho#se+ She tells 1aretha to go #pstairs an! *ring !o-n her co$*
an! hair grease+ Willie acco$panies her to protect her fro$ S#tter"s ghost+
Doaer tells his niece of Willie"s c#rrent plan to cart the piano o#t of the ho#se+ Berniece replies that she is
rea!y to #se her h#s*an!"s g#n to stop hi$ if necessary+ Willie an! 1aretha ret#rn, an! the si*lings *egin to
arg#e ane-+ When Berniece threatens hi$, Willie !eclares that he !oes not fear !eath+ 2e reco#nts a story
fro$ chil!hoo! -hen a priest faile! to re0i0e his !ea! !og+ 2a0ing learne! that nothing -as precio#s, he
-ent o#t an! ille! a cat an! !isco0ere! the /po-er of !eath+/ This po-er $aes hi$ the e;#al of the -hite

As Berniece *egins to style 1aretha"s hair, Willie contin#es, stating that the Bi*le !ictates the 9#stice of /an
eye for an eye,/ an! that Berniece an! A0ery -o#l! ignore those teachings+ Tho#gh he is not a *elie0er, he
no-s Berniece sho#l! re$ain tr#e to the entire Bi*le+ 1aretha cries o#t in pain an! Berniece silences her+
Willie protests an! says that if Berniece -ants to tell her !a#ghter anything, she sho#l! tell her the piano"s
story+ The ho#sehol! sho#l! cele*rate the !ay of Boy 6harles"s theft, In!epen!ence Day, as their o-n
personal holi!ay+

Berniece replies that Willie can !ispense his teachings -hen he has chil!ren of his o-n+ Willie retorts that he
-o#l! ne0er ha0e chil!ren as he has no a!0antages to offer the$+ 2e re$e$*ers ho- his father -o#l!
stare off at his han!s, -itho#t the tools to pro!#ce anything, left only -ith the po-er to ill+ Unlie his father,
lan! -ill ena*le hi$ to stan! sho#l!er-to-sho#l!er -ith the -hite $an+ Willie acc#ses Berniece of teaching
1aretha that as a *lac person she li0es at the /*otto$ of life/:the only res#lt -ill *e that she -ill co$e to
hate her+

Berniece replies that she only tells her !a#ghter the tr#th+ Willie protests that he is li0ing at life"s top an! that
none of their ancestors -o#l! ha0e e0er tho#ght the$sel0es at the *otto$+ 2e no-s that the -orl! -ants
no part of hi$ *#t that it is *etter *eca#se of his e8istence+ Tho#gh so$e fear the so#n! of a /nigger"s heart
*eating,/ his -ill not *eat ;#ietly+ Willie -ill $ar his passing on the roa!+ A0ery enters, an! Willie
interrogates hi$ on -hat a 6hristian sho#l! *elie0e+ 2e also $ocs the i$$inent e8orcis$+ We learn that
the *an has finali=e! A0ery loan for the ch#rch+ Ly$on then enters carrying a coil of rope+


The$atically, this final confrontation *et-een Berniece an! Boy Willie in0ol0es $ost of Boy Willie"s
speeches on race relations+ Nota*ly Willie !eli0ers these speeches -hile Berniece !oes 1aretha"s hair+
1aretha"s presence in!icates ho- the fate of the f#t#re generation is 0ery i$portant+

Thro#gho#t the play, Willie asserts that there is no !ifference *et-een hi$ an! the -hite $an+ At the sa$e
ti$e, he re$ains painf#lly a-are of the !isparities *et-een the$+ 2e th#s plays *oth si!es of a para!o8,
insisting, for e8a$ple, that he li0es in the -orl! lie any other $an, that he li0es at the top an! not the
*otto$ of life, an! that he his heart *eats lie any other"s -hile at the sa$e ti$e stri0ing to-ar! *eco$ing
the -hite $an"s e;#al+

Boy Willie"s first speech relates his !isco0ery of the /po-er of !eath+/ As he notes -ith respect to his father,
this po-er is the only one left to a *lac $an !enie! property an! the tools to *#il! so$ething for hi$self+
The po-er of !eath:that is, the po-er to ill as -ell as ris one"s life:$aes the *lac $an the -hite
$an"s ri0al+ As Willie !eclares4 /See, a nigger that ain"t afrai! to !ie is the -orse in! of nigger for the -hite
$an+/ With the po-er of !eath, he can loo the -hite $an /s;#are in the eye an! say, "I got it too+" Then Fthe
-hite $anG got to !eal -ith yo# s;#are #p+/ Willie is all too a-are of the fear the so#n! of a /nigger"s heart
*eating/ can inspire+ By !isco0ering the po-er of !eath, Willie #n!er$ines the !istinction $aster.sla0e that
ha#nts the !ifference *et-een -hite an! *lac, a !istinction in large part fo#n!e! on the $aster"s capacity to
ill his ser0ant+ The po-er of !eath $aes *oth players $asters engage! in a str#ggle to the !eath, $asters
-ho are -illing to $#r!er an! !ie in a *attle for recognition+ As only the po-er of !eath ens#res his
recognition, Boy Willie *elie0es in the 9#stice of an /eye for an eye,/ ref#sing to te$per his 0iolent rage -ith
6hristian ho$ilies+

Willie also fantasi=es a*o#t *eco$ing the -hite $an"s e;#al in the p#rchase of lan!+ Once again he in0oes
the $e$ory of his property-less father, staring e$ptily at his strong, #seless han!s+ As a lan!o-ner, Willie
-ill *eco$e the -hite $an"s neigh*or, stan! ne8t to hi$ an! tal a*o#t cotton, the -eather, an! -hate0er
else they lie+

Willie is all too a-are that he has *een *orn into a /ti$e of fire,/ an! that the -orl! -o#l! rather !o -itho#t
hi$+ 3or Willie, Berniece accepts this -orl!, teaching her !a#ghter that she sits at the *otto$+ 2e, on the
other han!, -ill $ar his passing on the roa!4 /7#st lie yo# -rite on a tree, "Boy Willie -as here+"/ The trope
of the $ar refers to Willie"s paternal heritage, to the fathers *efore hi$ -ho left their $ar on ti$e+ Willie
Boy lea0es a literal $ar on the piano that recor!s the fa$ily"s history+ Boy 6harles" theft lea0es a $ar on
the calen!ar, creating a ne- In!epen!ence Day+ Again, the gen!ere! politics of this 0ision are not innocent,
-ith the $en appearing as the $aers of history an! the -o$en as their $o#rners+

The Piano Lesson

Act $$ "cene *&Part $$


The t-o yo#ng $en *egin to $o0e the piano+ Berniece e8its #p the stairs+ She reappears -ith 6ra-ley"s
g#n+ Doaer an! A0ery #rge the si*lings to tal things thro#gh+ 2esitant at first, Ly$on e0ent#ally !eci!es to
contin#e helping Willie+ Berniece or!ers 1aretha o#t of the roo$+

S#!!enly a !r#nen Wining Boy enters, ra$*ling a*o#t so$e fello- na$e! )atchnec Ee!+ 6o$ically
*reaing the tension of the scene, he atte$pts to fish a !rin o#t of Boy Willie"s coat an! sits !o-n to play a
song he -rote in $e$ory of 6leotha+ Willie atte$pts to !islo!ge hi$, an! Wining Boy !efensi0ely sprea!s
his ar$s o0er the piano+

A noc at the !oor follo-s, an! Grace enters+ She an! Ly$on ha0e a !ate for the pict#re sho-+ S#!!enly
e0eryone *#t Grace can sense S#tter"s presence+ Grace soon notices it as -ell an! e8its, an! Ly$on
follo-s her+

S#tter"s presence reasserts itself, an! A0ery $o0es to *less the piano #sing a can!le an! a *ottle of -ater+
2e *egins his prayers, sprinling -ater an! rea!ing fro$ the *i*le+ Boy Willie interce!es4 /All this ol!
preaching st#ff+ hell, 9#st tell hi$ to lea0e+/ As A0ery atte$pts to !ri0e o#t the ghost, Willie flings a pot of
-ater aro#n! the roo$, -oring hi$self into a fren=y4 /2ey S#tterH S#tterH Get yo#r ass o#t of this ho#seH/

2e charges #p the stairs+ The so#n! of S#tter"s ghost is hear!, an! an #nseen force !ri0es Willie *ac an!
choes hi$+ 2e charges *ac #p the stairs, an! the t-o engage in a life-an!-!eath str#ggle+ Ulti$ately
A0ery is st#nne! into silence? Doaer an! Wining Boy gape in !is*elief+

S#!!enly, /fro$ so$e-here ol!,/ Berniece reali=es -hat she $#st !o+ She *egins to play a song on the
piano, *oth a /co$$an!$ent an! a plea,/ an /e8orcis$ an! a !ressing for *attle,/ a /r#stle of -in! *lo-ing
across t-o continents+/ /I -ant yo# to help $e/ she sings, na$ing her ancestors+ The so#n! of a train
approaching is hear!, an! the noise #pstairs s#*si!es+ Willie ta#nts S#tter, an! Berniece thans her fa$ily"s
A cal$ co$es o0er the ho#se, an! 1aretha an! Willie reappear, the latter pa#sing to -atch his sister at the
piano+ 2e ass Wining Boy is he is rea!y to catch the train *ac so#th+ 1aretha e$*races her #ncle an!
Willie offers his goo!*ye to his sister4 /2ey Berniece if yo# an! 1aretha !on"t eep playing on that piano
ain"t no telling $e an! S#tter *oth lia*le to *e *ac+/ Bernice says, /Than yo#,/ an! the lights go !o-n to


The secon! half of Scene D *egins -ith a /pse#!o-cli$a8,/ Berniece hol!ing her *rother at g#npoint -hen
he an! Ly$on atte$pt to $o0e the piano+ S#tter"s ghost reasserts itself+ Al$ost i$$e!iately, ho-e0er, a
!r#nen Wining Boy enters, co$ically !ef#sing the tension of the scene+ A $are! shift in tone follo-s,
Wining Boy playing a song for his *elo0e! 6leotha an! then !esperately stretching hi$self across the piano+
This a!!ress to the !ea! prefig#res the cere$ony a*o#t to ens#e+

In!ee!, the final cli$atic confrontation of the play !oes not occ#r *et-een the t-o si*lings *#t *et-een the
li0ing an! the !ea!+ The $e$*ers of the ho#sehol! loc the$sel0es in a *attle against S#tter"s ghost+
S#tter"s e8orcis$ in0ol0es the -or of three characters:A0ery, Boy Willie, an! Berniece:an! the *len!ing
of the fa$ily"s 0ario#s c#lt#ral inheiritances, s#ch as 6hristianity, fol s#perstition, an! African $ysticis$+ As
the preacher, A0ery in0oes the a#thority of Go! to cast S#tter o#t+ 1i$ing A0ery"s e8orcis$, his ta#nting
cries an! i$itation of the holy -ater ren!ering it grotes;#e, Boy Willie !ispenses -ith !i0ine inter$e!iaries
an!, as if a character fro$ a fol tale, confronts the ghost hi$self+ This str#ggle see$s allegorical if not
archetypal in nat#re+ Note that Willie"s last re$ar to Berniece (/$e an! S#tter lia*le to *e *ac/) s#ggests
that they stage an ol! *attle+ 6ertainly S#tter"s ghost e0oes that of his gran!father, the sla0e $aster Eo*ert
S#tter+ Si$ilarly, Boy Willie f#nctions here as a sort of re0enant, e$*o!ying his o-n ancestors+ As -e ha0e
note! thro#gho#t the play, his na$esae, an! constant references to his paternal legacy $ae hi$ the heir
an! incarnation of the fa$ilial spirits+ Eea! allegorically, Willie an! S#tter engage in a *attle *et-een the
S#tters an! 6harles, -hite an! *lac that stretches across the ti$e+

Ser0ing as the priestess of this cere$ony, Berniece #lti$ately ens#res the ho#sehol!"s 0ictory *y res#$ing
the chil!hoo! role she !escri*e! earlier+ Tho#gh her call in song, the !ea! -ill ret#rn to assist the li0ing an!
cast o#t the ghosts of the $aster"s fa$ily+ 2er song *#ttresses *oth A0ery an! Willie"s efforts, in0ol0ing *oth
an e8orcis$ an! a !ressing for *attle+ Nota*ly, Wilson #n!erlines the necessity of this res#rrection+ The
song is a co$$an!$ent an! a plea, an in9#nction an! an entreaty for help+ 1oreo0er, all the ghosts $#st
rise4 if Berniece"s playing ani$ates the fig#res on the piano, the so#n! of the train certainly refers to a
0isitation fro$ the Ghosts of the 5ello- Dog+

The ine8ora*ility of Berniece"s call lies in its so#rce4 the /so$e-here ol!/ insi!e of her, so$e i$agine! place
of origin that, for Wilson, harens *ac to Africa+ The li0ing !ra- strength fro$ the ghosts of the past, in a
sense ret#rning to their origins, an! the ghosts respon! to the li0ing *eca#se they spea fro$ that 0ery
originary place+ 1ystically, Berniece speas fro$ the fa$ily"s place of origin an! a!!resses the fa$ily"s
spirits fro$ the present to tae strength fro$ that original place+ The logic of this fantasy is circ#lar, referring
to the #ninterr#pte! circ#it this cere$ony esta*lishes across ti$e, space an! the gra0e+ Nota*ly, the -o$an
f#nctions as the $eans *y -hich to reach an! spea fro$ the i$agine! origin+

This rit#al appears to resol0e the central conflict of the play4 the ;#estion of -hat to !o -ith one"s legacy+
The specter of the -hite $an has *een cast o#t, an! Willie can lea0e in peace+ 2e !oes, ho-e0er, lea0e the
-o$en of the ho#sehol! -ith a charge4 if they !o not contin#e playing the piano, he an! S#tter are lia*le to
ret#rn+ In other -or!s, they -ill res#$e the ol! *attle *et-een -hite an! *lac+ Th#s again the $aternal line
is left -ith the responsi*ility of $aintaining the connection to the fa$ily"s origins, a connection that -ill
ostensi*ly eep the ghost of the $aster at *ay+ Tho#gh the concl#sion of the play is s#ppose!ly cathartic,
those of #s -ho ha0e atten!e! to the -ays its characters are ha#nte! *y past tra#$as $ay -on!er if the
;#estion of #sing one"s legacy is ans-ere! so si$ply+

The Piano Lesson

$m+ortant ,-otations .x+laine!

9in my cotton )ell my seed $uy my baby Fverything she need
0hat,s when ' discovered the power of death. )ee, a nigger that ain,t afraid to die is the worse
kind of nigger for the whiteman. %e can,t hold that power over you. 0hat,s what ' learned
when ' killed the cat. ' got the power of death too. ' can command him. ' can call him up. 0he
white man don,t like to see that. %e don,t like for you to stand up and look him s-uare in the
eye and say, <' got it too.< 0hen he got to deal with you s-uare up.

<8planation for I#otation JA

$B. W'22'F; %ey $erniece if you and *aretha don,t keep playing on that piano ain,t no
telling me and )utter both liable to be back. 4)e e*its.6

$F/>'F?F; 0hank you.

<8planation for I#otation J'

When my mama died ' shut the top on that piano and ' ain,t never opened it since. ' was only
playing it for her. When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano. )he used to
have my playing on it 4...6 had *iss Fula come in and teach me 4...6 say when ' played it she
could hear my daddy talking to her. ' used to think them pictures came alive and walked
through the house. )ometime late at night ' could hear my mama talking to them. ' said that
wasn,t gonna happen to me. ' don,t play that piano cause ' don,t want to wake them spirits.

<8planation for I#otation JB

When *iss Bphelia seen it 4...6 she got excited. >ow she had her piano and her niggers too
$oy ?harles used to talk about that piano all the time. %e never could get it off his mind. 0wo
or three months go by and he be talking about it again. %e be talking about taking it out of
)utter,s house. )ay it was the story of our whole family and as long as )utter had it he had us.
)ay we was still in slavery.
The Piano Lesson

/ey 0acts

FULL TITLE J The Piano Lesson

AUT!" J August Wilson

T#$E !F W!"% J Drama

GE&"E J *elodrama

LA&GUAGE J Fnglish

TIME A&D $LACE W"ITTE& J Written in )t. Paul, *innesota, and Pittsburgh in !#"

DATE !F FI"'T $UBLICATI!& J !#(E first produced at the .ale /epertory 0heater in !#(
and on $roadway in !!3

$UBLI'E" J .ale Cniversity 4+ale Theater maga&ine6

&A""AT!" J >one

CLIMA( J $oy Willie and $erniece confront )utter,s ghost

$"!TAG!&I'T' J $oy Willie, $erniece

A&TAG!&I'T J $oy Willie

'ETTI&G )TIME* J Farly !:3s

'ETTI&G )$LACE* J 0he kitchen and parlor of Doaker,s house, Pittsburgh

$!I&T !F +IEW J Drama, not applicable

FALLI&G ACTI!& J $oy Willie,s departureE $erniece,s giving of thanks

TE&'E J 0he play unfolds in the time of the present

F!"E'AD!WI&G J )utter,s ghost stirs throughout the play, foreshadowing the final

T!&E J 0ragicomic

TEME' J *emoryDhistorical legacy

M!TIF' J 0he maternal and paternal lineE the markE musicE the call to the deadE ghosts

'#MB!L' J 0he piano

The Piano Lesson

"t-!y ,-estions an! .ssay To+ics

What is the thematic significance of the final exorcism= Discuss the roles each character
plays in casting out )utter,s ghost.
*usic is a crucial element of this play as is the trope of the piano lesson. ?hoose and discuss
one example of the use of music in the play.

Ans-er for St#!y I#estion JA

Discuss the role of magic in $erniece and 2ymon,s seduction.

Ans-er for St#!y I#estion J'

"-ggeste! .ssay To+ics

The Piano Lesson relies more on reportage and storytelling than action. Discuss the role of
storytelling in the play= .ou may want to focus on two or three stories for comparison.

What are some differences between the roles of men and women in this play= .ou may want
to isolate a few characters for analysis. .ou also may want to consider their role in the plot,
their -ualities, their speech, etc.

What is the significance of the railroad in this play= ?onsider, for example, Doaker,s
reflections on railroad travelers, his traveling song, the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog, etc.

What is the significance of Avery,s dream= ?onsider in particular his use of allegory.

The Piano Lesson is often a humorous play. Discuss one example of the comic in the play.
Cpon what literary devices does it rely= What is its thematic significance=
The Piano Lesson

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What is the name of Doaker,s grandfather=

4A6 $oy ?harles
4$6 $oy Willie
4?6 Willie $oy
4D6 ?harles $oy

Who sees )utter,s ghost first=

4A6 *aretha
4$6 Doaker
4?6 $erniece
4D6 Wining $oy

Who does 2ymon intend to give his bottle of perfume=

4A6 Dolly
4$6 9race
4?6 $erniece
4D6 *aretha

Where did the .ellow Dog get its name=

4A6 8rom the company logo
4$6 8rom the ghosts
4?6 8rom the color of the boxcars
4D6 8rom the neighboring delta

%ow long as it been since $oy Willie has seen his sister=

4A6 0wo years
4$6 Bne year
4?6 8our years
4D6 0hree years

Who murdered $erniece,s father=

4A6 /obert )utter
4$6 /obert )mith
4?6 Fd )aunders
4D6 >o one knows

What was the name of the first $erniece,s mistress=

4A6 Fsther
4$6 Bla
4?6 Portia
4D6 Bphelia

'n what year did $oy ?harles steal the piano=

4A6 !
4$6 !:"
4?6 !3
4D6 !5"

What is the name of the woman in the song the men used to sing at Parchman=

4A6 ?leotha
4$6 Alberta
4?6 *anitoba
4D6 *aretha

Who has spoken to the 9hosts of the .ellow Dog=

4A6 Avery
4$6 Doaker
4?6 Wining $oy
4D6 $oy Willie

What does 2ymon give $erniece=

4A6 A pair of shoes
4$6 A fancy nightgown
4?6 A watermelon
4D6 A bottle of perfume

Who helped $oy ?harles steal the piano=

4A6 Doaker
4$6 *ama Bla
4?6 Avery
4D6 $oy Willie

Why has 2ymon decided to stay in Pittsburgh=

4A6 %e has fallen in love
4$6 %e is fleeing the law
4?6 %e has found a job
4D6 %e is a wanderer

Who does not sing in the course of the play=

4A6 $erniece
4$6 2ymon
4?6 $oy Willie
4D6 Avery

When $oy Willie,s dog dies, what does he discover=

4A6 0he power of faith
4$6 0he power of death
4?6 0he power of grief
4D6 0he power of rage

Who plays the piano in the household on a regular basis=

4A6 $erniece
4$6 *aretha
4?6 Doaker
4D6 $oy Willie

What does $oy Willie play for his niece=

4A6 A ragtime piece
4$6 An etude
4?6 A boogie+woogie
4D6 An old spiritual

When does the play begin=

4A6 At dawn
4$6 At night
4?6 At noon
4D6 'n the evening

What is Avery,s daytime job=

4A6 %e is a preacher
4$6 %e is a railway man
4?6 %e is a schoolteacher
4D6 %e is an elevator man

What does $oy Willie tell his customers when selling his watermelons=

4A6 0hat they were picked that very day
4$6 0hat they are locally grown
4?6 0hat they are planted with sugar
4D6 0hat they are organic

What painter inspired The Piano Lesson,

4A6 ?esar /omare
4$6 /omare $earden
4?6 $eardsley /ome
4D6 >one of the above

What food does *aretha abhor=

4A6 ?hicken
4$6 Watermelon
4?6 $lack+eyed peas
4D6 ?ollared greens

What is $erniece,s job=

4A6 )he leads a church choir
4$6 )he is a schoolteacher
4?6 )he is a cook
4D6 )he is a cleaning lady

What accessory does 2ymon add to the outfit he purchases from Wining $oy=

4A6 A top hat
4$6 A straw hat
4?6 A pair of shoes
4D6 ?ologne

What award did The Piano Lesson win in !!3=

4A6 0he 0ony
4$6 0he Pulit&er Pri&e
4?6 0he >obel Pri&e
4D6 0he >ational $ook Award

The Piano Lesson

"-ggestions for 0-rther 2ea!ing

&u!ust 'ilson- a Case(ook. Fd. Flkinds, *arilyn. >ew .ork; 9arland, !!1.

$ogumil, *ary. .nderstandin! &u!ust 'ilson. ?olumbia, )?; Cniversity of )outh ?arolina
Press, !!!.

8ishman, Aoan. /0 &in't Sorry %or 1othin' 0 #one/- &u!ust 'ilson's Process o% Playritin!.
>ew .ork; 9arland, !!".

>adel, Alan. May &ll +our Fences )a"e Gates- 2ssays on the #rama o% &u!ust 'ilson. 'owa
?ity; Cniversity of 'owa Press, !!1.

Pereira, Gim. &u!ust 'ilson and the &%rican3&merican 4dyssey. Crbana; Cniversity of
'llinois Press, !!7.

)hannon, )andra. The #ramatic $ision o% &u!ust 'ilson. Washington, D.?.; %oward
Cniversity Press, !!7.

Wang, Kun. &n 0n3de5th Study o% the Ma6or Plays o% &%rican &merican Playri!ht &u!ust
'ilson- $ernaculari7in! the Blues 4n3Sta!e. 2ewiston, >...; Fdwin *ellen Press, !!!.

Wolfe, Peter. &u!ust 'ilson. >ew .ork; 0wayne Publishers, !!!.