Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.
Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.
Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.
Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.
Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.
The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.
The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.