August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” Analyzed by Angie Mack

March 29, 2019
front cover of August Wilson's The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson

Analyzed by Angie Mack (c) 2007
We all have a legacy. We all have a heritage; a history. Parts of our history, perhaps we would rather forget. Others of it, we are proud of and want to be remembered throughout the generations. What to do with our heritage can be answered differently be different people. Some people are extremely nostalgic and desire to be highly pre-occupied with the past. They see the past as something that is worth saving. They want to preserve their history whether it is through ancestral books, heirlooms, or even stories passed down. Others are futurists; being preoccupied with the future, dreaming of the possibilities, and fantasizing about what can be.
This issue of what to do with the past is the source of conflict and inspiration in August Wilson’s play, “The Piano Lesson”. It raises important questions about which is better; nostalgia or futurism. Is it enough to simply remember, or is there a point in which one must move forward; away from his or her past?
These are the questions that literally “haunt” two of the main characters in the play; Boy Willie and Berniece who are siblings. August Wilson sets up the character of Boy Willie who is representative of a futurist in this manner:
“BOY WILLIE is thirty years old. He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name. He is brash and impulsive, talkative and somewhat crude in speech and manner”. (Wilson 1-2)
Wilson does not set up the nostalgic character of Berniece as specifically. He writes,
 “BERNIECE enters on the stairs. Thirty-five years old, with an eleven-year-old daughter, she is still mourning for her husband after three years.” (Wilson 3).
Boy Willie is set up to be a charismatic and entertaining character whereas Berniece is set up to be sort of “plain”. She represents a logical and unassuming side. Based upon the description of these two characters at two separate poles, I would contend that August Wilson himself is more like Berniece in mannerisms. In an American Theatre article, August Wilson explains about himself,
“I’m not a performer”……”I never had any desire to perform anything. I don’t like to be in front of a room full of people, but as it happens I’ve done that a fair amount of times. When I go to an opening-night reception, I may say a few words…….” (American Theatre 22).
It is interesting to note, that likewise, Berniece does not like to perform. In speaking about the family heirloom piano she says,
“I done told you I don’t play the piano……..When my mama died I shut the top on that piano and I ain’t never opened it since. I was only playing it for her….I don’t want to play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits.” (Wilson 70).
The piano is the symbol of conflict in the play. I say it is a symbol because it represents far more than an old instrument made of wood and ivory with a few important carvings on it. On a deeper level, it represents Boy Willie and Berniece’s past. Even deeper, it represents freedom which I will explain later. The piano of this story is one that had been passed down to Berniece and Boy Willie who are living during the Industrial Revolution. The story of the piano goes back three generations. It began in the hands of a man named Joel Nolander. It ended up in the hands of the slave master Robert Sutter who “owned” Boy Willie and Berniece’s ancestors. Robert Sutter wanted to give his wife, Miss Ophelia, an anniversary gift but didn’t have enough money. However, he had slaves. Robert Suttor traded Boy Willie and Berniece’s great grandmother and their grandfather for the piano. At first, Miss Ophelia was delighted with her piano but after awhile, began to miss her slaves. Robert Suttor couldn’t trade back the piano, so he had Boy Willie and Berniece’s great grandfather, who was also called Boy Willie, carve the ex-slaves pictures in her piano in attempts to appease her. However, he also carved his own mother, “Mama Esther” and father “Boy Charles” into the piano which made it even more legendary. Then one day, Boy Willie and Berniece’s father stole the piano from the Sutter family. He said, “it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it…..he had us. Say we was still in slavery.” Their father, who was also named Boy Charles, stole the piano because it represented the family history. The piano represented freedom to him. Unfortunately, he was burned in a boxcar as a result of a jretaliation over stealing the piano. In essence, he died for his family’s freedom.
This same passion that Boy Charles had to preserve the family history is found in August Wilson himself. Literary and traditional African American styles are preserved within the play. Apart from the main story, Wilson also acknowledges the beauty of the African, the “call and response” spiritual, the African American preacher and sermon, the blues musician, the black man in the segregated south and the migrant African American. Some aspects are seen overtly. Others are subtleties.
Beginning with the beauty of the African, it is highly significant to note the name, “Mama Esther” in this lineage of the piano. August Wilson uses the name “Aunt Ester” frequently in his plays such as in Two Trains Running, Gem of the Ocean, and King Hedley II.
“Aunt Ester carries the memory of all Africans, the memory of the ancestors,” Wilson explains. “She embodies the wisdom and traditions of all those Africans, starting with the first one. It is a tremendous responsibility to carry all of this—to remember for everyone, as well as to remember for yourself— “
(American Theatre 21) This quote by Wilson reveals that he highly values heritage. Again, true to Berniece’s character, Wilson himself is nostalgic and sees carrying on the family stories as being a “tremendous responsibility”.
In his speech, “The Ground on Which I Stand”, Wilson shares his own personal testimony of what role his ancestry had on his own life,
“Growing up in my mother’s house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the gestures, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain, that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on these shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit.” Interestingly, the play is set in Pittsburgh, Wilson’s childhood hometown.
In the summer 1998 issue of the African American Review magazine it says, “But the interaction in The Piano Lesson is instead structured like the classic call-and-response…….” This “call and response” style found in so many African American spirituals is incorporated into Wilson’s writing. Typical to “call and response”, there are repetitive phrases followed by a response. The “call” aspect is heavily punctuated. Watch the dialogue between Berniece, Doaker, and Boy Willie as Berniece blames Boy Willie for her husband’s death:
BERNIECE: He ain’t here, is he? He ain’t here! I said he ain’t here! (call)
DOAKER: Come on, Berniece…..let it go, it ain’t his fault. (response)
BERNIECE: He ain’t here, is he? Is he? (call)
BOY WILLIE: I told you I ain’t responsible for Crawley. (response)
BERNIECE: He ain’t here. (call)
BOY WILLIE: Come on now, Berniece…..don’t do this now. Doaker get her. I ain’t had nothing to do with Crawley…… (response)
BERNIECE: You come up there and got him! (call) (Wilson 54).
(If you look at Berniece’s bit of dialogue alone, it also fits well with the typical A,A,A,B blues lyric style.)
The African American sermon is also preserved in the text as Avery gives his “testimony” of being called into the ministry and as Avery comes to the house to “bless” the house in order to free it from Sutter’s ghost. The typical religious excitement is seen in the escalated lines,
“Get thee behind me, Satan! Get thee behind the face of Righteousness as we Glorify His Holy Name! Get thee behind the Hammer of Truth that breaketh down the Wall of Falsehood!” (Wilson 105).
In the preface of his play, August Wilson puts the lines of Delta Blues artist, Skip James:
“Gin my cotton
Sell my seed
Give my baby
Everything she need”
August Wilson does not forget the legacy of the African American musician either. He preserves it in the character, Wining Boy:
“WINING BOY is fifty-six years old. DOAKER’S older brother, he tries to present the image of a successful musician and gambler, but his music, his clothes, and even his manner of presentation are old. He is a man who looking back over his life continues to live it with an odd mixture of zest and sorrow.” (Wilson 28). August Wilson is sympathetic to the African American musician as evidenced by his play, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” which is all about the injustices of the recording industry in the 1920’s and 30’s. Wining boy shares some of his own personal sorrows:
“See, you think it’s all fun being a recording star…..Now, there ain’t but so many places you can go. Only so many road wide enough for you and that piano…..Go to a place and they find out you play piano, the first thing they want to do is give you a drink, find you a piano, and sit you right down. And that’s where you gonna be for the next eight hours……You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that’s all you got.” (Wilson 41). This was typical of most African American musicians in the “race recordings” era. White men took advantage of their gifts and often paid them solely with booze. August Wilson expounds upon these truths in his very first play that gained him recognition, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”.
August Wilson also expounds on life in the segregated south. During the time period in which this play took place, despite the Emancipation Proclamation declaring freedom for the slaves, there was neither equality nor freedom for that fact. Especially in the south, many ex-slaves “borrowed” money from former slave masters and worked on their land so that they could earn a living. (What other opportunities did they have but basically none?) They used the money to buy seed, food, clothing, and other necessary commodities with the hopes of paying back their debt at the harvest time. However, there was a “sharecropping” system in which these slave masters charged tremendous prices and high interest rates. These masters made sure that it was impossible to pay back the debts, thus requiring the “free man” to remain on his plantation another year. It was an endless cycle of debt. It kept African Americans bound to these landowners making them no better off than they were prior to the Emancipation Proclamation. Furthermore, the local law enforcers were not fair. Sheriffs almost always sided with the cause of the white man. Black men were frequently accused of crimes that they did not do such as raping a white woman or stealing. They did not have any means to defend themselves and the consequences were beyond fair and consistent. Wining Boy explains this unfairness of the segregated south with this illustration:
“But I’ll tell you the difference between the colored man and the white man….Now you take and eat some berries. They taste real good to you. So you say I’m gonna go out and get me a whole pot of these berries and cook them up to make a pie or whatever. But you ain’t looked to see them berries is sitting in the white fellow’s yard. Ain’t got no fence around them……Now the white man come along and say that’s my land…..He tell the sheriff, ‘I want you to put this nigger in jail as a warning to all the other niggers. Otherwise first thing you know these niggers have everything that belong to us.’” (Wilson 38).
Finally, the migrant African American is acknowledged within August Wilson’s text. Like so many during that time, the character Lymon has great hopes and expectations of the north during the Industrial Revolution. Many blacks migrated north as new jobs were available and were needed to be filled. Buildings were going up everywhere as the steel industries and railroad industries were exploding. The north represented opportunity and an escape from the unjust south. Lymon originally escapes to the north with Boy Willie because of an injustice with the law, to make a long story short. Lymon carries curiosity and utopian dreams with him as he arrives in Pittsburg. He wants to “see what it’s like up here.” (Wilson 3). Boy Willie explains Lymon’s secret dreams:
“Talking about all the women he gonna get when he up her. He ain’t had none down there but he gonna get a hundred when he get up here.” (Wilson 9). And
“You think you ain’t got to work up here. You think this is the land of milk and honey.” (Wilson 17).
Just as August Wilson weaves African American history throughout his play in both overt and subtle forms; the piano which is the central focus of the play carries its own history. Besides the carvings of the ancestors, it has also been polished with the blood and tears of the women who took care of it in the family. Berniece believes that the piano should stay put in her home. Her brother Boy Willie, on the other hand, has different ideas.
Boy Willie is a futurist who is not so sentimental about the piano. Boy Willie wants to sell the historic piano and “buy some land” with the profit. Boy Willie believes that it isn’t good to “hang onto” the past. He strongly believes that his ancestors, especially his father, would have wanted him to have an easier life:
“If my daddy had seen where he could have traded that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now. He spent his whole life farming on somebody else’s land. I ain’t gonna do that. See, he couldn’t do no better. When he come along he ain’t had nothing he could build on.” (Wilson 46).
Boy Willie thinks that the piano should be BUILT UPON. He is a visionary who is not content to remain in the past. He is concerned for his future and for future generations. The most valuable monetary thing that he possesses is the piano which is half his and half his sister’s. He wants to create a new life. He wants to begin his own life of freedom. He wants to develop a future. This idea of developing the future is seen in an interview by August Wilson which said,
“I think that the fundamental question that has confronted Blacks since Emancipation Proclamation is, Are we going to adopt the values of the dominant culture, or are we going to maintain our cultural separateness and continue to develop the culture that has been developing in the southern United States for some two to three hundred years? I think that is the question. Ultimately the people are going to decide one way or the other about how we are going to proceed.” (National Forum).
Boy Willie is all about how to proceed. Yes, he acknowledges and knows about his heritage. But he wants to proceed. He wants to develop. This is where the crux of the conflict lies. Just how valuable is the piano? Boy Willie is offered $1500 for it. He promises to give half to his sister, Berniece. But the conflict is heightened in this dialogue:
BERNIECE: ……..I ain’t selling that piano.
BOY WILLIE: I’m trying to get me some land, woman. I need that piano to get me some money so I can buy Sutter’s land……..
BERNIECE: Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money………
BOY WILLIE: I ain’t talking about all that, woman. I ain’t talking about selling my soul. I’m talking about trading that piece of wood for some land…….You can always get you another piano……….You can’t do nothing with that piano but sit up there and look at it. (Wilson 50).
This creates a predicament. Which is more important? Preserving the past or building on the past to create a future? I believe that good art is art that is full of contradictions. It is this tension throughout the play that excites the audience’s attention. It is easy for me to sympathize with both Berniece and Boy Willie. I think that there is a bit of nostalgia in all of us as well as a bit of futurism. I think that both are good. I identify with both characters. This play is unique in that, I feel, it conflicts good against good. Both Berniece and Boy Willie are right. Both have valid arguments. In most literature, the antagonist is easy to see. He is evil. But, in this case, I feel that both Berniece and Boy Willie are the protagonists. The audience is the jury that is left to decide whose case is stronger. Of course, in the end, Berniece wins.
The reason why Berniece wins is fascinating. The climax of the story occurs at the end of the play rather than in the middle like most texts. It is full of intense drama as all characters are present to create a frenzied atmosphere. Boy Willie and Lymon struggle to remove the piano. Wining Boy, unaware of the conflict and most likely drunk, decides to finally play a tune on the piano. Avery arrives to perform an exorcism. Berniece gets out her gun. Doaker tries to be a peacemaker. Grace, a woman who had been womanized by Boy Willie and Lymon arrives clueless to the conflict at hand, the Sutter ghost is present and Boy Willie is tantalizing it. The ancestors are surprisingly present. You see, amidst the chaos, Berniece desperately calls upon the ancestors as she sits at the piano to play and sing. In song, she calls upon “Mama Berniece…..Mama Esther……Papa Boy Charles…….Mama Ola……” It is calling upon these that cause her to win the victory. After her dramatic plea for help in song, an amazing calm sweeps over the house. Surprisingly, immediately after the song, Boy Willie forgets about trying to move the piano and harassing the Sutter ghost. He says,
“Wining Boy, you ready to go back down home? Hey, Doaker, what time the train leave?” This dramatic shift in his character indicates some sort of exorcism. This is the typical response of someone who is delivered from a demon. They are ambivalent to what occurred prior. This leads me to believe that Boy Willie was persuaded by some “evil spirit” all along. However, his evil is that in his passion for his future, he becomes greedy. His greed blinds him to his past, thus making him ignorant and foolish.
However, the real demon or ghost throughout the play is a man named Sutter. He was the former slave master who died supposedly by falling into a well. Berniece, her daughter, and Doaker all see him in the house at separate times. Berniece believes that he is after Boy Willie and is convinced that Boy Willie killed him. Boy Willie thinks that Berniece is seeing things but blames the piano as being the reason for Sutter’s return.
The theme of ghosts is prominent in this play. There is the “Ghost of Sutter” and the “Ghost of the Yellow Dog”. The Ghost of Sutter is a ghost that is seen in Berniece’s home. The Ghost of the Yellow Dog is a little bit more difficult to interpret. However, the text gives some clues. Wining Boy states:
“……It didn’t look like nothing was going right in my life………call on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, see if they can help me. I went down there and right there where them two railroads cross each other…….I stood right there on that spot and called out their names. They talk back to you, too.” (Wilson 34-35). The Yellow Dog is the railroad track. Doaker, who has a job working for the railroad says,
“I pieced together the Yellow Dog stitch by stitch. Rail by rail. Line track all up around there. I lined track all up around Sunflower and Clarksdale.” (Wilson 18). Furthermore, Wining Boy says, “So the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter.” (Wilson 28.)
The legendary story is that, long ago, when Boy Willie and Berniece’s father stole the piano from elder Sutter, he escaped on a train; a boxcar. Some unknown person or group set the boxcar on fire. Their father and several others in the boxcar died. I interpret the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog as being those who died on the train track. Perhaps their ghosts had come back to fight various white men in the south in revenge; thus the reason why Sutter supposedly fell into his well. However, Sutter was not the only one to have died in this manner. Supposedly, 9 or 10 other white men of the south fell in their wells also. Lymon says,
“The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog pushed him. That’s what the people say. They found him in his well and all the people say it must be the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Just like all them other men.” (Wilson 15).
A more logical interpretation of these deaths is that these men all committed suicide. Perhaps with the booming of the railroad and steel industries, they were losing their cheap labor as blacks migrated north. Or, perhaps the Great Depression carved a deeper hole into their pocket and they were left broke. Whatever the case, I believe that these men killed themselves because of their financial demise. Wining Boy gives an interesting account of the time period which would have been during the Great Depression:
“Nineteen thirty. July of nineteen thirty I stood right there on that spot……” (Wilson 34).
Between the way in which August Wilson forms his story by incorporating African American history and literature styles into his texts, the audience attracting conflict, the themes, and believable characters, The Piano Lesson has been proven to be a work of art. In 1990, it won the Pulitzer Prize for drama. August Wilson has offered the world an invaluable piece that will truly live on beyond his years. In a sense, he has also given a definition to art as a whole. This definition can be found, surprisingly, in the setting of his play:
“On the legs of the pian, carved in the manner of African sculpture, are mask-like figures resembling totems. The carvings are rendered with a grace and power of intervention that lifts them out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.” I believe that August Wilson defines art in the piano of his story and in the story itself. Art transcends craftsmanship alone. Art carries with it some story. Art is invaluable.
So what about nostalgia? What about being futuristic? Perhaps Boy Willie didn’t learn well enough from the past. Suppose he sold the piano to buy the land. But then, suppose the land he was buying wasn’t any good after all. Suppose it caused him more grief than blessing. I think that Doaker was right,
“That land ain’t worth nothing no more. The smart white man’s up here in the cities. He cut the land loose and step back and watch you and the dumb white man argue over it.” (Wilson 36).
Wisdom says, “Learn from the past”. Berniece and Doaker are knowledgeable about the ways of the white man in the south. They are nostalgic and wise. Zealous futurism alone is foolishness and ignorance as embodied in Boy Willie.
Is August Wilson nostalgic? Definitely, as evidenced by the weight he gives the African American legacy in his play. But is he also futuristic? Yes, as seen by the impact that his play has had on art and literature as a whole. You see, preserving the stories of the past ARE the future. To wipe out one’s legacy would be to wipe out one’s identity. We must remember. As we remember, the future will naturally be affected. What is the main message in The Piano Lesson? PRESERVE THE PAST FOR FUTURE GENERATIONS BECAUSE IT IS PRICELESS. Berniece knows this. August Wilson knows this.
Works Cited
Devon, Boan. “Call-and-response: parallel ‘slave narrative’ in August Wilson’s ‘The Piano Lesson.'” African American Review Summer 1998 v32 n2 p263(9).
Sheppard, Vera. “August Wilson, an Interview”. National Forum Summer, 90, Vol. 70 Issue 3, p7, 5p, 1bw.
Wilson, August. “The ground on which I stand.” American Theatre Sept 1996 v13 n7 p14(3) (speech on African-American theatre by playwright August Wilson)(Transcript).
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York et al: Plume, 1990.
“Bailey v. Alabama.” Great American Court Cases. 4 vols. Gale Group, 1999. Reproduced in History Resource Center. Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Group.
Billington, Monroe Lee. The American South. NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. 1971
Divine, Robert A…..(et al.), America, Past and Present. NY…(et al.). Pearson Longman. 2005.
Eskridge, Greg. Interview by author. Grafton, WI, 3 May 2005. Koda, Cub.
King, George. “Letters From Mississippians, 1916-1918”. Goin’ To Chicago. PBS Online. <>.
Koda, Cub. “Charley Patton Devil Sent the Rain Blues”. (Audio CD insert): La Spezia, Italy: Comet Records. 2004.
Meier, August and Elliot Rudwick. From Plantation to Ghetto, Third Edition. NY: American Century Series. 1976.
Rubel, David. Fannie Lou Hamer From Sharecropping to Politics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ. Silver Burdett Press, Inc. 1990
Woodson, Carter G. “From a Century of Negro Migration (1918)”. From Bondage to Liberation. New York: Faith Berry. 2001.

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Angie Mack is a musical director, performing artist, blues educator and writer who has a wealth of experience and connections in the arts and entertainment industry.

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