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"The Piano Lesson" - Study Guide

Themes, Character, and Symbols from August Wilson's Play

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The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson's cycle of ten plays known as the Pittsburg Cycle. Each play explores the lives of African American families. Each drama takes place in a different decade, from the early 1900s until the 1990s. The Piano Lesson premiered in 1987 at the Yale Repertory Theatre.

Overview of the Play:

Set in Pittsburg during 1936, The Piano Lesson centers on the conflicting wills of a brother and sister (Boy Willie and Berniece) as they vie for possession of their family's most important heirloom, the piano.

Boy Willie wants to sell the piano. With the money, he plans to buy land from the Sutters, a white family whose patriarch helped murder Boy Willie's father. 35 year old Berniece insists that the piano will stay in her home. She even pockets her late husband's gun to insure the piano's security.

So, why the power struggle over a musical instrument? To answer that, one must understand the history of Berniece and Boy Willy's family (the Charles family), as well as a symbolic analysis of the piano.

The Story of the Piano:

During Act One, Boy Willy's Uncle Doaker recounts a series of tragic events in their family's history. During the 1800s, the Charles family was owned by a farmer named Robert Sutter. As an anniversary present, Robert Sutter traded two slaves for a piano.

The exchanged slaves were Boy Willie's grandfather (who was only 9 years old at the time) and great-grandmother (after whom Berniece was named). Mrs. Sutter loved the piano, but she missed the company of her slaves. She became so upset she refused to get out of bed. When Robert Sutter was unable to trade back the slaves, he gave a special task to Boy Willie's great-grandfather (after whom Boy Willie was named).

Boy Willie's great-grandfather was a gifted carpenter and artist. Robert Sutter ordered him to carve pictures of the slaves into the wood of the piano so that Mrs. Sutter would not miss them as much. Of course, Boy Willie's great-grandfather missed his family more earnestly than the slave owners. So, he carved beautiful portraits of his wife and child, as well as other images:

  • his mother, Mama Esther
  • his father, Boy Charles
  • his marriage
  • his son's birth
  • his mother's funeral
  • the day his family was taken away

In short, the piano is more than an heirloom; it is a work of art, embodying the family's joy and heartache.

Taking the Piano

After the Civil War, members of the Charles family continued to live and work in the south. Three grandchildren of the aforementioned slaves are important characters of the The Piano Lesson. The three brothers are:

  • Boy Charles: the father of Boy Willie and Berniece.
  • Doaker: a longtime railroad worker "who has for all intents and purposes retired from the world"
  • Wining Boy: a lousy gambler and formerly-talented musician.

During the 1900s, Boy Charles constantly complained about the Sutter family's ownership of the piano. He believed that the Charles family was still enslaved so long as the Sutters kept the piano, symbolically holding the Charles family legacy hostage. On July 4th, the three brothers took the piano away while the Sutters enjoyed a family picnic.

Doaker and Wining Boy transported the piano to another county, but Boy Charles stayed behind. That night, Sutter and his posse set fire to Boy Charles' home. Boy Charles attempted to escape by train (the 3:57 Yellow Dog, to be exact), but Sutter's men blocked the railroad. They set fire to the boxcar, murdering Boy Charles and four homeless men.

Over the next twenty five years, the murderers met a dreadful fate of their own. Some of them mysteriously fell down their own well. A rumor spread that the "Ghosts of the Yellow Dog" sought revenge. Others contend that ghosts had nothing to do with the death of Sutter and his men -- that living and breating men through them into a well.

Throughout The Piano Lesson, Sutter's ghost appears to each of the characters. His presence can be seen as a supernatural character, or the symbolic remnant's of an oppressive society that still attempts to intimidate the Charles family.

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