The Piano Lesson

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Editor: David M. Galens
Date: 2000
Drama for Students
From: Drama for Students(Vol. 7. )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Character overview; Critical essay; Play explanation; Work overview; Biography; Plot summary
Pages: 20
Content Level: (Level 4)

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The Piano Lesson


The Piano Lesson is the fourth of August Wilson’s cycle of plays about the African American experience in the twentieth century. It opened at the Yale Repertory Theater in 1987, and, later, on Broadway, to great success.

The play was inspired by Romare Bearden’s painting Piano Lesson. It is set in Pittsburgh in 1936 and focuses upon the relationship between the Charles siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, who clash over whether or not their family’s piano should be sold. In the mid- nineteenth century, when the Charles family were slaves, two members of the family were sold by their owners, the Sutters, for a piano. Subsequently, a master-carpenter in the Charles family was ordered by the Sutters to carve the faces of the sold slaves into the piano. He did that and more: he carved the family’s entire history into the piano. The instrument was later stolen by Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, who was then killed by the Sutters in retribution.

The play explores African Americans’ relationship to family history, particularly to the history of their slave ancestors. While Wilson’s cycle of plays is set during the twentieth century, all of his plays explore the legacy of slavery and the roots of American racism—this play is as concerned with the Ante-bellum period as it is with America during the Great Depression.

Wilson presents the Charles’ different attitudes towards their family history in a naturalistic style: Page 244  |  Top of Articlethe dialogue accurately reflects everyday dialect, and the action is interwoven with scenes of people preparing meals, hot-combing hair, and bathing. The play’s central metaphor, the piano, dominates this structure, while Wilson’s inclusion of ghosts and spirits demonstrates his diverse cultural and literary influences. Although a few critics were critical of his mixing of styles and traditions, the majority applauded his imaginative fusion of African, American, and African-American traditions.

The Piano Lesson won Wilson his second Pulitzer Prize and confirmed his status as one of America’s most important and innovative living playwrights.


Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel in 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He grew up in a racially diverse working class neighborhood, the Hill, where he lived with his mother and five siblings. His mother, a single parent, worked as a domestic to support her six children. Her own mother, Wilson’s grandmother, had walked from North Carolina to Pittsburgh in search of better opportunities. Wilson’s mother remarried when he was still young, and the family moved to a white suburb. Wilson met persistent racism in the schools he attended there, and at fifteen he was frustrated enough by this prejudice to leave school and educate himself at the local library. There, he read “anything” he wanted to, and educated himself about the Afro-American literary tradition by reading works by Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps, amongst others. Their example inspired him to write poetry and short fiction.

Wilson was active in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, particularly the Black Power movement, and one of his contributions to the movement and to his community was to co-found Black Horizon on the Hill, a community theater set up in 1968. Like many community theaters founded during this period, Black Horizon on the Hill aimed to increase political awareness and activism in the local community while also encouraging the development of local talent. Here Wilson premiered his first one-act plays.

In the late- 1970s, Wilson moved from Pittsburgh to St. Paul, Minnesota, where his plays finally attracted widespread critical attention. Wilson’s serious theatrical debut was Black Bart and the Sacred Hills, a drama written in 1977 and performed in 1981. His first big hit was Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), which was workshopped at the National Playwright’s Conference before playing at the Yale Repertory Theater and later opening on Broadway. This play was followed by two acclaimed dramas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences (1985) and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1986).

These three plays form part of Wilson’s ambitious series of dramas about African-American experience during the twentieth century (his aim is set a play in each decade of the century). The fourth play in this cycle, The Piano Lesson (1987), is set in the 1930s and explores the different attitudes of a brother and sister to their family inheritance, a piano for which their ancestors were sold and which is engraved with their ancestors’ images. The Piano Lesson’s combination of comedy and tragedy garnered Wilson another Pulitzer Prize and confirmed his reputation as one of America’s most important and innovative playwrights.

Wilson’s earliest writing was poetry, and his training in this field is still evident in his writing, which showcases the lyricism of African-American speech patterns and language and blends naturalist structure with devices that originate in black spiritualism. His social criticism also makes his writing especially rich, while his naturalism makes him heir to a tradition that includes such American greats as Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams—a tradition that he has adapted to include powerful representations of African-American experience.


Act I

The action takes place in the kitchen and parlor of the house where Doaker Charles, his niece, Berniece, and her eleven-year old daughter, Maretha, live. Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, has just arrived from down South with his friend Lymon. The two men have stolen a truck and have hauled a load of watermelons in it. They plan to sell the melons and split the profits evenly. Lymon is in trouble with the sheriff back home and announces that he plans to stay in Pittsburgh, but Boy Willie insists that he will return South.

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Boy Willie greets his uncle Doaker exuberantly, and although it is only five o’clock in the morning, he soon raises the whole household from sleep. Soon the audience learns that Boy Willie’s motives for driving to Pittsburgh are by no means innocent. He plans to take the family heirloom, an antique piano, from Berniece and sell it—whether she agrees or not. Boy Willie believes that the profits from this sale, together with those from the melons, will enable him to buy land from the Sutter family and set himself up as an independent farmer. He complains that Berniece never uses the piano and uses this observation to justify the sale. His complaint is crucial to later developments in the play, particularly the final scene.

During Act One, scene one, the audience meets Berniece and her daughter Maretha. Berniece is hostile to Boy Willie, who she believes is responsible for the death of her husband, Crawley, three years ago. She has just had a great shock: she claims she saw Sutter’s ghost standing at the top of the steps. The audience has just learned that Old Man Sutter fell down a well three weeks ago. Boy Willie says she is dreaming. (However, later in the play the audience learns that Doaker saw Old Man Sutter’s ghost before they arrived, just three days after he died, and in the third act Sutter’s ghost appears again.)

Berniece is being courted by an old acquaintance of Boy Willie’s, Avery, who, like him, used to work and plant the land but has now moved North. Avery has become a preacher and is trying to raise funds to build a church. Avery recounts a dream he had to Billy Willie and Lymon. Boy Willie is more interested in finding out from Avery the name of the antiques dealer who wants to buy the piano. As the scene ends, Boy Willie asks Berniece directly about the dealer, thus revealing to her his plan to sell the piano. She immediately announces that she “ain’t selling that piano. If that’s why you come up here you can just forget it.” The scene is set for their confrontation over their heritage.

In Act One, scene two, much of the mystery surrounding the piano is explained. The greater part of this scene is played out between Doaker and his older brother, Wining Boy, and their nephew Boy Willie. Wining Boy and Doaker reminisce about their old loves. They are interrupted by the arrival of Boy Willie and Lymon, who have been trying to sell their truck-load of watermelons. Inevitably, talk turns to Boy Willie’s schemes to buy the Sutter land (which Doaker claims “ain’t worth nothing no

August Wilson August Wilson

more”) and to sell the piano. Doaker decides to give Boy Willie a lesson: “See, now . . . to understand why we say that . . . to understand about that piano . . . you got to go back to slavery time. See, our family was owned by a fellow named Robert Sutter,” the grandfather of the recently diseased Old Man Sutter.

Robert Sutter decided to buy his wife, Miss Ophelia, a piano for their wedding anniversary. Since Sutter had no cash, he traded “one and a half niggers” for the piano, selling Doaker’s grandmother (also called Berniece) and his father (then a young boy). However, Miss Ophelia began to miss her slaves, “so she asked to see if maybe she could trade back that piano and get her niggers back.” The offer was refused. Doaker’s grandfather, also called Boy Willie, was a master carpenter; Sutter ordered Boy Willie to carve pictures of his wife and son into the piano legs, so that Miss Ophelia could have “her piano and her niggers too.” Boy Willie did just that: but he also carved other images from the family history into the piano—“the story of our whole family,” as Doaker relates.

After the Civil War, the Charleses were freed and became share-croppers for the Sutters. Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, Papa Boy Charles, decided to steal back the piano, believing that “as long as Page 246  |  Top of ArticleSutter had it . . . he had us . . . we was still in slavery.” The family managed to obtain the piano, but Papa Boy Charles was killed in retribution, burnt to death by a lynch mob in the train (the “Yellow Dog”) on which he was attempting to escape. The murder set off a series of mysterious deaths (the latest of which is Old Man Sutter’s) that are supposedly caused by the “Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.”

Act One, scene two, ends with Berniece and Boy Willie fighting about the piano and about Boy Willie’s role in Crawley’s death. Berniece emphasizes the pain the piano caused her widowed mother. Suddenly, Maretha screams—she too has seen Old Man Sutter’s ghost.

Act II

In Act Two, scene one, Wining Boy cons Lymon and Boy Willie, who have sold their melons and are flush with cash, into buying some secondhand clothes.

In scene two, Avery repeats his proposal of marriage to Berniece, who refuses to consider it seriously before Avery has established his church. She points out that she, as a woman, is subject to unfair standards: “You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me—without a woman—and still be a man. . . . Everybody telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man.” The scene ends with Berniece asking Avery to return the next day to exercise Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Avery promises to do so.

Scene three is split into two halves. In the first half, Boy Willie comes home with a woman he has picked up, Grace, but the two of them are thrown out by Berniece, who complains that their behavior is not appropriate since Maretha lives in the house. In the second half, Lymon arrives and talks to Berniece. He compliments her on her nightgown and gives her a bottle of perfume. They kiss, before Berniece departs. This scene and the previous one with Avery suggest that Berniece is beginning to put Crawley in the past and move forward. It is also a humorous contrast to Berniece’s restrictive behavior in the previous scene.

In the last scene in the play, Lymon and Boy Willie try to remove the piano from the house, but Berniece threatens them with Crawley’s gun. At this climatic moment, Avery appears. He begins his ceremony to exorcize Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Sutter’s ghost is heard, and Boy Willie starts wrestling with it. Avery despairs of healing the family, saying, “Berniece, I can’t do it.” Suddenly, “Berniece realizes what she must do.” She begins to play the piano, calling on her ancestors to help her. The song works: the ghost is exorcized, Boy Willie returns to the room. He leaves peacefully, saying as he does, “Hey Berniece . . . if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano . . . ain’t no telling . . . me and Sutter both liable to be back.”



Avery was one of Boy Willy’s acquaintances down South but like so many other southern African-Americans he migrated to the North. He now works in Pittsburgh as an elevator operator. Avery has also become a preacher and is trying to raise funds to build a church. His dream of becoming a preacher and ministering to a congregation represents one of the traditional ways in which African Americans rose to prominence within their communities and reminds the audience of the importance of religion within African-American culture.

Avery’s dream includes Berniece: he courts her and hopes that she will agree to marry him and play piano for the church congregation. But when Avery repeats his proposal of marriage to Berniece in Act Two, scene two, she refuses to talk about it seriously. Instead, she asks him to return the next day to exercise Sutter’s ghost and bless the house. Avery promises to do so. Avery’s exorcism ceremony is unsuccessful, however. It is up to Berniece to call upon another spiritual source—the power of her ancestors—to rid the family of Sutter’s presence.

Berniece Charles

Berniece, Boy Willie’s sister, long since left the South for Pittsburgh. There she married Crawley and had a daughter, Maretha. Widowed for three years, she works as a domestic to support her small family. Recently, an old acquaintance from down South, Avery, has begun to court her; however, Berniece is very ambivalent about his interest. She feels angry that her family and friends are pressuring her to marry again: “Everybody telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man.”

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Berniece’s attitude toward the piano is also profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, she is fiercely protective of it and refuses to allow Boy Willie to sell it. She also encourages Maretha to play the piano. On the other hand, she refuses to play the piano herself, claiming that she only played it while her widowed mother was alive out of respect. After her mother’s death, she ceased to play it because she was bitter about the pain it had brought the family.

In the last scene in the play, Lymon and Boy Willie attempt to remove the piano, but Berniece threatens them with Crawley’s gun. The potentially tragic confrontation between sister and brother diffuses when Sutter’s ghost appears. While Boy Willie tries to wrest it physically from the house, Berniece turns to the past—to African-American spiritualism—to exorcize its presence. The siblings’ joint battle with the past thus reconciles them in the present.

Boy Willie Charles

Boy Willie is Berniece’s brother and Doaker’s nephew. Unlike them, he has remained in the South, farming the land that their family worked for generations. He dreams of raising enough cash to buy land from the diminished Sutter family so that he can become an independent farmer rather than a debt-ridden share-cropper. Boy Willie plans to raise the cash by selling a load of watermelons and the family piano, which he part owns with Berniece. To this end, he travels North to Pittsburgh.

Berniece refuses to sell the piano, however, and there are additional troubles in the past that divide brother and sister. During Boy Willie’s last visit, he was involved in an illegal racket and fell into trouble with the local police. He lied to Berniece’s husband, Crawley, about the racket; Crawley tried to protect him from the police and was killed. Boy Willie departed hastily. His grieving, hostile sister is thus doubly opposed to his plan to part with the family legacy.

Boy Willie complains that Berniece never uses the piano, and he uses this observation to justify his decision to sell it. His complaint is a good example of his pragmatic approach to life: why should not an unused piano be sold to purchase productive land? But it does no justice to Boy Willie’s character to describe him as simply interested in “getting ahead.” Boy Willie reverences the family past in a different way from Berniece. He seeks to revitalize the land worked by his enslaved ancestors and to make that land finally theirs by owning and working it himself. Moreover, he seeks to educate his niece, Maretha, about her background, believing that pride in the past will help her hold her head high.

Doaker Charles

Doaker is Berniece and Boy Willy’s uncle. He is a dignified, wiser older man who used to earn his living building and working the railroads and now works as a railroad cook. If Boy Willie and Berniece are two out-of-kilter wheels, their uncle Doaker is the frame that holds them together. He is the play’s chief story-teller: in fact, he does a better job of remembering and narrating the family history than either Berniece or Boy Willie.

It is through Doaker that the audience learns about the importance of the piano: “See, now . . . to understand about that piano . . . you got to go back to slavery time.” Doaker’s description of the piano’s place in their family history is powerful stuff, and although he plays a neutral role in the siblings’ dispute, his narration of the story suggests that he sides with Berniece.

Maretha Charles

Maretha is Berniece’s eleven-year-old daughter. She is mainly important because Berniece and Boy Willy clash about how she should be raised. Should she be told her family’s history, particularly the history of the piano that her mother is encouraging her to play, or should she be encouraged to forget it and thus be freed from the “burden” of the past? The resolution of this question has particular importance because Maretha, as the next generation of the family, represents the future of not only her own family but of the African American people.

Wining Boy Charles

Wining Boy is Doaker’s brother and thus Boy Willie and Berniece’s uncle. He is a failed musician and gambler, by turns charming and affectionate, at others, selfish and irresponsible. As his name implies, he is something of a “wino”—a heavy drinker—and also something of a “whiner”—a bluesman.

In Act One, scene two, Wining Boy reminisces about old times with Doaker. He also succeeds in conning money from Lymon and Boy Willie, both Page 248  |  Top of Articleof whom are flush with cash after selling their watermelons. His role in the play is not critical but in some ways his presence is a reflection upon the present fate of the piano: the failure of the music within.


Grace’s appearance on-stage is brief. She and Boy Willie have a brief encounter in the living room before Berniece, outraged, orders them to stop or leave the house. They leave.


Lymon is Boy Willy’s friend from “down South.” He is in trouble with the local sheriff back home and has traveled North with Boy Willy to escape prosecution and to sell their truck load of watermelons. Lymon plans to stay in Pittsburgh. It is, however, his first time in the North, and for much of the play he is more concerned with exploring the dazzling city lights than with selling the watermelons and finding a job.

His inexperience and naivete provides much humor in Act Two, scene one, when Wining Boy cons him into parting with six hard-earned dollars for a cheap suit, shirt, and pair of shoes. His naivete is also apparent in Act Two, scene three, when he tells Berniece that Boy Willy picked up the woman Lymon had been angling after.

During this scene, Lymon compliments Berniece on her nightgown and gives her a bottle of perfume. They kiss. Their brief intimacy suggests that Berniece is melting the barriers she erected after Crawley’s death; this prefigures the play’s positive resolution.


Past and Present

Wilson’s cycle of plays concentrates on African-American experience during the twentieth century, but they are all also focused—in either direct or indirect ways—upon the experience of slavery.

The Charles family in Wilson’s play is almost a textbook example of the southern black experience in the nineteenth and twentieth century, and it is certain that Wilson intended his characters to be representative of that history. After the emancipation of the slaves in 1863, most ex-slaves remained on the land, renting from their former masters as tenant-farmers (sharecroppers). The returns from their labor were low, the risks of natural disasters were high, and the costs of living were artificially inflated because it was mainly whites who owned the stores at which blacks bought and sold their goods. Many sharecroppers were locked into a cycle of debt to their former masters and lived in grueling poverty. This paucity and debt were compounded further by white hostility.

The promises of the Reconstruction Era were cut short, and the introduction of “Jim Crow” laws that segregated whites and blacks confirmed the enduring influence of American, and particularly southern, racism. The accelerating industrialization of the North in the last decades of the nineteenth century promised workers higher wages, improved work conditions, and a better standard of living. Many rural blacks migrated North, and when demand for labor peaked during and after World War One this steady flow North became a torrent.

In the play, the Charles family were once owned by the Sutters and worked the Sutter land as slaves. After emancipation, they remained on the same land but became sharecroppers for the Sutters, renting the land from their former masters and working it for themselves. Finally, a part of the family migrated North to Pittsburgh, leaving only Boy Willy behind.

Boy Willie refuses to abandon the land and migrate North. His dream of finally owning, rather than renting, the Sutter land, is an extraordinary anomaly, and it reflects Wilson’s own curiosity about what “the fabric of American society would be like if blacks had stayed in the South and somehow found a way to develop [economically] and lock into that particular area.” His father’s desire to reclaim the piano is later paralleled in Boy Willie’s desire to remain on the land. Both father and son believe that reclaiming the heritage of slavery—and transforming it through labor and ties of affection—will alter their relationship to their family and to their history.

Boy Charles believed that the piano symbolized “the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it . . . we was still in slavery.” Boy Willie also tries to alter the family’s relationship to their slave history—to break the bond of master and

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Sidebar: HideShow


  • Wilson was inspired to write The Piano Lesson by Romare Bearden’s painting Piano Lesson. Examine the painting, then consider the symbolism of the piano in the play, particularly the carvings on it. Compare and contrast the painting and the play in terms of their representation of art in African-American life.
  • Research the Great Depression and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal in 1930s America, then, using your research, consider Wilson’s representations of poverty and opportunity in The Piano Lesson.
  • Research the Great Migration of southern African-Americans to the urban North. Then, using your research, discuss Wilson’s speculation about what might have happened if more African-Americans had stayed on in the South and found a viable way to work the land. Do you think this might have been possible, and what kinds of social changes would have to have taken place to make this work?
  • Why is Sutter’s ghost haunting the Charles family, and how convincing is its unseen presence on-stage?
  • Consider one or more of the following examples of Wilson’s use of language in The Piano Lesson and, using examples, demonstrate how it contributes to the power and believability of the play: black dialect, metaphor, lyricism.
  • Using examples from the text, identify what you believe is the play’s central message and consider its importance today.

slave, of owner and renter, by becoming an owner himself, the master of the very land that the Charles family has worked for so many generations.

The central conflict in the play, the battle over the future of the piano, is generated by Boy Willie’s desire to transform the past by altering the present. However, the battle takes place precisely because the piano’s history is so important: each family member has strikingly different responses to its past. In part, then, the piano’s lesson is a lesson about the past: history can sound dramatically different depending upon who is telling a story and why they are telling it. Understanding this lesson is crucial to understanding contemporary race relations in America and the extraordinary divide between black and white experience in the past.

Just as the play’s central conflict originates in Boy Willie’s desire to remake the past, so too can the conflict be resolved only by Berniece’s decision to return to the past. When her mother died, Berniece refused to perform the “ancestor worship” that her mother had demanded of her (playing the piano to invoke, and also to honor, the blood sacrificed for it). Ironically, Berniece’s attitude towards the piano is now almost as pragmatic as Boy Willie’s: both of them see it as “a piece of wood.”

But when Avery’s Christian exorcism fails, Berniece returns to her mother’s ritual practices in order to save her brother and to exercise Sutter’s ghost. She plays the piano and calls upon the spirits of the dead to help her. Wilson describes her actions as “a rustle of wind blowing across two continents,” and her plea to her ancestors and her gratitude at their help recalls African rituals of ancestor worship. The piano’s lesson, then, is also a lesson that asks African Americans to value family ties and to acknowledge their personal involvement in the legacy of slavery.

The American Dream

One of the themes that Wilson explores in all of his plays is the conflict between the American dream and African-American experience of poverty and racism. In The Piano Lesson each of the central Page 250  |  Top of Articlecharacters has a different vision of their future, and the contrast between then defines Wilson’s exploration of the barriers African Americans faced in achieving the American dream.

The phrase “the American dream” describes the belief in the possibility of advancement in American society: an immigrant who arrives at Staten Island with nothing in his pockets can, with hard work, eventually earn and save enough to enable him to buy and own his own house and to live in reasonable prosperity. Boy Willie’s dream of owning his own land resembles the traditional American dream.

Avery also has a dream, but it differs markedly from Boy Willie’s. Avery has “been filled with the Holy Ghost and called to be a servant of the Lord.” He now works in his spare time as a preacher while trying to raise funds to build a church. Both Avery’s dream of becoming a preacher and ministering to a congregation, and Boy Willie’s dream of becoming a farmer and owning his own land, represent two key elements of African-American experience—religion and the land. Likewise, Avery’s ecstatic religious language is the other side of the black southern dialect in which Boy Willie speaks.

Their dreams represent two ways blacks could “make it” in this period; however, there were other possibilities for economic advancement. The character of Wining Boy represents another of the few avenues of advancement traditionally open to blacks: music. Wilson explored this path in the first play in his cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), and his critique of white exploitation of black musical talent in that play is echoed in his characterization of Wining Boy, a failed “recording star,” a piano player whose luck has run out. Not everyone, however, is lost to the lure of hope: while Berniece is pragmatic about her own position in society, she nonetheless nurtures the dream that her daughter will advance socially by becoming a piano teacher, while Lymon, too, hopes to make it in the big city.

Perhaps the most important dream in the play, however, is Papa Boy Charles’s dream that possession of the piano will alter the family’s relationship to their past. His dream of removing the piano from Sutter’s house and restoring “the story of our whole family” to his kin is accomplished at the cost of his life. The Sutters’s murder of Boy Charles reiterates their past violence to the Charles family. Moreover, the “liberation” of the piano and the murder of Boy Charles on the railway (a powerful symbol of escape and liberation for blacks, because it was one of the routes North used by fugitive slaves) occurs on the Fourth of July. Wilson thus points to the original limits of the American Revolution—in which white citizens won freedom from British tyranny while maintaining their own tyranny over black slaves—and the limits of its rhetoric for African Americans living in the segregated 1930s.



Naturalism is often confused with realism; however, although the two styles both represent “real life,” there are important differences between them. Naturalist writers were influenced by scientific and evolutionary theories of human character and of social interaction. One of the central motifs of Naturalist writing is the individual’s struggle to adapt to an often hostile environment. Indeed, most Naturalist writers emphasize their characters’ environment to such an extent that it becomes an integral element in their narratives. Moreover, their protagonists usually belong to a less fortunate class than their middle-class audience or readership, and the description of their struggle to survive and succeed against all odds usually allows the writer the opportunity to make powerful social criticism.

Wilson is considered a Naturalist playwright par excellence. Although the play’s conflict is triggered by Boy Willie’s sudden appearance, the drama unfolds during the Charles family’s everyday activities. Doaker describes precisely what kind of “ham hocks” he wants Berniece to buy, and he shares with her and the audience his plans to cook “cornbread and . . . turnip greens.” When Avery arrives to propose to Berniece, she is busy heating up water for her evening bath. The final climatic argument between Berniece and Boy Willie occurs while Berniece is combing her daughter’s hair. These kinds of details are the staple of Naturalism: they foreground the everyday experiences of the characters while deepening the veracity of the characterizations.

Like many American Naturalist dramas—Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, for example—the action of The Piano Lesson takes Page 251  |  Top of Articleplace over a short period of time: from Thursday morning to Friday evening. The brevity of the plot’s span intensifies the drama of the events that unfold, while the kinds of detail described above allow the audience an extraordinarily intimate glimpse of the family’s life. The brevity of the time frame is an implicit contrast to the length of the family’s history; this contrast emphasizes the Charles’ inherent problems in relating to and narrating their family history, since, when their family were illiterate slaves, they relied upon storytelling, music, and art, rather than writing, to recite and remember their joys and sorrows.

The African Tradition: Ancestor Worship and Storytelling

In the final scene, Wilson describes Berniece’s decision to play the piano as a “rustling of wind blowing across two continents.” The playwright himself merges two different cultural traditions within the play, the African and the American, and seems to suggest that this melding of cultures is essential to African-American identity.

Ancestor worship is integral to African religious practice, and the spirits of the ancestors are believed to be able to influence people’s lives and cause good or bad events, depending upon whether the spirits are malevolent or benevolent. In fact, although ancestor worship is premised upon respecting and honoring the dead, the practice also ensures that spirits will remain benevolent and will protect the worshipers from malevolent forces. Neglect of the spirits removes their protection and may even incur their wrath.

The piano is the Charles’ family totem: it visibly records the lost lives of Berniece and Boy Willie’s ancestors, and it is the only tangible link remaining between past and present. Their ancestors’ spirits coalesce in the piano, which is precisely why Berniece’s mother, Mama Ola, polishes it, prays over it, and asks her daughter to play it. She keeps the shrine to her ancestors clean and pure and maintains her link with them by praying and playing it.

Berniece refuses to play the piano after her mother’s death because she “don’t want to wake them spirits.” Consequently, “they never be walking around in this house.” However, her refusal to honor the piano in the ways her mother has taught her means she has abandoned her African heritage and “disrespected” her family history. Berniece comes to realize that her neglect has allowed the Charles’ to be persecuted by Sutter’s ghost. When Berniece finally starts playing again and calls upon her ancestors’ spirits, she affirms the importance of maintaining African cultural practice and of honoring the history of slavery.

The other important African cultural practice in The Piano Lesson is storytelling. Again, this is a cross-cultural practice, but one that is particularly important to African Americans, who were denied formal education and literacy skills even after Emancipation. Slaves created or adapted songs and relied upon community storytelling to remember their heritage and history. Two scenes in particular hinge upon African-American storytelling.

Avery’s dream, which he narrates in Act One, scene one, reflects the importance of the Book of Revelations and of the scriptural promise of redemption to African-American Christianity. His narration of the story is a testimony to his conversion experience and displays the speech patterns of evangelical preachers. His dream is influenced by the New Testament story of Christ’s birth as well as by Old Testament stories of prophets being called and chosen by God. But Avery has cast these traditions in an African-American context: the pilgrimage begins in a “railway yard,” the three wise men become “three hobos” (who are reminiscent of the murdered hobos on the Yellow Dog), and he strongly emphasizes the ecstatic elements of the experience.

An even more important story is told in the next scene by Doaker, the de facto patriarch of the Charles family. Doaker uses the call and response structure that is common to African ritual practice and to evangelical preaching: ’“I’m talking to the man . . . let me talk to the man. . . . Now . . . am I telling it right, Wining Boy?’ ‘You telling it.’” He also uses rhythm to great effect by pausing throughout his story and repeats certain phrases to intensify its drama. Doaker’s story is the core of the play: it reveals the importance of the piano, and he is shown to be the one family member who still honors the ancestors’ spirits by telling their stories.

Many of the other characters tell stories about themselves during the play, a practice that emphasizes Wilson’s belief in the importance of the oral tradition to African-American identity. Storytelling Page 252  |  Top of Articlekeeps the past alive in the present, for it establishes the individual’s connection to their personal and cultural history. Survival depends upon the continuation of this practice across the generations: in the final scene of the play, Boy Willie begins to teach Maretha her family stories. He insists that if she knows about and celebrated her history, it will dramatically improve her self-esteem: she “wouldn’t have no problem in life. She could walk around here with her head head high. . . . She [would] know where she at in the world.”


Slavery and Reconstruction

The widespread importation of slaves to America began in the 1690s in Virginia. Although slaves had been imported earlier than this, it was in the 1690s that indentured servants, who sold themselves to masters for contracts of five to eleven years in exchange for the price of their passage from England or Ireland to America and the cost of their keep during their indenture, were increasingly replaced by permanently enslaved laborers. Contrary to popular misconception, the colonists actually preferred indentured servants to slaves, for the latter were a more expensive investment. But after six decades of migration, there were simply not enough English, Irish, and Scots migrants to meet the colonists’ demand. The foundation was set for slavery in America: the kidnaping of human beings, their transportation from Africa to Jamaica, the West Indies, and North America, their forced labor in those colonies and later generations’ inheritance of their parents’ enslaved status.

It was the rhetoric of the American Revolution (1775-1783) that for the first time forced Americans to reconsider their attitudes towards slavery: the Revolution’s expressions of freedom and equality for all men was contradicted by the existence of an enslaved underclass. Some southerners and northerners briefly entertained emancipating the slaves (and repatriating them to Liberia or settling them in an empty part of America), but these schemes were soon abandoned.

During the ante-bellum period (the era before the American Civil War) strong opposition to slavery developed in the North. Partly in response to abolitionist attacks and partly as a result of the growing racism within southern society, southern slave-owners and apologists for slavery began to offer the public “scientific” and “philosophical” defenses of slavery.

As the decades rolled by, the gulf between the defenders and the opponents of slavery widened, although there was considerable overlap in misconceptions about blacks between the more conservative of the abolitionists and their opponents. The growing tension within society about slavery came to a head in the American Civil War (1861-1865). Should slavery be extended to the newly settled states of Kansas and Missouri? Should slavery be abolished in the southern states? What kind of labor system would replace it and would the agrarian South still be able to function economically, particularly in competition with the more industrialized North? What would happen to the emancipated slaves?

Although slavery was the key issue dividing the North and South, Abraham Lincoln prioritized maintaining the American union of states above all else. The Emancipation Proclamation issued on January 1st, 1863, emancipated slaves in the southern states; congress passed the thirteenth amendment in 1865, thus emancipating all remaining slaves.

The North’s triumph over the South in the Civil War and its determination to help the emancipated African Americans adjust to their new position in society soon subsided under a growing wave of conciliatory action and nostalgic sentiment for the South. The promises of the Reconstruction Era (1865-1876)—the dream of better treatment of and opportunity for blacks, and the possibility of integration and reconciliation between the races—were quickly cut short. Republican presidents adopted a conciliatory approach to the southern leadership. All hope of establishing a truly egalitarian society in the South was destroyed in the 1880s and 1890s when southern legislatures successively introduced the “Jim Crow” segregation laws that disenfranchised blacks and made true civil rights impossible.

During and after the Reconstruction, southern blacks struggled to define their new place in society. Although there had always been a small but significant free black population in America who enjoyed better educational and occupational possibilities than their enslaved brethren, most ex-slaves were trained for nothing but rural labor. The choices facing them were limited: they could either leave the land and work in urban factories or they could remain on the land as sharecroppers. Many chose to remain, but in the boom years of the 1910s and 1920s, and during and after World War I (1914-1919)

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  • 1936: President Franklin D. Roosevelt is elected for a second term by a massive majority. He wins every state but Virginia and Maine. Congress is 80% Democrat. Roosevelt’s unprecedented victory depends upon a big swing in the black voting population from the Republicans to the Democrats.

    1987: Ronald Reagan is serving his second term in office. He had been reelected in 1984 by the greatest Republican landslide in U.S. history, having won in forty-nine states. Nonetheless, during his seventh year in office he attracts severe criticism for his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair and his veto of the Clean Water Act.

    Today: President Bill Clinton was reelected to office in November, 1996, with 49% of the vote, the first Democrat since Roosevelt to be reelected. However, his second term in office is marred by the Whitewater investigation and the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

  • 1936: Eight million people are unemployed and the economy is in deep recession. Roosevelt’s New Deal offers support to the unemployed and attempts to boost the economy with public works programs and support for farmers.

    1987: The 19th of October is “Black Monday” on Wall Street: a massive slump in share prices of over 20%. The crash is the worst in the history of the New York Stock Exchange, and the decline in stock prices is nearly double the 1929 plunge.

    Today: Contrary to all predictions, the American economy continues to boom. The collapse of the Japanese and Mexican markets only affected the New York Stock Exchange briefly. The Dow Jones Index passed the 10, 000 mark for the first time in January of 1999, the bull market continues to grow, and the unemployment rate is the lowest in forty years.

  • 1936: Eugene O’Neill becomes the first American playwright to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

    1987: August Wilson becomes the first African-American playwright to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, with his play Fences. In the same year, Rita Dove, an African-American poet, wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry for her collection Thomas and Beulah.

    Today: African-American writers continue to accrue honors nationally and internationally. African-American novelist Toni Morrison became the first African American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1994, and August Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama for a second time in 1990.

in particular, there was a mass exodus of southern blacks to the northern cities.

America in the 1930s

The 1930s were characterized by severe economic depression in America and abroad. The Great Depression had its roots in Britain and America’s punitive reparations policy after their victory in First World War, in technological advances that increased output and profits but made many workers redundant, and in depressed agricultural, mining, and textile markets. Stock-market speculation only concealed the weaknesses eating away at America’s economic heart. The stock market crash of 1929 did not trigger the Depression but rather was a response to and a confirmation of existing problems within the market and the international banks.

From 1929 to 1932, unemployment in America rose from about 1.5 million to about 15 million. On the land, in the early- 1930s, good weather produced an over-supply in agricultural produce, but people in the cities went hungry. By the mid- 1930s, drought Page 254  |  Top of Articleand bank foreclosures had driven farm prices down by more than 50% and many tenant-farmers were forced off their land. Agricultural laborers, many of whom were black southerners, were as badly hit as factory workers in the city, who, like them, joined millions of others in the bread lines (welfare handouts for those who could not afford to buy food).

Nonetheless, President Herbert Hoover’s administration maintained an attitude of stoic indifference, believing that “market forces” would solve the escalating crisis—a proclamation that proved false. In March, 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to the presidency. He immediately began implementing his “New Deal” reform plan: relief for the unemployed, fiscal reform, and stimulus measures to boost economic recovery. Roosevelt owed his election success in part to African Americans’ desertion of the Republicans—the party of Abraham Lincoln, which they had traditionally supported—for Roosevelt’s party, the Democrats. Both Roosevelt’s New Deal and African Americans’ switch in political allegiance transformed twentieth-century American politics. In subsequent decades, the struggle for African-American civil rights would be closely related to the politics of the Democratic Party.


August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson won a Pulitzer Prize before opening on Broadway, an honor that is indicative of the almost unanimous praise critics showered upon the play. Yet the drama still attracted its fair share of negative criticism, some of which came from privileged onlookers who had witnessed its transformation over three years of extensive workshopping. Wth the exception of these few hostile voices, however, most critics greeted the play with strong applause.

William A. Henry III, writing for Time, stated that the play was Wilson’s “richest yet,” a sentiment echoed by many other critics, including the New York Post’s Clive Barnes, who called it “the fourth, best, and most immediate in the series of plays exploring the Afro-American experience during this century.” However, one or two critics failed to join this chorus of approval. Robert Brustein, a prominent director and reviewer for the New Republic, issued a damning attack of the play, arguing in detail that it was “the most poorly composed of Wilson’s four produced works.” John Simon, writing in New York, joined Brustein when he complained that the play was an unwieldy mixture of farce, drama, and Broadway musical. Simon’s attack was deemed by many as unwarranted, since laughter and tragedy walk hand in hand in many of the great tragedies (such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet, King Lear, and Macbeth).

Henry, in his largely positive review of the play, did acknowledge that Wilson had blurred genre boundaries by mixing tales of the supernatural with “kitchen-sink realism.” This, in fact, was an element of the play to which many critics had a mixed response. Was it necessary, they asked, to hear the sound of a toilet flushing off-stage, or to watch Berniece washing with “real” water in a sink? Wilson’s decision to mix genres irritated Brustein and Simon in particular: Brustein called the supernaturalism “ludicrous” and “forced,” while Simon asked, “why, in this day and age, bring in ghosts at all?”

Looking at the larger critical picture, however, these critics seemed to have missed the point: Wilson’s mixing of genres is natural for a playwright who seeks to represent dual cultural traditions in one form and on one stage, and his inclusion of a supernatural sub-plot reflects African-American culture in the 1930s, not white American culture in the 1980s. Indeed, Michael Morales, in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, argued that the supernatural element of the play is crucial to Wilson’s representation of African-American history.

Many critics were fascinated, and rightly so, by the play’s central symbol, the piano. Barnes called the musical instrument “a living symbol of the family’s past—its slavery and its escape, its blood and its tears. . . . The piano is . . . an heirloom of tragic memory and meaning.” Frank Rich, writing in the New York Times, discussed the piano’s symbolism in detail. He emphasized the instrument’s bountiful but painful heritage: “Sculptured into its rich wood are totemic human figures whose knifedrawn features suggest both the pride of African culture and the grotesque scars of slavery.” “The siblings at center stage” inherit both “the pride and scars,” and the piano is their key to their reconciliation with their family history and their identity as African-Americans. Time’s Henry concluded his evaluation of the play by stating, simply Page 255  |  Top of Articleand powerfully, “the musical instrument of the title is the most potent symbol in American drama since Laura Wingfield’s glass menagerie”—a reference to Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie.

The most negative criticism came from critics who suggested that Wilson’s success depended on his ability “to stimulate the guilt glands of liberal white audiences.” The New Republic’s Brustein dismissed Wilson’s previous plays and added that he found little “power or poetry” in The Piano Lesson. Brustein felt that any comparisons between Wilson and Shakespeare or O’Neill were ridiculous. Wilson had “limited himself” to exploring “the black experience” whereas O’Neill “wrote about the human experience.”

Not satisfied with producing this nonsensical and rather insulting distinction between general human experience and black experience, Brustein continued in a similar vein: “Still, enough radical vapor floats over the bourgeois bolster and upholstered couches [of the play] to stimulate the guilt glands of liberal white audiences. Unable to reform the past, we sometimes pay for the sins of history and our society through artistic reparations in a cultural equivalent of affirmative action.” Brustein’s statements suggest, falsely, that white audiences lack the ability to appreciate artistic representations of experience other than their own and also ignore the black audience attending Wilson’s plays; moreover, his statements suggest that he has misinterpreted the reconciliatory message of the play’s ending.

Simon displayed a similar hostility to Wilson’s success in his review of the play. He attacked it for having too many sub-plots, for mixing genres, and for being repetitive: “it is sincere but overcrowded, overzealous, and, without quite knowing where it is headed, repeats everything three or four times.” But he saved his most damning criticism for his last lines. Simon argued that the play was essentially a product of “two years of testing and rewriting at five leading university and commercial theaters”: in short, that it owed as much to the skills of professional theatre craftspeople as it did to Wilson himself. “Less favored, nonminority practitioners,” he claimed, would not have enjoyed such help.

Simon and Brustein’s attacks on Wilson’s talent and on the merits of The Piano Lesson are not typical of the overall criticism of the play, but they do represent the kinds of criticism, illogical though

A Playbill for Wilsons play A Playbill for Wilson’s play

they may seem, that Wilson, as an African-American playwright writing about African-American experience, has had to face. Most critics, however, are not encumbered by such blinkers. They can appreciate that Wilson, far from wanting to stick to strict definitions of what constitutes a “proper” realist play or “real” human experience, is an artist interested in inventing new forms and voices as much as he is in connecting to voices and traditions from the past.


Helena Ifeka

Ifeka is a Ph.D specializing in American and British literature. In this essay she argues that Wilson’s plays are an eloquent form of social protest and public education.

August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play (his second) The Piano Lesson demonstrates that commercially successful theater can be an eloquent

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  • Immanu Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones) is an African-American playwright whose writing encompasses be-bop poetry and black nationalist plays. His plays Dutchman and The Slave Ship (1966) are important examples of black nationalist writing. Wilson produced all of Baraka’s plays when he was working at the Black Horizons Theater.
  • Arthur Miller’s Death of A Salesman (1949) is one of the most famous plays of the twentieth century. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama exemplifies the “well-made” play of the realist tradition, in which escalating tensions concentrated around the central protagonist unfold neatly scene by scene before reaching a dramatic conclusion. In this case, the central protagonist is the failed sales- and family man, Willy Loman, whose sons Biff and Happy are unable to fulfill his thwarted dreams. Wilson’s play Fences has been compared to Death of A Salesman, although Wilson has stated that he is not familiar with it.
  • Tennessee Williams’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955) depicts the bitter family tensions that originate in failed marriages, repressed sexuality, and the desire to control a southern plantation. The play is an excellent example of American naturalism.
  • Booker T. Washington’s classic autobiography Up from Slavery (1901) defined a generation. Washington was born into slavery on a Virginia plantation; freed at fifteen, he taught himself to read, then walked almost 500 miles to attend a vocational training institute. He was later selected to head the Tuskegee Insitute in Alabama. Although Washington was criticized in his own time and later for his cautious approach to race issues, at the time he was the black community’s most well-known and influential leader.
  • Langston Hughes was one of the major figures of the Harlem Renaissance, the flowering of African-American creativity in the first few decades of the twentieth century. Hughes’s superb poetry collection, The Weary Blues (1926), which includes the famous poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” launched his career and introduced audiences to a new style of poetry that was based on jazz rhythms and black idiom. The first volume of his autobiography, The Big Sea (1940), provides a fascinating insight into his life in America and Europe during the 1920s.
  • Frederick Douglass, a nineteenth-century African-American abolitionist, published his autobiography, A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, in 1845. It describes his life as a slave and his escape to freedom. Douglass agitated for the abolitionist cause, organized black garrisons during the Civil War, and served his people in public office during the Reconstruction period.

vehicle for social protest and public education. Wilson’s early involvement in the Black Power movement and in black community theater, and his ambitious plan to write a cycle of plays about African-American life in the twentieth century, are proof of his desire to “alter the relationship between blacks and society through the arts.” His representation of black suffering, coupled with his celebration of black resistance and endurance, offers his audience a new representation of African-American history.

In the late- 1960s, artists involved in counterculture movements resurrected the theater as a forum for political protest and a vehicle for social change. Many artists saw community theater as a means to reach out to their community and educate and politicize them. Wilson participated in the Black Power movement in the early- 1960s and, like many artists during this period, he saw writing as a means to bring about social change. In 1968 Wilson cofounded the Black Horizons Theater in his homesuburb of the Hill in Pittsburgh.

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Wilson found community theater at Black Horizons and, later at the Science Museum of Minnesota, a challenging experience. Throughout the 1970s he directed and wrote short plays for both these organizations, in the process perfecting his craft. Wilson was not content to remain involved in community organizations, however. He wanted the professional advice and support of the National Playwrights Center, and, after they rejected his plays several times, he finally won them over. The Center accepted a draft of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play that became Wilson’s first commercial hit.

Wilson’s shift from community theater to the comparative profitability of Broadway was either hailed as progress for black audiences and artists or seen as him selling-out to white expectations and commercial incentives. But close examination of Wilson’s oeuvre reveals that he maintained his original ideal: to educate his audience and to contribute positively to the African-American identity.

Wilson’s aesthetics are founded on a belief in the African-ness of black Americans and upon an emphasis upon reclaiming black history. He stated in an interview conducted shortly after the completion of The Piano Lesson (reprinted in In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights) that he hopes a viewer will “walk away from my play, whether you’re black or white, with the idea that these [characters] are Africans, as opposed to black folks in America.” Such an aim is in keeping with the black nationalist movement, which emphasizes the African roots of African Americans and the importance of African culture in sustaining generations of slaves. Wilson’s inclusion of African cultural and religious practices in his plays—Gabriel’s ritual dance in Fences, Berniece’s appeal to her ancestors’ spirits in The Piano Lesson—is just one way in which he emphasizes the ethnic roots of African Americans and rewrites their history from a black perspective.

Emphasizing such an African perspective necessarily involves recovering and re-examining black history in America. But Wilson’s desire to reclaim African-American history is complicated by the fact that many African Americans were long denied the literacy and education enjoyed by most white Americans. Not only did this mean that early black writers such as the poet Phyllis Wheatley and the abolitionist Frederick Douglass struggled against great odds to write, it also meant that until recently African-American history was mainly located in oral forms, such as spirituals, jazz songs and the blues, trickster

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stories, visions, conversion experiences, and folk tales. Wilson’s decision to include some of these forms in his plays evidences his commitment to valuing the diverse sources of black history and his desire to celebrate black cultural achievement.

Equally significant is Wilson’s project of writing a play about African-American experience for each decade of the twentieth century. Wilson skillfully integrates sociological research into the fabric of each play, while exploring an issue that he sees as characteristic of the decade as a whole. In The Piano Lesson, the decade in question is the 1930s, and the issues that Wilson fixes upon are the relationship of urban blacks to their past as slaves and the Great Migration of southern blacks to the cities of the North. In effect, each play is a new installment in a new history of the African-American people.

The Piano Lesson is set in a period with which many audience members are at least superficially familiar, for the Great Depression’s impact upon generations of Americans was so wrenching that to this day mention of it conjures up vivid images of gaunt faces and soup kitchens. But Wilson offers audiences a story that has not been told as often as it might have been: the story of black American experience during the Depression.

While poor blacks and whites alike experienced tremendous hardship during the 1930s, black poverty differed from white poverty in significant ways. The relatively recent resettlement of millions of blacks to urban northern centers during and after the First World War had produced enormous upheaval in kin networks, tension that was exasperated by the fact that almost all migrants moved into urban slums in the inner city. Nonetheless, the promise of steady income and improved living conditions in big cities like New York, Chicago, Page 258  |  Top of ArticleDetroit, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh continued to draw black migrants North.

The Piano Lesson dramatizes the moment of migration and represents the city’s temptations: Lymon is attracted to Pittsburgh because of the possibility of finding good work, meeting attractive women, and living the “good life.” Avery’s decision to abandon the South and his subsequent success in Pittsburgh exemplifies a successful migration.

The play is subtly didactic: it encourages the audience to re-think American history by asking them what might have happened if more blacks had stayed on the southern land, and it encourages black Americans to value their own history of suffering and resistance under slavery. Wilson believes, as he stated in In Their Own Words, that “blacks do not teach their kids . . . that at one time we were slaves.” This history must be told: “It is the crucial and central thing to our presence here in America.” To this end, in the play the Charles family come to accept the burden of the past that the piano represents. The faces of their ancestors carved into the piano represent the family’s loss and suffering, but the artistry of the carvings also testifies to their ancestor’s achievements. Similarly, the terrible loss that Boy Charles’s death brings to the family is balanced by the beauty of the music that the stolen piano gives the family.

While Wilson never sounds a strident call to arms, his representation of the history of black protest encourages the audience to value it and supports contemporary black protest. The examples given above, for instance, are testimony of the family’s endurance of hardship and of their maintenance of their identity, but they are also testimony to the family’s resistance to their bonds: Doaker’s grandfather, Boy Willie, breaks his master’s orders and creates an artwork that is testimony to his bonds of affection, rather than his mistress’s, and Boy Charles’s decision to steal the piano strikes another blow against the Sutters’s—and white—oppression. Indeed, the play includes several important examples of blacks carving (literally and figuratively) out their own space in a hostile white world, such as Avery’s attempt to found his own black church and Boy Willie’s attempt to reclaim the land on which his ancestors slaved.

Wilson’s essentially positive project of valuing black history, even its most terrible and painful elements, is also apparent in his representation of the richness of African-American culture. The Piano Lesson is typical of his plays in that he touches upon all of the central elements of African-American culture. Avery’s character speaks to the importance of religion in African-American life, “our saving grace,” while Berniece’s call to her ancestors speaks to the continuing influence of African belief in “ancestor worship . . . ghosts, magic, and superstition.” Wining Boy represents the black tradition of the blues, while Berniece’s management of her household acknowledges women’s role in the black family’s resilience in the face of great adversity. Last but not least, the dialect in which the characters speak is not only realistic but also a showcase to the unique contribution African Americans have made and continue to make to American English.

Wilson’s journey from community theater in the Hill to commercial success on Broadway has been a long one, but The Piano Lesson shows that his original belief in the playwright’s potential to “alter the relationship between blacks and society” remains unshaken. He still seeks to reach out to and educate his audience, to encourage them to re-think their present and their past and to offer black audiences voices with which they can identify.

Not only does Wilson continue to use the theater as a form of public education, he also continues to use it as a form of social protest. The Piano Lesson mourns black suffering under slavery and its impact three generations later on the descendants of those slaves. But, like all social protest, the play harnesses the energy of anger and grief in order to change the present: the play’s conclusion asks black Americans to honor their ancestors’ history and their own painful inheritance.

Source: Helena Ifeka, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Richard Hornby

In this excerpt, Hornby review Wilson’s play. While finding that the work does not hold the same appeal as the playwright’s previous efforts, the critic lauds Wilson for his “vividness of characterization.”

August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson is set in the 1930s, continuing his chronicle of black life in America during each decade of the past hundred years. A family in Pittsburgh owns an antique piano, which originally belonged to the master of their ancestors in the days of slavery. The widowed young matron of the family, Berniece Charles, wants to keep the piano; her brother, Boy Willie, wants to sell it to help buy a piece of land in the Page 259  |  Top of ArticleSouth that was originally part of the plantation on which the family were slaves. The piano is covered with carvings made by their great-grandfather, depicting the family history.

The Piano Lesson is thus not only a historical play, but also a play about a family trying to come to grips with its own history. The controversy over selling the piano is not just a simple conflict between sentimentality and practicality. The piano is a symbol for Berniece, but an empty one. She will not even play it; her daughter, Maretha, picks at it in desultory fashion. On the other hand, for Boy Willie, selling the piano is not just a means of getting some cash. Buying a hundred acres of the old plantation is a way of getting control over the family’s terrible past. The land for him functions as the carvings on the piano did for his great-grandfather. Taking something that belonged to the master and making it into his own is a means to power, a way to go on record and be somebody, an ultimate triumph over white oppression.

The first act of Piano Lesson is talky and slow, with lengthy exposition about half-a-dozen unseen characters that is more suited to a novel than to a play, but in the second act the pace quickens. As the conflict between brother and sister approaches tragedy, the tone of the play becomes crazily comic, as when Berniece comes down the stairs with a gun in her pocket, while carefully wiping her hands on a dish towel. Boy Willie’s repeated attempts to steal the piano from the living room are thwarted by the sheer bulk of the thing, a piece of business that manages to be both highly symbolic and hilarious. The mystical overtones that occur in all of Wilson’s work are more explicit than usual, with apparent visitations by a ghost from the family past, which is finally exorcised.

Ultimately, The Piano Lesson is not as tightly written as Wilson’s Fences or Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, but he remains unmatched today for vividness of characterization, richness of background, sensitivity to American history, and use of poetic imagery. Motifs of ghosts (showing the influence of Ibsen and O’Neill), music, land, wood, and travel are gracefully woven into the naturalistic facade, in a way no other American playwright has done since Tennessee Williams.

Lloyd Richards directed superbly, as he has with all of Wilson’s other plays. The players, from that small group of serious black American actors who are an unacknowledged national treasure, were all wonderful. Charles S. Dutton failed to get a Tony

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Award for his Boy Willie, but he deserved one for his inventive, varied, graceful, energetic, driven performance. (There was no timid underplaying here!) Dutton, a graduate of the penitentiary and the Yale Drama School, has a past of his own that he has exorcised.

Source: Richard Hornby, “The Blind Leading the Blind” in the Hudson Review, Vol. XLIII, no. 3, Autumn, 1990, pp.471-72.

Mimi Kramer

While finding much to recommend in The Piano Lesson, Kramer also found the playwright’s conclusion to be somewhat obscure.

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Source: Mimi Kramer, “Traveling Man and Hesitating Woman” in the New Yorker, April 30, 1990, pp. 82-83.

William A. Henry III

Henry reviews a 1989 Chicago performance of the The Piano Lesson, finding much to recommend in the play’s content and the production.

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Source: William A. Henry III, “A Ghostly Past, in Ragtime” in Time, Vol. 133, no. 5, January 30, 1989, p. 69


Barnes, Clive. “Piano Lesson Hits All the Right Keys” in the New York Post, April 17, 1990.

Brustein, Robert. “The Lesson of The Piano Lesson” in the New Republic, Vol. 202, no. 21, May 21, 1990, pp. 28-30.

Henry, William A., III. “A Ghostly Past, in Ragtime” in Time, Vol. 133, no. 5, January 30, 1989, p. 69.

Hill, Holly, K. A. Berney, and N. G. Templeton, editors. Contemporary American Dramatists, St. James Press, 1994.

Morales, Michael. “Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the Representation of Black American History” in May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson, edited by Alan Nadel, University of Iowa Press, 1994, pp. 105-15.

Rich, Frank. “A Family Confronts Its History in August Wilson’s Piano Lesson” in the New York Times, April 17, 1990, p. CI3.

Simon, John. “A Lesson from Pianos” in New York, Vol. 23, no. 18, May 7, 1990, pp. 82-83.


Genovese, Eugene D. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, [New York], 1974.

Genovese’s exhaustive account of slave culture can be used as a source book for focused research. It provides detailed background for the culture in which Wilson’s character live in the 1930s.

Honey, Maureen. Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance, 1989.

This valuable collection of women’s poetry from the Harlem Renaissance also includes a readable introduction to the period.

Morgan, Edmund S. American Slavery American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia, [New York], 1975.

This ground-breaking work of scholarship outlines the economic basis to the development of slavery in colonial Virginia and its connection to white citizens’ increasing equality.

Nadel, Alan, editor. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essay on August Wilson, University of Iowa Press, 1994.

This collection of essays on Wilson’s major plays is a good source for secondary criticism on the playwright.

Raboteau, Albert J. Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Ante-bellum South, 1979.

Raboteau uses a rich variety of sources for his fascinating investigation into slave religion. His study also includes interesting discussion of slave religion in other colonies, such as the West Indies, and of African religious practice.

Savran, David. In Their Own Words: Contemporary American Playwrights, Theatre Communications Group, 1988, pp. 288-306.

Savran includes an informative interview with Wilson in this collection, which he recorded in New York just after the completion of The Piano Lesson.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693200025