The Piano Lesson Play

Act 1, Scene 2 of the play The Piano Lesson is a very important episode in the development of the play’s themes as well as characterization. The reader is able to perceive the conflicting values and ideals held by the various characters in the play. Moreover, throughout this scene, the reader gets to know Boy Willie, Wining Boy, Berniece, Doaker and Lymon better. In this scene we first meet Wining Boy whose main role is to bring comic relief to the otherwise tense play, and who also serves as a story teller. It is also the first time the reader gets to meet the whole Charles family and gets acquainted with their history.    

Further, the audience learns about the most important symbol in the play, the piano. The centerpiece of this scene is the story behind this important symbolic artifact. The piano underscores the suffering of the slaves and the low value attached to them by their masters; they could be even interchanged with objects (Brustein n.pag.). Such human trafficking reasserts the white slave owners’ racial superiority complex. It also shows how they were insensitive to the plight of the blacks and how they sought to build their interpersonal relationships at the expense of the blacks. For example, Robert Sutter trades two human beings just to get an anniversary present for his wife. The fact that Sutter has the piano with carved the faces of her former slaves to pacify his wife proves the interchangeability of slaves with ornament. Miss Ophelia is content to have wooden figures that replace her former slaves.

Through the piano the audience gets to know that slaves were just disposable accessories for their master. Through this scene we also get to know what the piano symbolizes to each of the family members. For instance, to Doaker the piano symbolizes family history and affliction. The piano connects Wining Boy to his old life as a performer on the road, and hence to him the piano is a souvenir. Boy Willie sees the piano as a means of freeing himself and his family lineage from bounds of poverty that has been in the family for generations. For Berniece, it symbolizes a loss. It is also a sign of the tribulations faced by her mother. Thus, the piano means to her what it meant to her mother, a priceless family heirloom (Soyica n.pag.).

At this point, we are able to understand the conflicting part of the story. The author explains in details that the piano, which is the most important asset owned by the family has turned to become the source of differences between Berniece and Boy Willie (Singleton n.pag.). They were siblings to each other and they had been close to each other since their childhood. However, they only parted ways and ideas, interpreting the significance of the piano differently (Booker n.pag.). The difference in perception forms the basis of the story and helps develop the themes of racism among the black people. Another theme that is developed here is the refusal of black people to feel the liberation even after they have got freedom. They still feel attached to their slavery lives and are reluctant to leave it (Alexandre n.pag.). Berniece wants to keep the piano which connects her to her past and her deceased mother. Boy Willie, on the other hand, believes that they should not keep the piano because it symbolizes their troubled past, which they need to get over with in order to move on with life.

At the beginning of Part 1 of the scene Doaker and Wining Boy are having a light talk over a range of issues. Through this talk we find out that Wining Boy was previously married to a woman called Cleotha. She has just died, but the marriage was wrecked by Wining Boy’s wandering sprees. After the entry of Willie and Lymon the conversation turns to the ghosts of the Yellow Dog who have killed many people. Wining Boy has once conversed to these ghosts and claimed that they gave him a stroke of good luck. After this the reader learns that the ghosts can be benevolent and do not only come to harm the living. Further, Willie makes his intentions of selling the piano to Sutter and buying his land. However, his uncles try to dissuade him against it in vain. It serves as the base of the main conflict in the play. Wining Boy then changes the subject and we get to learn that Willie and Lymon have been on Parchman Prison Farm for stealing lumber. When they were caught, Crawley, who was also involved in the same case, was killed during an ensuing struggle. Lymon was shot but then bailed by a Mr. Stovall after an agreement that Lymon would work for him. Lymon did not want to serve Mr. Stovall and fled upon his release to Pittsburgh where he felt that black people were treated better. Willie, however, feels that whites treat blacks as blacks let them. Willie requests Wining Boy to play the piano which he refuses and says that the piano has been a burden to him (Brustein n.pag.). Doaker retaliates that Berniece will not agree to the sale of the piano and then starts to explain how it appeared in the Charles Family’s hands (Brustein n.pag.).

In Part 1, the role of the ancestral ghosts starts to develop whereby the playwright portrays them as a source of renewal. When Wining Boy encounters the ghosts of the railway, he experiences renewal and a new strength (Singletone n.pag.). The plight of the black race is portrayed here. Boy Willie and Lymon are jailed due to their race. Lymon has to escape to Pittsburgh to avoid a new form of slavery. However, the struggle against racism is shown where Willie feels that he can be equal the white man and possess the land of his. He declares that there is no difference between him and the white man and that he will follow only the laws he considers just. 

In Part 2 of scene, Doaker narrates the story of the piano to Lymon. Robert Sutter who owned the Charles family had bought the instrument as a present for his wife by trading Doaker’s grandmother, Berniece, and Doaker’s father for the piano. Robert’s wife, however, preferred her slaves to the instrument but the new owner of the slaves would not agree to trade them back. As a result, Sutter told Doaker’s grandfather, who was a renowned artist, to curve his wife and child’s faces on the piano, but he went further ahead and curved the faces of the whole family linage. The carvings excited Miss Ophelia, Sutter’s wife, and made her love the piano even more. Decades later, Doaker, Wining Boy and Boy Charles, Boy Willie’s father, stole the piano (Boan n.pag.). The same day, an angry mob lynched Boy Charles and workers in his car when they failed to find piano. The suspected lynchers began falling in wells. The local folk claimed this to be the doing of the victims’ spirits which were now nicknamed the ghosts of the Yellow Dog (Singletone n.pag.).

Willie declares that his father would approve of him selling the piano, if he was alive. Sutter’s ghost appears when Willie and Lymon try to move the piano. They, however, do not see it. When Bernice comes in and sees Willie attempting to move the piano, she flies into rage. The two are then involved in a war of words which culminates to blows. Willie Boy regards history as easily lost. The ownership of the piano becomes a symbol of enslavement to Boy Charles. Doaker actually recalls him, remarking that if Sutter had the piano with their family history curved on it, then he would have them under his control. The fact that the brothers stole the piano on the Independence Day is a key. Doaker remembers, "[Charles would] Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us. Say we were still in slavery" (Bissiri n.pag.).

The posterity of the family is also brought out in this part of the scene. The enslaved great grandparents Berniece and Boy Willie are reborn through their great grandchildren Berniece and Boy Willie. There is a conflict of ideals, however, that will have a hand in the determination of this posterity. While Berniece refuses to let their past go, Boy Willie strives to make their future better. The only problem is that they can have only the past or the future.

The acting of a play is very important for its success. A well written play that is acted poorly may fail to perform achieve its objectives. A well written play like The Piano Lesson is both entertaining and educative. Some of the ideas that may be implemented by the director in this scene to achieve these objectives are the following. First of all, it is communication with the dead, for example, when Wining Boy invokes the ghosts at the railway. It is imperative for the director of the play to make more emphasize on bringing humor through physical actions rather than words. The plot will appear much more vivid, if the audience sees the tradeoff between Robert Sutter and Joel Nolander rather than only hear about it from the conversation. It would also be more interesting to watch the life at Parchman as Boy Willie recounts their ordeal. Thus, the actors should portray whatever is recounted by the story tellers Wining Boy and Doaker (Alexandre n.pag.). It is also very important that the story tellers do so with the correct speed. It should not be too fast so that the audience and the other actors to whom the story is being told have a chance to fully understand the story, and not too slow to make the audience lose interest in the narrative. It is also of paramount importance that the narrators, especially Doaker, are emotionally involved in the narrative as they should bring out their feelings on the issue they are talking about.  The long speeches in the last act may be tedious to the audience if recited rather than acted. The director must therefore urge the actors to put feeling in their acting, especially during these speeches.

Costumes worn by the actors also bring out the setting and the theme of the play. Thus, they should resemble the clothes worn in the 1930s (Alexandre n.pag.). However, even then there is a need to vary the clothes worn by Wining Boy and Doaker from those worn by Boy Willie and Lymon to bring out the generational difference. Berniece should be in mourning having not gotten over her husband’s death. If the great grandparents Boy Willie and Berniece and their son appear on stage as earlier suggested, then their attires should be consistent with those won by slaves of their generation. Robert Sutter and his wife should wear the clothes worn by slave masters. If the scene discussed is well acted, it will form a foundation of the whole play and bring out the best of the great American playwright August Wilson.

Order now

Related essays