One of the play’s major themes is the historical legacy that characterizes all families. In this case the theme centers on the Charles family; the Charles family was initially African Americans slaves, but following the end of the Civil War gained their freedom. The second scene’s first act is particularly important in the development of the historical legacy theme since throughout the scene the family’s leader, Doaker Charles, shares with the rest of his surviving family the history of a piano they have in their home. This is a piano that the family, particularly Bernice (Doaker’s niece) is particularly attached to, and she even confronts her brother, Boy Willie, who wishes to sell the piano in order to buy land of his own. In this scene one comes to understand why it is that the piano is so important to Bernice, and to the family as a whole.
The piano was originally purchased by the Charles’ master, Robert Sutter, for his wife. In order to pay for the piano, Sutter had to sell two slaves (Doaker’s grandparents). Sutter’s wife, however, was fond of her slaves and in order to please her, Robert Sutter had Doaker’s grandfather carve his family on the piano. Clearly, the message that August Wilson attempts to convey in this scene is that the piano is a key part of the Charles family legacy. The Charles’ fate is entwined with the piano, especially considering that Doaker’s brother was killed while stealing it from the Sutter family. The Charles had been traded as slaves for the piano. Daughter’s grandfather had carved his family’s faces on the piano, thus making the piano a family heirloom. Understanding the piano’s legacy is fundamental for the overall development of the theme throughout the rest of the play.