The action of the play takes place in the kitchen and parlor of Doaker's sparsely furnished home in 1930s Pittsburgh. The old, upright piano, its legs decorated with mask-like totems in the manner of African sculpture, dominates the parlor. /Note
The play opens at dawn. Wilson calls for a portentous "stillness" akin to the gathering of a storm. Boy Willie knocks at the door and calls for his Uncle Doaker. Doaker lets him in, and Willie enters with his more taciturn partner, Lymon. The two have come from Mississippi in a rickety truck to sell watermelons. Lymon plans to stay in Pittsburgh.
Against Doaker's admonishments, Willie calls for his sister Berniece. He has not seen her in three years, having spent time on the Parchman Prison Farm. She enters on the stairs and chides her brother for making so much noise. Willie then asks his uncle for a drink for they all have cause to celebrate: the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog have drowned Sutter in his own well. As we learn later, the Sutter family owned the Charles during slavery.
Berniece refuses to believe such foolishness. Suspicious, she asks how the boys procured their truck. Lymon bought it, needing a place to hide from the sheriff and Jim Stovall. Berniece presses him to explain and we will learn Lymon's story later. She wants them out of her house as soon as possible. Indeed, she is surprised they have not woken her daughter, Maretha. Willie immediately calls Maretha down. Berniece returns upstairs in frustration.
Changing the subject, Willie asks about Doaker's brother and ex-recording star, Wining Boy. In his middle age, Wining Boy has become a wanderer, returning to his family when broke.
Lymon then asks about the piano. Apparently Willie intends to sell it and, with the profits from the watermelons as well, use the money to buy Sutter's land. Sutter's brother has presented himself as eager to sell to Willie owing to their families' shared history. Willie is all too aware that he is trying to cheat him but is bent on starting his own farm.
In any case, Doaker is sure Berniece will not part with the piano. While Maretha is taking piano lessons, Berniece has not touched it since Mama Ola died. For her, it has blood on it. In this sense, the piano has becomes a taboo object for her, or something sacred. Indeed, Avery Brown—a preacher courting Berniece who followed her to Pittsburgh when her husband Crawley died—tried to get her to sell her piano to a local white man collecting instruments and help him start his church, but Berniece refused. Willie schemes to get in touch with the prospective buyer himself.
Suddenly Berniece cries out off-stage: "Go on get away." Willie rushes up, passing her has she enters. Berniece claims she has seen Sutter's ghost, dressed in a blue suit and holding the top of his head to keep it from coming off. Staring at her, he called Boy Willie's name. Willie is incredulous, thinking that his sister is imagining things. It remains unlikely that Sutter could find his way to Pittsburgh and travel so far in the first place. Berniece is convinced that her brother pushed Sutter into the well. She orders the men out anew, blaming Willie for Crawley's death. Willie protests, saying that Sutter is not looking for him, but for the piano, and Berniece should get rid of it. Utterly exasperated, she goes upstairs with Doaker to wake Maretha.
The Piano Lesson begins with a quotation from Skip James, a Mississippi blues musician discovered in the 1930s: "Gin my cotton Sell my seed Buy my baby Everything she need." In some sense, this epigraph condenses what most critics identify as the central thematic conflict of the play: the question of what to do with one's legacy. This conflict over legacy appears as the choice between forging ahead and climbing the economic ladder or attending to the memory of past injustices. Thus, early in the scene, Boy Willie will repeat Skip James's refrain in describing his plans to start his own farm: "Gin my cotton. Get my seed." With his scheme, Willie would achieve the economic self-sufficiency only recently made possible for blacks in America. Implicit in this self-sufficiency, as the song makes clear ("Buy my baby/ Everything she need"), is a concept of masculinity: as his brash posturing suggests, the farm will make Willie more of a man. Indeed, in buying the land his family once worked on as slaves, Willie will later imagine himself as the son following in and surpassing his father's legacy, as the heir avenging his ancestors.
Willie's ascension to the position of landowner, however, is contingent on the sale of an heirloom that incarnates his ancestral history, which is stained with the family's blood under Berniece's vigilant protection. As we learn soon after this scene, this history begins with slavery. In this light, the Skip James lyrics become a double entendre: "Sell my seed/Buy my baby." The trauma at the heart of this family history is precisely the traffic in human flesh echoed in the song, the sale of the totemic figures depicted on the piano's legs. This sale rent the Charles family in two, splitting it between slave owners. Thus piano's recovery at one level symbolizes for the ensuing generations the avenging of this sale, the recovery and reunion of the ones lost. Carved in a vaguely African manner, the lost figures also clearly represent a connection to a lost mother Africa. With this in mind, the sale of the piano, a sale that would reduce it to capital, becomes a turn away from the past and its traumas in the name of advancement. Thus Willie's insistence on economic advancement will often appear as a denial of the suffering and blood that stains the family history. Throughout the play, the past will weigh heavily on even the apparently easy-going dialogue.
It is not for nothing that the preservation of this past falls upon Berniece, along with the figure of the dead Mama Ola, pictured as conscientiously polishing it every day. The rather unfortunate gendered division of labor the play presents in managing the family legacy will become clear in the siblings' ultimate reconciliation. The distinction is between the son who would literally use his legacy as capital and the daughter who cannot use her legacy at all. Berniece leaves the piano untouched. As we will learn, she has not passed on its history either. As the stage notes underline, she is above all a woman in mourning, unable to work through the family's many traumas, traumas that—as the Berniece's memory of Mama Ola suggests—persist across generational lines. Berniece will constantly order the constantly forward- looking Boy Willie and all the "confusion" he brings out of her house.
With all these conflicts over legacy, this scene can only be haunted. Along with the totems staring out at the household, two other ghosts appear explicitly. The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, the ghosts of Willie and Berniece's murdered father and his hobo companions, and the ghost of Sutter lurking upstairs. Sutter's ghost will literally weighs down on the household throughout the play, having comes to avenge its death or perhaps even reclaim the piano and the family it once owned. A showdown between them seems imminent.
As we will see, unnamed ghosts haunt this scene as well. These ghosts include, for example, the siblings' father or their grandfather and Boy Willie's namesake, Willie Boy and sculptor of the piano. The effects of these ghosts manifest themselves in the ambiguity among the agents and actors of the play, an ambiguity produced in the way the past haunts the present. We are unsure whether the ghosts or Willie kill Sutter. As the argument between Berniece and Willie indicate, it is unclear whether he comes for his murderer or for the piano that records his crimes.