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.