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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Act I, Scene 1—Part two

Act I, Scene 1—Part II

Act I, Scene 2—Part I

Summary

When Doaker returns, he admits that he believes his niece and that the suit she described is probably Sutter's burial costume. Doaker begins to cook breakfast, and Willie jokingly asks about his success with the ladies in the course of his railroad travels. Doaker has worked the railroad for almost thirty years. He reflects on what he has learned on the railroad, musing how passengers tend to get on trains going in the wrong direction, how often they find themselves forgotten at their points of destination, and how everyone should stay in one place. Thankfully Willie interrupts Doaker's ramblings.

Maretha enters, and Willie greets her. He invites her to play the piano. She plays a short beginner's song, and Willie replies with a simple boogie-woogie. He asks if she knows the significance of the piano's carvings. To his surprise, Berniece has not explained them. He promises to reveal their secret to Maretha if her mother does not.

Avery then enters and greets his old friends. He has an appointment with Berniece at the bank to procure a loan for his church, the Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ. Currently he works as an elevator operator in town. When asked how he became a preacher, Avery recounts a dream. Sitting in a railroad yard, he comes upon three hobos traveling from Nazareth to Jerusalem. They entrust a lit candle to him. Avery then appears before a house. He enters, and an old woman leads him into a room filled with people with bleating sheep heads. The three hobos dress and anoint him, and Jesus charges him with leading the sheep-people through a valley of wolves.

Willie asks Avery about the piano's prospective buyer. Berniece and Maretha then enter, and, when the former asks if they need any groceries, Doaker delivers a set of long-winded, deliberate stipulations on ham hocks. Casually, Willie asks his sister if she still has the name of that potential buyer for the piano and he confesses his plan to buy Sutter's land. Barely addressing him, Berniece refuses her brother and abruptly walks out. As he exits to sell the watermelons, Willie tells Doaker that he will happily chop and sell his half of the heirloom if his sister will not cooperate.

Analysis

Avery's account of his dream is the most prominent speech in this section of scene 1. Of particular importance in this dream are the three hobos who attend to him. Certainly these train-hoppers double for the Magi, or wise men, in the story of Jesus' birth. At the same time, the hobos also stand in for the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, the ghosts Avery will describe them later as the "hands of God." The condensation of these two sets of figures marks a blending of Christian and folk tradition. Avery is heir to both, imagining himself as called by both the wise men of the bible and the spirits demanding vengeance on the railroad.

Also of importance in this scene is the brief exchange between Boy Willie and Maretha, the only "piano lesson" we see in the play. As noted in the Context, Wilson offers the piano lesson as a metaphor for the teaching and learning of one's legacy. In the short lesson at hand, Maretha reveals that Berniece has not told her of the piano's history, causing her uncle to promises to tell her of its past if her mother will not. Willie accompanies this promise with the demonstration of a simple boogie-woogie. For Willie, the boogie-woogie surpasses any beginner's exercise. It is something you can dance to, play without sheet music. As Willie imagines it, the boogie-woogie is somehow more intimate, "natural." Music—and specifically African American music—serves as the connection to one's historical inheritance as well as a vehicle for its preservation and transmission. The importance of music will become clearer as the play progresses.

Closely connected to the function of music in the play is the dialogue's emphasis on storytelling, reportage, and testimony. Like music, these modes of speech will serve as vehicles by which to preserve and transmit the family legacy, thus the "retrospective structure" of Wilson's plays noted by a number of critics. Most scenes in The Piano Lesson begin with some either form of reportage that recapitulates and elaborates the events previous or an anecdote recounting some past experience. Much of this first scene prefigures the storytelling to come, providing details require further information. In particular, Lymon will function as an outsider eliciting the family's history.

As the trope of the piano/history lesson figures so prominently, we should finally note how Wilson's plays are tendentiously steeped in history, written to chronicle a particular moment in the history of black experience. For example, the stage notes include the description of Avery and Doaker's jobs, the references to culinary traditions, the allusions to black migration patterns from north to south, the use of colloquialisms, the meandering, digressive conversations that create the impression of "real life" speech, and onward. Though we should be weary of regarding these devices as constitutive of some "black experience," we cannot consider them as mere exercises in realism either. Through the realism of dialogue, setting, and characters, Wilson aims at the representation and documentation of a history largely absent from the American stage.

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