The Piano Lesson
Act I, Scene 2—Part I
Three days later, Wining Boy sits at the kitchen table drinking as Doaker washes pots. They discuss the recent events. Boy Willie and Lymon have been trying to sell their watermelons in the white neighborhoods, but their truck keeps breaking down. Berniece is still deep in mourning for Crawley, though Doaker suspects she may be seeing Avery.
Doaker jokes about Avery's dream, and Wining Boy tells him of a man who tried to impersonate Christ—right up until the time came for his crucifixion. Thinking of a woman he just left in Kansas City, Wining Boy muses on the death of his ex-wife, Cleotha. He reads a letter announcing her death and reminisces on their marriage, a marriage ruined by his need to wander. As long as Cleotha lived, Wining Boy could be certain he had a home.
Boy Willie enters with Lymon and they greet each other. The Ghosts of Yellow Dog and their many victims come up for conversation. Wining Boy relates a time where he spoke with the Ghosts at the junction of the Southern and Yellow Dog railroads. The longer he stood there, the bigger he got; he left feeling like a king and had a stroke of good luck for the next three years.
Boy Willie then announces that he has already secured the sale of the piano. Doaker and Wining Boy protest that the land he wants is worthless, that the intelligent white man has already migrated to the cities, and that Sutter is probably cheating him. Willie remains undaunted.
Changing the subject, Wining Boy mentions that he heard Willie and Lymon were on Parchman Prison Farm, where both he and his brother spent time. Willie explains that some whites had tried to chase him, Lymon, and Crawley from some lumber they were pilfering. Crawley fought back and was killed, while the other two went to prison for theft. Lymon was shot in the stomach. Eventually Mr. Stovall bailed Lymon out on the condition that he work for him. Unwilling to serve Stovall, Lymon immediately fled, planning to stay in Pittsburgh where they treat blacks better than in the South.
Willie disagrees with his partner evaluation of the South, that whites will only treat you as badly as you let them. Wining Boy concurs but underlines an important difference: the white man can make use of the law. Willie declares he only follows law when it is right. Wining Boy responds that as a result, he will end up back on Parchman. The men reminisce about Parchman and sing an old work song ("Oh Lord Berta").
Willie then asks Wining Boy to play the piano. Wining Boy moans that he is tired of carrying a piano on his back. "Am I me? Or am I the piano player?" he asks. Willie remarks that someone better play the piano quick, rehearsing his plans to sell it and claim Sutter's land. Once again Doaker insists that Berniece will not sell it and begins to explain its history to Lymon.
Scene 2 focuses on male camaraderie, the first of two in the play, introduces the ironically named Wining Boy, a wandering, washed-up musician who is clearly past his time and looks back upon his life with an "odd mixture of zest and sorrow." A traveling man, he functions as one of the play's primary storytellers, delivering in this scene a number of thematically significant speeches. Certainly his call to the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, a dialogue with the dead at the crossroads, once again underlines how the play poses these characters' ancestors as sources of strength and renewal. Wining Boy is not only occupied with the ghosts of the railway, however, lamenting the passing of his wife and the certain home she emblematized. As the omnipresence of these ghosts suggest, The Piano Lesson is a play about mourning and attending to the memory of those lost. As in Wining Boy's stories of the crossroads and Cleotha, this mourning will specifically involve the address across the grave, a call to the dead both in speech and, importantly, in music.
Though not named explicitly, among the ghosts with whom the men are in such dialogue are those of slavery, ghosts that assert themselves in the group's memories of the Parchman Prison Farm. As Wilson largely leaves this reference unexplained in the script, Parchman requires a brief historical detour. The Parchman Prison Farm opened in 1904 by Governor James K. "White Chief" Vardaman as a highly profitable labor camp. Boasting over 20,000 acres and covering over forty-six square miles, the prison contained a sawmill, a brickyard, a slaughterhouse, a vegetable canning plant and two cotton gins. Unlike most prisons that consumed state revenue, Parchman furnished the state treasury annually with substantial profits from the sale of cotton and cottonseed.
Prisoners at Parchman endured conditions and cruelty that paralleled the former days of slavery. Inmates lived in over-crowded cells with bloodstained floors, overflowing waste buckets, and vermin-covered walls. Convicts were forced to work long hours in scorching cotton fields and were barbarously whipped by "Black Annie," a three-foot long, six-inch wide leather strap. Convicts were always stripped to the waist, and whipped in front of other men. An apprehended escapee faced an unlimited number of lashings. Prisoners were supervised by a handful of paid guards and a large number of armed prisoners called "trusty shooters" with the authority to shoot escaping convicts.
The men's shared history at Parchman—a history shared across generations—and encounters with a racist legal system, marks the specter of slavery in their lives. In particular, Lymon's anecdote of fleeing Stovall after his racist arrest and sale into bondage can only evoke the memory of the runaway slave. Also connected to these memories of Parchman is Wining Boy's allegory of the difference between the white and black man, a difference that lies in the white man's ability to use the law. Notably, Boy Willie rebels against the fact of these racist conditions, declaring that there is no difference between him and the white man, and that he can only follow laws he considers just. This rebellion against racism prefigures his final outburst in Scene 5.
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