The Piano Lesson
Act I, Scene 2—Part II
Doaker tells the piano's story. During slavery, a man named Robert Sutter—the recently deceased Sutter's grandfather—owned the Charles family. He wanted to make an anniversary present out of his friend, Joel Nolander's, piano but could not afford it. Thus he traded a full and half grown slave, Doaker's grandmother Berniece and his father, for the instrument. Though initially Miss Ophelia, Sutter's wife, loved the piano, she started to miss her slaves and attempted to trade them back. When Nolander refused, she fell desperately ill.
So, Sutter called Doaker's grandfather, Willie Boy, and asked him to carve the faces of his wife and child into the piano. Willie Boy was known as a great craftsman, and thus Sutter kept him when Nolander offered to buy him to keep the family together. Willie Boy complied with Sutter's order but did not only carve his immediately family, however. He included his mother, father, and various scenes from their family history. Though Sutter hated the carvings, they thrilled Miss Ophelia, who played the piano until her death.
Years later, Doaker's eldest brother and Berniece and Boy Willie's father, Boy Charles, developed an obsession over the piano, believing that as long as the Sutters held their family's history, they held them in bondage. So, on July four, 1911, he, Doaker, and Wining Boy stole it, storing it in the neighboring county with Mama Ola's family.
Later that day, lynchers set Boy Charles's house on fire. Charles fled to catch the Yellow Dog. The mob, however, stopped the train and, when unable to find the piano, set his boxcar on fire. Boy Charles died along with the hobos in his car. The murderer was never identified, though the suspects soon began falling in their wells. Local residents attributed their deaths to the work of their victims' spirits, dubbed the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.
Once Doaker finishes his story, Boy Willie forcefully declares that these events are in the past and that his father would have done as he wants now. Doaker refuses to take sides in his dispute with Berniece; Wining Boy, on the other hand, clearly thinks he should leave it alone.
Wining Boy begins to sing a familiar song, "I'm a rambling, gambling man." Berniece and Maretha then enter, and the former greets her uncle, and then the two retire upstairs. Once they exit, Willie and Lymon attempt to move the piano and test its weight. As they start to move it, Sutter's ghost is heard. Only Doaker notices it. Sutter's ghost makes noise again, and all take notice.
Berniece reappears and commands Willie to stop. He cannot sell his soul for money. Willie retorts that he is not selling his soul, only a piece of wood for some land. His father would have made something out of the piano, not left it rot in the parlor. Berniece retorts with the memory of their mother polishing the piano every day for seventeen years until her hands bled—the piano is sacred.
She continues her tirade that Boy Willie is just like all the men in the family, guilty of nothing but theft and murder. Indeed, he has the death of her husband on his hands. Willie refuses responsibility for Crawley's death. Unconvinced, Berniece attacks her brother. Suddenly, Maretha is heard screaming upstairs in terror, and the lights go out on stage.
The centerpiece of Scene 2 is the story of the piano. An intensely symbolic artifact, the piano takes on number of meanings in the course of its life. Initially purchased with slaves, the piano first exemplifies the interchangeability of person and object under the system of slavery. This traffic in human flesh serves to reaffirm a white kinship network at the expense of black ones—the piano is an anniversary present. Carved to placate Miss Ophelia, the piano's wooden figures then indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and ornament: as Doaker notes, "Now she had her piano and her niggers too." The piano makes all too clear that the slave is the master's gift and accessory.
Under Willie Boy's hands, however, the piano becomes both a symbolic attempt to reunite his broken family as well as the transcription of the family's history through one of the few means available to him. Through his craftmanship, Willie Boy records a history all too easily lost, the history of those without the authority to write official historical narratives. As both symbol and narrative, the figures are no longer ornamental, but totemic, the markers of a familial legacy.
Sutter's ownership of the piano for Boy Charles is not only egregious in that its figures represent slaves and show the ancestors under symbolic enslavement. Sutter's ownership of the family's historical narrative also keeps the Charles family in bondage. As Doaker recalls: "[Charles would] Say it was the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter had it he had us. Say we was still in slavery." It is also notable that the theft of the piano occurs on Independence Day. As Boy Willie will declare in the final scene, this theft marks a rewriting of history. The family should write his father's act on the calendar and celebrate it as their own holiday.
The trope of the mark for posterity will recur with respect to Willie in the final scene as well. Already this scene makes clear how Boy Willie imagines himself as heir to his father's legacy in his plans to claim Sutter's farm. Willie would make something of the piano as his father would have done. Against this vision of self-improvement, Berniece invokes the image of her mother, mournfully scrubbing and praying over the piano until her death. The siblings' confrontation over the uses of one's legacy thus also divides them along paternal and maternal lines. Note how the play draws this divide across the generations. Great-grandparents Willie Boy and Berniece are reincarnated in a sense in Boy Willie and Berniece. As his brash father might have, Boy Willie rebelliously looks toward the future, striking out against racist society. Like her mother, Berniece serves as guardian of the family's past suffering, and like her mother, Berniece is also another woman mourning her husband. As noted earlier, these two approaches to the family's legacy will find its synthesis in the ritual that closes the play.
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