The Piano Lesson

by: August Wilson

Act I, Scene 2—Part II

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.

Analysis

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.