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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Act II, Scenes 1 and 2

Act I, Scene 2—Part II

Act III, Scenes 3 and 4

Summary

Scene 1

The following morning, Doaker appears ironing his pants while singing a song about the railroad. Wining Boy enters with a suit he has failed to pawn. Berniece is out cleaning a house, and Boy Willie and Lymon are selling their watermelons. Doaker remarks that Maretha is now scared to sleep upstairs. Though he did not tell Berniece, he admits to his brother that he saw Sutter's ghost three weeks ago, playing the piano. He thinks his niece should get rid of the heirloom. Wining Boy disagrees and then asks his brother to lend him some money.

Boy Willie and Lymon enter, having fast-talked their watermelons off on the local whites. Shrewdly, Wining Boy sells his suit and a pair of shoes to Lymon, promising that it has a magical effect on the ladies. Lymon and Boy Willie plan to go out the local picture show and find some women.

Wining Boy remarks that Lymon is as crazy about women as his father was. He recounts how he once helped bail his father—L.D. Jackson, described as "one bad-luck nigger"—out of jail after he was arrested for fighting with a white youth. In return, Lymon's mother invited Wining Boy over for a night.

Declining Wining Boy's invitation to a game of cards, the young men prepare to go out. Wining Boy coaches Lymon on pick-up lines: "If you got the harbor, I got the ship."

Scene two

Later that evening, Berniece appears preparing a tub for her bath. Avery enters and he has gotten his loan. Hesitantly, he proposes to Berniece anew, declaring that she is too young to "close up." Berniece retorts that she still has "a lot of woman" in her and is occupied with Maretha. Avery replies that she cannot continue carrying Crawley with her.

Changing the subject, Berniece asks Avery to bless the house in hopes of exorcising Sutter's ghost. She remains convinced that Boy Willie killed him. Avery, on the other hand, believes in the Ghosts of Yellow Dog, recalling a preacher who used to describe them as the hand of God. Berniece continues her lament, complaining that Doaker blames himself for Boy Charles' death and has washed his hands of the piano and that Boy Willie has been a problem since he was a little rebellious boy, just like his father.

Avery suggests that she use the piano to start a choir at his church. Berniece replies that she has not been able to touch the piano since her mother died. She played for her mother alone. When she played, her mother could hear her father speaking to her. As a child, Berniece imagined that the figures would come to life and stalk the house. She leaves the piano untouched to keep from waking those spirits. Invoking the powers of God, Avery urges Berniece to put the past behind her, but Berniece cannot.

Analysis

Breaking the tension of the scene previous, Act II opens with another scene of male camaraderie. Once again, the scene consists of little action, largely relying on reportage and storytelling. As Scene 1 is so digressive, it is difficult to offer a synthetic analysis. It begins with Doaker's railway song, song that consists almost entirely of place names. Literally chronicling the stops on a railway man's journey, this song once again locates the play within its historical milieu. The remainder of the scene largely consists of Wining Boy comically pawning his suit off on Lymon and advising the two younger men on the local women. Though sold, the suit remains a gift of sorts, Wining Boy in a sense passing on the success he once had with the ladies. It is not for nothing that Wining Boy was almost Lymon's father. As he declares, "Two strokes back and I would have been his daddy!"

The subsequent scene involves its own game of courtship, Avery renewing his proposal of marriage to the recalcitrant Berniece. Note that for Avery, Berniece's persistent widowhood calls her femininity into question. If she remains aloof much longer, she is likely to "close up." Though Berniece retorts that a woman can stand without a man, Avery points out that she herself "carries" one with her at all times—her husband Crawley.

Scene 2 also elaborates Berniece's relation to the piano as a sacred and tabooed object. Berniece played the piano for her mother alone, and when she played, her mother could hear her father speaking to her. Thus, the young Berniece, who is associated with the maternal line, appears as a sort of priestess in the channeling of the family's ghosts. Her music animates the totemic figures, functioning as a sort of call that her mother hears.

Avery's response is telling, and it involves a series of biblical citations and the invocation of Christ. He advises Berniece to start a choir. He believes that with the strength of God, she can move the "stones" in her path and play as she once did. In other words, she should do something with her legacy. Indeed, Avery declares that she should "make it into a celebration." The trope of the celebration will recur in the final scene when Boy Willie declares that the family should consider the day of the piano's theft a holiday.

Also important is the "mixed" quality of Avery's exhortations, involving the invocation of a number of local traditions. For example, Avery identifies the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, a folk myth, with the "hand of God." As critics have noted, these exhortations prefigure the exorcism staged in the final scene, one that will blend Christianity, folk superstition, and a vaguely African mysticism.

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