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The Piano Lesson

August Wilson

Act II, Scene 5

Act III, Scenes 3 and 4

Act II, Scene 5—Part II

Summary

Scene 5 begins later that day, with Doaker playing solitaire, Maretha sitting at the piano, and Boy Willie screwing his dolly together on the sofa. Willie is telling Maretha of the Ghosts of Yellow Dog. Berniece enters and once again orders Willie out of her house. She tells Maretha to go upstairs and bring down her comb and hair grease. Willie accompanies her to protect her from Sutter's ghost.

Doaker tells his niece of Willie's current plan to cart the piano out of the house. Berniece replies that she is ready to use her husband's gun to stop him if necessary. Willie and Maretha return, and the siblings begin to argue anew. When Berniece threatens him, Willie declares that he does not fear death. He recounts a story from childhood when a priest failed to revive his dead dog. Having learned that nothing was precious, he went out and killed a cat and discovered the "power of death." This power makes him the equal of the white man.

As Berniece begins to style Maretha's hair, Willie continues, stating that the Bible dictates the justice of "an eye for an eye," and that Berniece and Avery would ignore those teachings. Though he is not a believer, he knows Berniece should remain true to the entire Bible. Maretha cries out in pain and Berniece silences her. Willie protests and says that if Berniece wants to tell her daughter anything, she should tell her the piano's story. The household should celebrate the day of Boy Charles's theft, Independence Day, as their own personal holiday.

Berniece replies that Willie can dispense his teachings when he has children of his own. Willie retorts that he would never have children as he has no advantages to offer them. He remembers how his father would stare off at his hands, without the tools to produce anything, left only with the power to kill. Unlike his father, land will enable him to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the white man. Willie accuses Berniece of teaching Maretha that as a black person she lives at the "bottom of life"—the only result will be that she will come to hate her.

Berniece replies that she only tells her daughter the truth. Willie protests that he is living at life's top and that none of their ancestors would have ever thought themselves at the bottom. He knows that the world wants no part of him but that it is better because of his existence. Though some fear the sound of a "nigger's heart beating," his will not beat quietly. Willie will mark his passing on the road. Avery enters, and Willie interrogates him on what a Christian should believe. He also mocks the imminent exorcism. We learn that the bank has finalized Avery loan for the church. Lymon then enters carrying a coil of rope.

Analysis

Thematically, this final confrontation between Berniece and Boy Willie involves most of Boy Willie's speeches on race relations. Notably Willie delivers these speeches while Berniece does Maretha's hair. Maretha's presence indicates how the fate of the future generation is very important.

Throughout the play, Willie asserts that there is no difference between him and the white man. At the same time, he remains painfully aware of the disparities between them. He thus plays both sides of a paradox, insisting, for example, that he lives in the world like any other man, that he lives at the top and not the bottom of life, and that he his heart beats like any other's while at the same time striving toward becoming the white man's equal.

Boy Willie's first speech relates his discovery of the "power of death." As he notes with respect to his father, this power is the only one left to a black man denied property and the tools to build something for himself. The power of death—that is, the power to kill as well as risk one's life—makes the black man the white man's rival. As Willie declares: "See, a nigger that ain't afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man." With the power of death, he can look the white man "square in the eye and say, 'I got it too.' Then [the white man] got to deal with you square up." Willie is all too aware of the fear the sound of a "nigger's heart beating" can inspire. By discovering the power of death, Willie undermines the distinction master/slave that haunts the difference between white and black, a distinction in large part founded on the master's capacity to kill his servant. The power of death makes both players masters engaged in a struggle to the death, masters who are willing to murder and die in a battle for recognition. As only the power of death ensures his recognition, Boy Willie believes in the justice of an "eye for an eye," refusing to temper his violent rage with Christian homilies.

Willie also fantasizes about becoming the white man's equal in the purchase of land. Once again he invokes the memory of his property-less father, staring emptily at his strong, useless hands. As a landowner, Willie will become the white man's neighbor, stand next to him and talk about cotton, the weather, and whatever else they like.

Willie is all too aware that he has been born into a "time of fire," and that the world would rather do without him. For Willie, Berniece accepts this world, teaching her daughter that she sits at the bottom. He, on the other hand, will mark his passing on the road: "Just like you write on a tree, 'Boy Willie was here.'" The trope of the mark refers to Willie's paternal heritage, to the fathers before him who left their mark on time. Willie Boy leaves a literal mark on the piano that records the family's history. Boy Charles' theft leaves a mark on the calendar, creating a new Independence Day. Again, the gendered politics of this vision are not innocent, with the men appearing as the makers of history and the women as their mourners.

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