The Piano Lesson

by: August Wilson

Act I, Scene 1—Part II

Summary Act I, Scene 1—Part II

Lymon then asks about the piano. Apparently Willie intends to sell it and, with the profits from the watermelons as well, use the money to buy Sutter's land. Sutter's brother has presented himself as eager to sell to Willie owing to their families' shared history. Willie is all too aware that he is trying to cheat him but is bent on starting his own farm.

In any case, Doaker is sure Berniece will not part with the piano. While Maretha is taking piano lessons, Berniece has not touched it since Mama Ola died. For her, it has blood on it. In this sense, the piano has becomes a taboo object for her, or something sacred. Indeed, Avery Brown—a preacher courting Berniece who followed her to Pittsburgh when her husband Crawley died—tried to get her to sell her piano to a local white man collecting instruments and help him start his church, but Berniece refused. Willie schemes to get in touch with the prospective buyer himself.

Suddenly Berniece cries out off-stage: "Go on get away." Willie rushes up, passing her has she enters. Berniece claims she has seen Sutter's ghost, dressed in a blue suit and holding the top of his head to keep it from coming off. Staring at her, he called Boy Willie's name. Willie is incredulous, thinking that his sister is imagining things. It remains unlikely that Sutter could find his way to Pittsburgh and travel so far in the first place. Berniece is convinced that her brother pushed Sutter into the well. She orders the men out anew, blaming Willie for Crawley's death. Willie protests, saying that Sutter is not looking for him, but for the piano, and Berniece should get rid of it. Utterly exasperated, she goes upstairs with Doaker to wake Maretha.


The Piano Lesson begins with a quotation from Skip James, a Mississippi blues musician discovered in the 1930s: "Gin my cotton Sell my seed Buy my baby Everything she need." In some sense, this epigraph condenses what most critics identify as the central thematic conflict of the play: the question of what to do with one's legacy. This conflict over legacy appears as the choice between forging ahead and climbing the economic ladder or attending to the memory of past injustices. Thus, early in the scene, Boy Willie will repeat Skip James's refrain in describing his plans to start his own farm: "Gin my cotton. Get my seed." With his scheme, Willie would achieve the economic self-sufficiency only recently made possible for blacks in America. Implicit in this self-sufficiency, as the song makes clear ("Buy my baby/ Everything she need"), is a concept of masculinity: as his brash posturing suggests, the farm will make Willie more of a man. Indeed, in buying the land his family once worked on as slaves, Willie will later imagine himself as the son following in and surpassing his father's legacy, as the heir avenging his ancestors.

Willie's ascension to the position of landowner, however, is contingent on the sale of an heirloom that incarnates his ancestral history, which is stained with the family's blood under Berniece's vigilant protection. As we learn soon after this scene, this history begins with slavery. In this light, the Skip James lyrics become a double entendre: "Sell my seed/Buy my baby." The trauma at the heart of this family history is precisely the traffic in human flesh echoed in the song, the sale of the totemic figures depicted on the piano's legs. This sale rent the Charles family in two, splitting it between slave owners. Thus piano's recovery at one level symbolizes for the ensuing generations the avenging of this sale, the recovery and reunion of the ones lost. Carved in a vaguely African manner, the lost figures also clearly represent a connection to a lost mother Africa. With this in mind, the sale of the piano, a sale that would reduce it to capital, becomes a turn away from the past and its traumas in the name of advancement. Thus Willie's insistence on economic advancement will often appear as a denial of the suffering and blood that stains the family history. Throughout the play, the past will weigh heavily on even the apparently easy-going dialogue.

It is not for nothing that the preservation of this past falls upon Berniece, along with the figure of the dead Mama Ola, pictured as conscientiously polishing it every day. The rather unfortunate gendered division of labor the play presents in managing the family legacy will become clear in the siblings' ultimate reconciliation. The distinction is between the son who would literally use his legacy as capital and the daughter who cannot use her legacy at all. Berniece leaves the piano untouched. As we will learn, she has not passed on its history either. As the stage notes underline, she is above all a woman in mourning, unable to work through the family's many traumas, traumas that—as the Berniece's memory of Mama Ola suggests—persist across generational lines. Berniece will constantly order the constantly forward- looking Boy Willie and all the "confusion" he brings out of her house.