The Piano Lesson

by: August Wilson

Act II, Scenes 1 and 2

Summary Act II, Scenes 1 and 2

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.

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.