The Piano

The central symbol of the play is the 137-year-old piano, an object that incarnates the family history. It takes on a number of meanings through the course of its life. A gift purchased through the exchange for slaves, it originally exemplifies the interchangeability of person and object under the system of slavery. This traffic in flesh reaffirms a white kinship network at the expense of black ones. Note that the piano is an anniversary present. Carved to placate Miss Ophelia, the piano's wooden figures indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and ornament for the master. As Doaker notes, "Now she had her piano and her niggers too." The slave is the master's gift and accessory.

Under Willie Boy's hands, however, the piano also becomes both a symbolic attempt to keep the family together and the physical record of the family's history. Boy Charles especially understands the carvings as narrative. As Doaker recalls: "[Boy 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."

Once Boy Charles dies, the piano becomes a medium of sorts, an altar that Mama Ola tends until the end of her days and a means by which she converses with the dead. Berniece facilitates this dialogue with the dead as a sort of priestess, playing to wake those beyond the grave.