The Piano Lesson
Music Theme in James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues and August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
The Hope And Perseverance that Music Strengthens Within a Family
Music plays a significant role in many people’s lives, specifically ones that lack aspects like the capability of true freedom, expression of identity, comfort to be one’s true self and exert self love, and unity within each family. Families like these are oppressed by society and tend to be unfortunately, dominate among African American families. It is agreed that throughout our history of the United States of America, African Americans were not allowed the same rights and were scrutinized for their skin complexion in many ways. Due to the hardships of being discriminated against, many families and individuals turned to music, which, in return, strengthened their perseverance and hope. Their determination regardless of the obstacles, and their desire for opportunities and certain outcomes is shown through the music they play and the significance of these songs. Great examples of this shown through a play and short work which are placed in the time period of the 1930s to 1950s. These examples include the play, “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson and the short story, “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin. Both works show an underlying theme of music and its relation to people and how it affects them.
Beginning with the short story, “Sonny’s Blues”, an important aspect of Sonny’s life was music. Growing up, he was a misunderstood kid and was very different from his logical, rule abiding brother. Due to this, he went astray and started to run along the path of music and drug use that his brother, and parents did not really accept due to their family’s past experiences. However, music was the only way Sonny was able to express himself, build a sense of comfort and relief within himself, and be kind of accepted as the person he is regardless of the actuality of their true character. Although his brother, our narrator, describes these people as drug addicts and don’t find himself feeling positive about the audience’s intentions, he sees that these people are most than their bad decisions, especially to Sonny. This group of people accepts Sonny and listens to him express his true feelings as he is on stage playing not only jazz but, blues. Throughout years of misunderstanding and avoidance, Sonny’s brother didn’t start to understand the person his brother was until he watched him perform and interact with his musician friends. The narrator describes this situation stating,
“Here, I was in Sonny’s world. Or rather: his kingdom… Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until he did. Yet there was no battle in his face now. I heard what he had gone through, and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth,” (Baldwin 44-47).
This passage shows although Sonny realistically may have less opportunities and stability in the life he chose, however, the music he plays enables a sense of freedom and expression that he cannot usually partake in. For once, Sonny’s brother listened to his story before judging it. Sonny’s expression of himself through music, disregarding the negative backlash of being a “drug induced” musician and outside pressures of racial prejudice, shows his perseverance and how he decided to handle his conflicts differently than his brother.
Siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, from the play, “The Piano Lesson,” also have their own beliefs on music. Although they may dispute about the significance of the historically valuable piano that has their family’s history carved into it, the significance of music within their family is without a doubt important. Music plays a crucial part in this family’s life although, most of them time they are not conscious to it. It connects them, it allows them to express themselves and their emotions, and it is used as a release and to relieve tension. There are many examples of this throughout the play. For example, after the men of the play start to lightly dispute about Sutter’s land, Boy Willie started to sing,
“O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal oh-ah/O Lord Berta Berta O Lord gal well [LYMON and WINING BOY join in.] Go ’head marry don’t you wait on me oh-ah …BOY WILLIE: Come on, Doaker. Doaker know this one. [As DOAKER joins in the men stamp and clap to keep time. They sing in harmony with great fervor and style.]” (Wilson 20).
This excerpt shows one example in which music helps connect the family. As they are starting to disagree, they change the mood by Boy Willie singing and everyone else chimes in. This shows the unity and connectedness of this family which is one aspect that builds a feeling of hope and perseverance among the individuals. This also shows how they relieve conflict and tension. As things get tense, individuals may find comfort in “singing the stress away.”
Music helps people cope with issues or situations one otherwise wouldn’t have the ability to do. As times were tough, specifically for African Americans, they turned to music to express their voice that wasn’t being heard. However, music has the capability of doing so much more. Not only does it allow freedom of expression but it helps build unity and even relieve conflict. The music introduced to the readers of those two works, both had a truly bigger importance than explicitly stated.
Boy Willie and His Relationship with the Piano in The Piano Lesson, a Play by August Wilson
Songs of Pride, Chords of Power
“The Piano Lesson”, written by August Wilson, utilizes the relationship between past, present and future to convey a deeper message of power through ancestry. The key symbol in this story is an old classical piano engraved with carvings of the Charles family. Boy Willie a current day member of the family wants to sell the piano in order to purchase Sutter’s land. The slave master who had owned their family and has passed away. Boy Willie’s relationship with the piano demonstrates the past, using the piano as a method of rebellion and strength. The present, remembering who you are, where you came from, and the idea of self-worth. And the future, with hopes of building off of what his ancestors left him.
The two most prominent opposing characters in the play are Boy Willie and Berniece. This is because they have two very different ideas of the past and what it represents. Berneice looks backwards and see’s the struggles her mother went through when their father was not providing for them. Contradictory, Boy Willie sees rebellion and strength in the African carvings crafted on to this European instrument. Music has always been used as a form of rebellion especially in the African-American community, so the idea of carving into a European instrument sends a strong message to him. Boy Willie definitely identifies with the dream of freedom and power, while Bernice is looking more toward blending into White culture as a way of gaining status and power. Berneice is teaching Maretha how to play piano in a more classically European manner, while Boy Willie wants her to break from the conformity. “Boy Willie sits and plays a simple boogie-woogie.”(pg.21) The boggie-woggie is an African-American style of music that broke from the conformity of standard European classical music. Boy Willie tries to teach Maretha how to play by example and she asks for sheet music. This demonstrates again Boy Willie’s dream of freedom and rebellion, as the music he is playing is without boundaries or limitations.
A scene from the screen adapted version of The Piano Lesson shows Boy Willie and Lymon paying the preacher Avery a visit at his job in the bank. Boy Willie takes the elevator up to the second floor along with the obviously confused and uncomfortable White people. This sends a very strong message of where he stands presently on his personal ideas of self-worth and pride. “They treat you like you let them treat you. They mistreat me I mistreat them right back. Ain’t no difference in me and the white man.”(38) He is unfazed by the mean glances that he receives having stepped out of his “assigned” status position in society. He will stand just as tall and proud as any White man. This idea of gaining pride from the past and remembering who you are is demonstrated through the piano as well. Boy Willie tries to explain the past to Maretha and again directly opposes Bernice who does not want Maretha to know about the past for fear that it will bring her, in the White people’s eyes, to the level of other African American people. Of course this is ridiculous as Maretha is Black and cannot hide from the consequences that came with it during this time. This is why Boy Willie wants to install in her some sense of self-worth without compromising who she truly is and where she came from. “You ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house…Have a celebration! If you did that she would have no problem in life. She would walk around here with her head held high… That way she know where she at in the world.” (pg.91) Boy Willie wants Maretha to know about the past and the struggles her ancestors overcame so she knows that where she comes from is strong and has power. That she has that very same strength and power within her. Like the African slaves that were brought to the America’s and stripped of their culture and sense of empowerment, without a sense of self you are lost. Boy Willie feels that teaching Maretha about the past will make her a stronger person presently and help her in the future.
The reason Boy Willie explains that he want to sell the piano is so he can use that money to buy Sutter’s land. He believes that the piano was giving to them so they could make something out of it. To build on what their family left them, otherwise what’s the use of it? Berniece wants to hold onto the piano because to her it represents the struggles that her mother went through and selling it would be a dishonor to the years Mama Ola spent toiling over it and begging Bernice to play something for her. Because the past is gone and the present is happening, the only thing he can look forward to is the future. “The only thing that make that piano worth something is he carvings Papa Boy Charles put on there. That’s what make it worth something. That was my great-grandaddy. Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house. Now I’m supposed to build on what they left me.”(pg.51) Boy Willie plans to make sure that he has something to give and contribute to his parents legacy. To him the piano is more of a metaphorical depiction of the past. But to Bernice it’s much more physical. “You ain’t taking that piano out of my house. Look at this piano. Mama ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it until her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in mixing it with the rest on the blood on it.”(pg.52) The two dreams oppose each other in meaning but are both very powerful in their own ways. Boy Willie tells Bernice that if she were making money off the piano then he would think differently about it because he wants to see the future being made out of it. A future that can help new generations find some worth in themselves and what their parents left for them.
Boy Willie’s relationship with the piano is about finding power and success for the future. He see’s his ancestors struggle as a source of freedom and strength and wants Maretha to feel that way too because she represents the future. His need for freedom shows in the way that he rebels through song and music. And his hopes for reclaiming his slave owners land is symbolic of reclaiming his past. Boy Willie’s ideas of self-worth and pride come from his ancestors which are displayed on the piano and through his characters interactions with it during the play.
The Piano as a Symbol of Conflict and Healing
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson provides the narrative of the Charles family as they encounter both the challenges of the present and struggle to come to terms with the grief and suffering of their family’s past. Throughout the play, the family’s piano is a central symbol that comes to embody the family legacy with its deep-rooted meaning and connections to the past. It is also a source of conflict between the siblings, Berniece and Boy Willie, as they argue about how best to use the piano. In this ongoing struggle between the two, Wilson develops Berniece’s character as one that is inextricable from the notion of legacy, thereby invoking her as the symbolic link to the family’s past and present. As the piano evolves from a symbol of conflict and divisiveness within the family to one of unifier and healer, Berniece is the one to convey and carry on its lessons.The piano initially represents the conflict and suffering that define much of the Charles family’s history of enslavement. Purchased by Robert Sutter in exchange for two of his slaves, the piano immediately becomes linked with the trauma of slavery. More importantly, the nature of the transaction reinforced the objectification of slaves – equating their value to that of an inanimate object. Another example of the piano’s association with suffering is a memory Berniece relates during an argument with Boy Willie:‘Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled … she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it …seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed. For what? For a piano? For a piece of wood?’ (52).Rather than focusing on the piano’s monetary value, as Boy Willie does, Berniece sees it as a source of grief and hardship for her mother. The imagery of a teary eyed, battered Mama Ola accentuates the depth of grief that Berniece associates with the piano. Berniece’s lamentation also underscores her role as a link to the family’s past; Boy Willie, on the other hand, seeks to distance himself from the past. As Berniece learns of Boy Willie’s intention to sell the piano, the central question of ownership surfaces and initially portrays the piano as a source of conflict. Whereas Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to achieve his goal of buying Sutter’s land, Berniece refuses to part with the family heirloom – she sees it as a critical way to maintain a connection with the past. Boy Willie sees the piano as a disruption to the family that could serve to further his goal of landownership; he loses sight of the ancestral memories the piano carries. In a characteristic argument, Berniece tells Boy Willie that “‘Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money,’” suggesting that the piano contains the Charles family’s soul (50). The piano moves from being symbol of divisiveness to one of unity in the final scene, in which Berniece and Boy Willie reconcile their differences. During the exorcism of Sutter’s ghost, Boy Willie struggles against Sutter until Berniece begins to play the piano and calls upon the Charles ancestors for assistance. Through this incident Berniece again assumes her role as the link between present and past; she also recognizes, now, that the piano’s value to her lies in its symbolism – not its material existence. Boy Willie acknowledges the importance of sustaining the piano as a symbol when he says, in a show of familial solidarity, “Hey Berniece … if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano…ain’t no telling … me and Sutter both liable to be back” (108). Initially the piano divides siblings, but it ultimately helps Berniece and Boy Willie find common ground. As Berniece embraces her role as preserver of family, she imparts on Boy Willie a sense of appreciation for the piano’s symbolic importance. Boy Willie becomes prepared to pursue his own ambitions more strongly rooted in an understanding of his origins. While the piano emerged out of the trauma of slavery, it comes to symbolize unity and family legacy.