The Piano Lesson
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.
A Song of Remembrance: The Importance of Berniece’s Choices
August Wilson uses his play The Piano Lesson to explore the turmoil inside the homes and hearts of many African Americans in the 1930s. Many African Americans are torn between being proud of their heritage, which is blackened with the enslavement of their ancestors, and putting the past completely behind them and ignoring their horrifying past. Wilson uses Berniece, an unconventional African American woman, to exemplify both sides of the struggle between remembrance of one’s past and the disregarding of it to focus on the future. Berniece’s ultimate acceptance and appreciation of her heritage is the only force powerful enough to stop the chaos that unfolds in her life.
The Piano Lesson is a play dominated by men, with the exception of Berniece, who cannot decide if she should dismiss her African American heritage completely or celebrate her ancestors. Many other African Americans in the 1930s are in the same predicament as Berniece. They are physically free from slavery but are still discriminated against and do not know whether they should be proud of their past or ashamed of it. As one of the only females in the play, Berniece is very representative of women in the 1930s and of women in the African American community. She is forced to raise a daughter alone after her husband is killed during a skirmish with the police; an incident she blames solely on Boy Willie. Berniece and Boy Willie do not get along and she fervently denies his attempts at selling the family piano. On the surface it appears that she has a strong connection to the piano due to its significance to her heritage. When Boy Willie tries to convince Berniece to get rid of the piano she replies, “Look at this piano. Look at it. Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years” (Wilson, 52). She does not appreciate the piano for its musical value but wants to keep the piano out of respect for her ancestors.
Although Berniece wants to keep the piano, she does not want to celebrate her heritage and acts as though it is something to be ashamed of. Boy Willie tells her that she “ought to mark down on the calendar the day that Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house… and every year when it come up throw a party” (Wilson, 91). Boy Willie adds that her daughter, Maretha, would be able to hold her head high in life if they celebrated their past but Berniece dismisses the idea. In the beginning of the play Berniece tells Maretha, “Don’t be going down there showing your color” (Wilson, 27). This statement clearly implies that being colored is something to be ashamed of and should be hidden. Berniece also refuses to touch or play the piano and does not like discussing its past. However, she still fervently insists on keeping the piano and cannot bear to see it sold to another family.
Berniece is very unconventional for a woman in the 1930’s. She is very independent and intends to stay that way. When her boyfriend, Avery insists on marrying her she rebukes him by saying “You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man. But you alright, huh? You can just walk out of here without me -without a woman- and still be a man” (Wilson, 67). Although she still misses her husband, she is content to raise and support a child without the help of a man. This idea is more common today, but in the 1930s this would have been a very unusually thing. The way that the other men of the play interact with Berniece suggests that her opinion is respected and she is a very hard headed woman. Were she not, Boy Willie would have marched right into Doaker’s home and took the piano without a second thought to Berniece’s opinion. Instead he tries to convince Berniece to let him take it. He does not use his superior male status to overpower her stance.
Ultimately, only Berniece’s acceptance of her heritage is able to stop the turmoil and chaos in her family. Sutter, a member of the family that used to own Berniece’s family, appears to the characters as a ghost and haunts their home. To get rid of him, Avery tries to bless the house and Boy Willie screams at him to leave. Berniece sees that these tactics are not working and sits down at the piano she refused to touch for years and begins to play. She calls to each of her ancestors “I want you to help me” (Wilson, 107). The passing train and Boy Willie’s yells quiet down as she sings and the family feels Sutter’s ghost leave. She then shows her gratitude by singing repeatedly to her deceased family, “Thank You” (Wilson, 107). Berniece’s embracing of her heritage is the only way that peace is restored to the household. She finally sees how important it is to be proud of her ancestors, especially since hers overcame so many struggles at the hands of their slave owners. Boy Willie sees this acceptance and stops fighting her for the piano.
Role of History and Past in August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson
Afro-American writers made the political choice of speaking up for themselves by articulating their thoughts, when they veritably vowed to own their legacy and their values. The average African-American who had not only been divested from his history and heritage, but also had been dissevered from the mainstream social life, was addressed by Wilson in the subsequent words, “the preservation and promotion, the propagation and rehearsal of the value of one’s ancestors is the surest way to a full and productive life” (qtd. in Pease 3). August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson is a piece of literary articulation that outlines the psychological impact that the white supremacist social order had on the black surrogates for many generations. It explores how the dismantling of the black subjection, which according to Orlando Patterson resulted in the “social death” of the blacks, pushed them to experience “natal alienation and the sense of kinlessness” (qtd. in Pease 5). Amidst all of this, history and family legacy were elements that played a munificent role in helping the African-Americans to connect themselves with their roots and celebrate the true spirit of freedom.
Wilson, in his play, focuses on the abject turmoil that an individual has to face as well as an inner battle that has to be fought by him when he stands at the crossroads where on one side, having a past and how to best put it to use is the question he has to deal with, and on the other side, he is afflicted with the haunting trauma associated with the same past.
Initially, in the play, it seems like there is a notable struggle between change and tradition, and that past or history is only restricted to the character of Berniece, who ardently vows to cling to it by not wanting to sell the piano, whereas Boy Willie, it seems, is more inclined towards acquiring change for himself and getting rid of his family’s past by being hell-bent on selling it. But gradually towards the end of the play, Wilson makes it clear that both, Berniece and Boy Willie, are warmly affiliated with their past and their family’s legacy— the only variance lies in the way that both display the impact that their past has on their mental sensibilities.
The argument over selling the piano that takes place between Berniece and Boy Willie, conceptualizes the inner battles they fight within. It hints at the idea of the piano itself symbolizing the past of the Charles family— a past which consumes Berniece, deeply entrenching her in the memory of her ancestors under slavery; and providing Boy Willie with a motivation to use his family’s past as a tool to build a future for himself, for avenging his ancestors (by buying Sutter’s land on which his ancestors toiled to death). In both cases, their past is still closely tied to them even after generations, and determines the nature of their futuristic plans and prospects with regards to their lives.
Wilson maintained how he felt the Africans had “acculturated and adopted white values” (qtd. in Rudolph 565). This acculturation was Wilson’s main concern; as a result of which he focuses on the idea of infusing within the Afro-Americans a sense of claiming their roots, their identity, and their past. The centripetal element of the family’s past—the piano— engenders the motivation for the Afro-American audiences, to not be apologetic towards their history and their legacy, no matter how ugly it is.
The idea that Berniece and Boy Willie had never physically met their great grand ancestors, yet consciously connected with their ghosts, shows how strongly Wilson reinforced the idea of having some vestige of roots to hold on to— thereby portraying the idea of surrogate family ties with ghosts from the immemorial past (Pease 7).
The past, as represented in the play, lies in a seamless relationship with morality that governs social and political orders that the Afro-Americans were a part of. The way the ancestors obliged the living to relive their deaths in the play, is wholesome as an idea to determine how Wilson formed affinities between the Afro-Americans and their past. Reinforcing this idea, Wilson states, “The message of America is ‘Leave your Africanness outside the door’. My message is, ‘Claim what is yours’” (qtd. in Bissiri 99).
The scene in which Boy Willie would argue that he stands in his grandfather’s shoes, establishes his ideology of not wanting to ignore his legacy, rather he embraces it with open arms. Similarly, at the end, when Berniece finally plays the piano and symbolically celebrates her ancestors, she experiences a shift from the prognostic attachment to her past to a positive and a warmer attachment to her past. This also emphasizes on the true spirit of freedom being achieved by Berniece who until now was snagged between whether or not to celebrate it. Wilson portrays how at the end, it is the past and the memory of the ancestors that lives on through the ones living—which highlights that one’s bonds with his past and his roots can never be completely curtailed or snapped.
In a nutshell, through the strong representation of the idea of past and legacy in The Piano Lesson, an individual is not only made cognizant of how one’s roots are essential to his being, but also how his affinity with his past is what helps him discover his ontological and epistemological self in a world where he might face rigid “disidentificatory” postures by those around him.
Bissiri, Amadou. “Aspects of Africanness in August Wilson’s Drama: Reading The Piano Lesson Through Wole Soyinka’s Drama.” African American Review, vol. 30, Indiana State University, 1996, pp. 99-113.
Pease, Donald E. “August Wilson’s Lazarus Complex.” Criticism, vol. 51, Wayne State University Press, 2009, pp. 1-28.
Rudolph, Amanda M. “Images of African Traditional Religions and Christianity in ‘Joe Turner’s Come and Gone’ and ‘The Piano Lesson’.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 33, Sage Publications, Inc, 2003, pp. 562-75.
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.