87 pages 2 hours read

August Wilson

The Piano Lesson

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1987

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Summary and Study Guide



August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson premiered in 1987 at Yale Repertory Theatre starring a young, unknown Samuel L. Jackson as Boy Willie. The play opened on Broadway in 1990 with Charles S. Dutton (Boy Willie), S. Epatha Merkerson (Berniece), and Jackson in his Broadway debut as Dutton’s understudy; it earned five Tony nominations, the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play, and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Best Play award. It also won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, marking Wilson’s second Pulitzer after winning his first for Fences in 1987. In 1995, the play was adapted into an award-winning television movie. The Piano Lesson, set in 1936, is chronologically the fourth book in Wilson’s Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle—a series of 10 plays, each taking place in a different decade of the 20th century and depicting the experiences of Black Americans living in Wilson’s own childhood stomping grounds, the Hill District of Pittsburgh (except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom [1984], which takes place in Chicago).

Wilson’s Piano Lesson was inspired by Romare Bearden’s painting with the same title. Bearden (1911-1988), who was well known for his collage work and for his powerful cubist paintings portraying Black American life, was one of the “four Bs” that Wilson (1945-2005) listed as major influences on his work, along with playwright and Black activist Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), poet Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986), and the blues. Wilson himself became arguably the most influential Black American playwright of the 20th century. His plays stage authentic representations of ordinary middle-class Black Americans who are contending with the social issues of the decade throughout the most significant century in Black history.

This guide references the edition of The Piano Lesson published by Theatre Communications Group in 2007 as part of their volume set, The August Wilson Century Cycle.

Content Warning: The play depicts racism and discussions of racial violence and acts of lynching. This guide quotes and obscures the playwright’s use of the n-word.

Plot Summary

The titular piano is the centerpiece of the parlor in the Pittsburgh home shared by Doaker Charles, his niece Berniece, and Berniece’s pre-teen daughter Maretha. Berniece’s brother, Boy Willie, arrives with his friend Lymon from Mississippi, the family’s home state before the Great Migration. A few generations ago, the Charles family was enslaved and owned by a family called Sutter. The Sutter who was the latest heir to land that the Charles family once worked has died suddenly after tipping into his own well. Boy Willie has a chance to buy the land, and he and Lymon have brought a truckload of watermelons to sell; Boy Willie wants to make up the rest by selling the family piano. Berniece refuses to sell and wants her brother to go. First, she blames Boy Willie for her husband being shot and killed by police three years ago. The piano has intricate carvings of the faces of the Charles family’s ancestors, carved by their great-grandfather, who was ordered to do it by the Mr. Sutter who owned him. Decades later, Boy Willie and Berniece’s father, Boy Charles, enlisted his brothers (Doaker and Wining Boy) to steal the piano to liberate their ancestors. Boy Charles tried to escape the manhunt by hopping a train, but someone stopped the train and set his boxcar on fire, burning him and four other transient bystanders alive. Supposedly, the victims have become the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog (the name of the train) and have been exacting revenge by pushing white men involved in the fire into wells.

As Boy Willie and Berniece battle for the piano, Sutter’s ghost seems to be haunting the house. First Berniece sees him calling for Boy Willie, which makes her suspect her brother of killing Sutter himself. Berniece doesn’t believe in the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, although she believes in other ghosts. Then Maretha sees the Ghost, although she never met Sutter and Berniece has shielded her from the piano’s dark history. Berniece refuses to play the piano, although she has Maretha using it to learn in hopes that she can one day teach piano lessons. When Berniece and Boy Willie’s mother was alive, she mourned their father for 17 years, polishing the piano with her tears and blood and making Berniece play it so she could talk to the spirits of their ancestors. Berniece is afraid of becoming like her mother. Avery Brown, a man they all knew in Mississippi, has recently become a preacher and started building a church. He wants to marry Berniece, but she keeps putting him off and saying that she isn’t ready. When Boy Willie and Lymon finally have success selling watermelons, Boy Willie becomes more determined to take the piano. Oddly, he and Lymon can’t move it at all, but he gets busy building a cart to wheel it out. Defiantly, he tells Maretha some of the story behind the piano.

The presence of Sutter’s ghost grows stronger, and Berniece asks Avery to come and bless the house to exorcize it. Avery agrees reluctantly, although he isn’t sure he can do it. Boy Willie, who believes in the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, claims that he doesn’t believe in Sutter’s ghost, and insists that those who see it are imagining it. Berniece gets her husband’s gun, intending to stop Boy Willie from taking the piano. But when Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, determined to get it to the truck, everyone feels the Ghost’s presence—even Grace, Lymon’s new love interest. Avery shows up and starts trying to perform an exorcism on the house, sprinkling water and focusing on the piano. Boy Willie mocks him at first, but then they hear the Ghost upstairs, and Boy Willie is thrown back and choked. He rushes upstairs anyway, and Avery tries desperately to cast Sutter out amid sounds of Boy Willie fighting Sutter’s ghost. Then Berniece realizes what she has to do. She sits down and plays the piano, singing a plea to their ancestors to help them. Suddenly, the house grows quiet. The Ghost is gone. There is a loud train sound. Boy Willie comes back and announces that he’s going to leave and go home to Mississippi. He warns Berniece that if she stops playing the piano, both he and Sutter’s ghost might return for it. He goes, and Berniece sings her thanks.

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