August Wilson was an American Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright born into an impoverished family of seven. As an African American, persecuted and bullied at school, he dropped out to educate himself at the local library. Wilson began to write independently at a very young age. In 1990, he published one of his Pulitzer-winning plays, "The Piano Lesson," which depicts two siblings battling over a cherished family heirloom, a piano.
Setting and Context
The setting for "The Piano Lesson" is Pittsburgh in 1936, during the Great Depression. The narrative takes place in the house of Doaker Charles. In Charles's parlor, there is a 137-year old piano, decorated with totems inspired by African art. The totems are images of the African ancestors of the two main characters, Boy Willie and Berniece, the nephew and niece of Charles. The uncle's enslaved grandfather carved the piano.
The play begins with Boy Willie knocking at his uncle's door. He is with his partner, Lymon, selling watermelons. Willie has just finished serving a sentence in prison, and he has not seen his sister Berniece, who resides with his uncle, for three years. Willie intends to sell the family piano and use the money to buy Robert Sutter's Land, where his ancestors once were enslaved. However, Berniece will not part with the heirloom. Her boyfriend, a preacher named Avery Brown, has been unsuccessfully trying to persuade her to sell it since her husband Crawley died. Willie decides to team up with a buyer. Berniece is off stage crying out, "Go on get away." She claims to have seen Sutter's ghost and that the ghost was calling Boy Willie's name. She is convinced that her brother pushed Sutter into a well, and that his ghost has returned to avenge his murder. She refuses to cooperate with Willie's plans to sell the piano because she fears what will happen if he purchases the land
A few days later, Charles's brother, Wining Boy, arrives. The men reminisce, and Willie tells them how he went to prison. He, Lymon and Crawley were stealing wood from some white men, who chased them down. Crawley died fighting back, while Willie and Lymon went to prison. Doaker tells the story of the piano's history. Robert Sutter, a slaveholder, traded Charles' grandmother and father for the piano to give to his wife as a gift. His wife loved the piano at first, but then she came to miss her slaves. Sutter asked Charles' grandfather, whom he still owned, to carve the faces of his wife and child into the piano. He carved them, as well as various other figures in the family. Years after slavery's end, Berniece and Boy Willie's father became obsessed with the piano. They maintained that as long as the Sutters owned it, the family was in bondage. On July 4, 1911, he, Charles and Wining Boy stole it. Lynchers retaliated by setting his house of fire. He died escaping.
Willie and Lymon try to move the piano once Charles has finished the story. Berniece enters and begs her brother to stop for the sake of their family's legacy. Meanwhile, her daughter screams from upstairs that Sutter's ghost has returned. Later that day, Berniece asks Avery to bless the house, to exorcise Sutter's ghost. Avery asks her to donate the piano to the church choir, but she refuses so as not to disturb its ghosts. The final scene begins the next day. Willie has arranged for a buyer to collect the piano. He and Lymon begin to move it, inciting an argument with Berniece. She exits, reappearing with Crawley's gun. Sutter's ghost appears. Avery immediately moves to bless the piano and Boy Willie taunts him. Suddenly, Boy Willie and Sutter fight. Berniece realizes she must play the piano and sing the names of her ancestors to invoke their protection. Calm comes over the house and Sutter is gone. Willie agrees to leave, and he thanks his sister for saving him.
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