The details provide a plot that is easily understood. The setting is basic, and the actions of the characters are straightforward. The play starts early in the morning with a loud ruckus, but after that the author does not go into detail about the length and time of the play. The play seems to take place over a long period, but in reality, only a short amount of time passes during the course of the story. “The brevity of the plots soon intensifies the drama of the events that unfold, while the kinds of details allow the audience an extraordinarily intimate glimpse of the family’s life.
The brevity of the time frame is an implicit contrast to the length of the family’s history, since the family [is] illiterate slaves, they [rely] upon storytelling, music, and art, rather than wiring, to recite and remember their joys and sorrows” (Galen 251). Even though the play’s plot takes place in a week, Wilson manages to clearly convey the simple details of the setting and dialogue. While there is no train whistle per se, the play begins on a note of movement, migration, and sound (Wardi 512). Boy Willie disturbingly knocks on the home of Doaker at five in the morning.
He has traveled from Mississippi to Pittsburgh on a train. In addition, Boy Willie uncontrollably calls Doaker’s name repeatedly. This call serves both “commencement and conclusion: in the final moments of the play, when Boy Willie asks, ‘Hey Doaker, what time the train leave? ’” (Wardi 512). Each time Boy Willie calls Doaker’s name the train is present which is ironic because Doaker is the cook on the train before he retires. Wilson deftly constructs a blues text that layers a narrative, loss, and resolution through movement (Wardi 512).
It is evident through the relationship of Boy Willie and Doaker because Doaker is the narrator of the stories during times of loss for the family, and he is present for the resolution at the beginning and end of the play. The family heirloom in The Piano Lesson, the old upright piano, is a “psychologically charged bas-relief illustrating the Charles clan’s progression from servitude to the Robert Sutter family to a hardy, enduring extended family serving the Great Depression” (Snodgrass 153). The piano is ironically the source of possible deaths because of its violent past.
Berniece believes the piano should be valued as a family artifact that is priceless. On the other hand, Boy Willie believes the piano is worth a significant dollar value. The conflict comes to a violent halt when Berniece walks downstairs with a shotgun which she points at Boy Willie while he and Lymon are trying to move the piano. The resolution of their enmity requires Lymon, the outsider, to invoke family and community harmony at the end of the disagreement by declaring it will take more than two people to move the piano (Snodgrass 154).
This creates a hurdle for Boy Willie to move the piano, yet he stays confident in his argument against Berniece. Lastly, the piano is a major symbol and focal point of the entire play. The piano is figuratively and literally carrying the weight of the Charles’s family history. This is revealed when Boy Charles believes that the piano is a symbol of “the story of our whole family and as long as Sutter [has] it, we [is] still in slavery” (Galens 248).
The instrument’s “bountiful but painful heritage is sculpted into the rich wood as human figures whose knife drawn features suggest both the pride of African culture and the grotesque scars of slavery” (Galens 254). The piano has a deeper meaning behind its carvings, which create the different perspectives of the worth of the piano between Berniece and Boy Willie. When the piano is traded for the value of two human lives, the soul of the piano dies, but as the carvings are etched into the legs, a sense of life comes back to the piano.
The piano represents a disconnection between cultures and the value of human life in the 1930’s. The carvings tell a story about a slave family through scenes of extraordinary events in the Charles’s family history. The presence of Berniece’s ancestors are expressed literally because as a child she believes that the pictures come alive and walk around inside her house (Bissiri 104). The carvings bring life to the piano giving it a soul and a purpose. On one hand, Boy Willie believes that selling the piano will provide a way for the family to own their own land.
He believes that it is time they own land instead of work on land. His argument starts by stating that Berniece never plays the piano anymore; therefore, it is useless. Boy Willie approaches Berniece like Eddie Haskell when he says, “Why should not an unused piano be sold to purchase productive land” (Galens 247). Boy Willie not only wants to win the argument, but he would like to see the family share a family possession that can be productive. Rather than anguish over the piano as a burden of the past, the brother wants to use the instrument as a positive means of financial and personal betterment (Snodgrass 156).
This is the way Boy Willie believes he is respecting his ancestors and especially his father. On the other hand, Berniece feels strongly about preserving the piano and is stubborn to any thought of selling or moving the piano. She believes that the piano must be kept in the family and never be sold because her father gave his life for it (Elam 362). Oddly, Berniece does not play the piano anymore but she wants her daughter Maretha to play the piano. Berniece claims that she only plays the piano while her widowed mother is alive, but when she dies she quits because Berniece is bitter about the pain it brings to the family (Galens 247).
This reveals that although resentment has built up over the years, Berniece feels a restoration of her family history when the piano is playing. In the final scene of the play, Bernice plays the piano because she must make her ancestors come alive in order to exorcise Sutter’s ghost. At that moment, a peace comes over the family connecting them to their history. This reconnection is key for the family to move forward in their life. Music is another element of The Piano Lesson that symbolizes the history of pain and freedom in the Charles Family.
The piano is sparingly played during the play: once by Boy Willie, Maretha, Wining Boy, and Berniece. The other form of music in the play is the popular scene of the four men singing “Oh Berta” while sitting around the kitchen table. That scene serves as an agent of cultural memory, bringing those latent recollections of trauma to the fore (Wardi 513). The playing or singing of music expresses how the characters feel about the events of the past. Before the men start to sing, they are talking about the days of slavery on Parchman “Prison” Farm.
The song “Oh Berta” links the past, present, and future together to reveal that surveillance and control are the chords that anchor the characters’ lives, as they play their own solos and riffs on the theme of slavery and incarceration (Wardi 509). Not only do the men sing, but Doaker also picks up pots and pans as instruments to represent his past as a cook on the train. The meaning behind the words and notes in The Piano Lesson serves as a reminder of continuing oppression and denial of Civil Rights (Wardi 512).
While the men enjoy singing the lyrics in harmony, they unfortunately feel a sense of loss and depression from the memories. The Civil Rights Movement is responsible for a significant amount of American Literature and The Piano Lesson is no exception. Anecdotes, irony, and symbolism depict African American families during the 1900’s. The Reader Response Theory is apparent in August Wilson’s renowned play and draws personal significance to the plight of African Americans and slavery.