The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson (The Century Cycle #4) by August Wilson (1990)

the piano lesson

Theatre | Drama | Historical Paranormal3.5 StarsBlurb:

“At the heart of the play stands the ornately carved upright piano which, as the Charles family’s prized, hard-won possession, has been gathering dust in the parlor of Berniece Charles’s Pittsburgh home. When Boy Willie, Berniece’s exuberant brother, bursts into her life with his dream of buying the same Mississippi land that his family had worked as slaves, he plans to sell their antique piano for the hard cash he needs to stake his future. But Berniece refuses to sell, clinging to the piano as a reminder of the history that is their family legacy. This dilemma is the real “piano lesson,” reminding us that blacks are often deprived both of the symbols of their past and of opportunity in the present. 

August Wilson has already given the American theater such spell-binding plays about the black experience in 20th-century America as Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning, Fences. In his second Pulitzer Prize-winner, The Piano Lesson, Wilson has fashioned his most haunting and dramatic work yet. ”

pooled ink Review:

Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, brings interesting views, struggles, and realities of black life in 20th Century America composing a compelling and spellbinding play that widens the mind and raises questions in any audience member black, white, or otherwise.

an excerpt from my college essay:

August Wilson writes a play that incorporates fantastical elements such as mysticism, ghosts, and exorcism that are interwoven flawlessly with the more familiar elements including family, romance, and money. Throughout The Piano Lesson, however, one object touches the lives and choices of every character in the play: the mysterious, ornately carved piano. This leads to a major theme in the play: what to do with one’s legacy? This seemingly simple question causes tensions to arise, relationships to strain as far as only familial relationships can strain without breaking, and thus the spark lights the fuse and races towards the abrupt and inevitably explosive ending of the play.

The Piano Lesson seems to be shared by Berniece and Boy Willie but if one character must be chosen then this would be Boy Willie’s play. Berniece provides opposition but remains stagnant until the end while through Boy Willie’s arrival and presence the conflict arises and the plot moves forwards. Although Berniece is a major character the movement of the play largely occurs through the failed attempts, schemes, ideas, and emotions of Boy Willie and the issue of the piano once resolved within him is resolved in the play.

The legacy in this story is the piano paid for in blood, stolen in a sign of symbolic freedom of the Charles’ from the Sutters, and in it was carved the Charles family history. The piano was cared for and passed down along with its history.

What to do with one’s legacy? This remains a relevant question today as children still receive heirlooms and must decide what to do with them. Berniece sees the piano as a firm reminder of their history. The piano itself is not the whole legacy but the people it cost as well. “Suffering is literally engraved into the piano” (Isherwood, New York Times). As such Berniece firmly believes the Charles family story must be honored through silent remembrance and preservation of the piano. She seems stuck in the past, unable to share the story to Maretha, unable to marry Avery, and unable to give away something so precious to her mother.

In contrast Boy Willie constantly pursues the dream of equal footing with the white man to which Winning Boy replies, “Ain’t no difference as far as how somebody is supposed to treat you” but the difference between the colored man and the white man is “The colored man can’t fix nothing with the law” (Wilson 41; 1.2). He struggles with his place in society and attempts to overcome it by purchasing the Sutters’ land. This leads to his search for money and his plot to sell the piano. While Berniece fights to preserve the piano and the past, Boy Willie fights to use the piano to fulfill his future. Part of his desire for the piano can perhaps also be described as a desire for vengeance for if he can sell the piano then he can own the land where his forefathers were once enslaved. This play suggests that men are the makers of history and women are the mourners of history but perhaps it is important to do both.

Is one sibling more justified in their plans than the other? They both present valid arguments in what to do with one’s legacy but perhaps the ending of the play truly sums up the best solution. Berniece stops imprisoning her family’s history through silence and allows the truth to permeate the present as the story is shared and the piano is played. This scene in a dramatic moment releases the dusty mystery of the silent piano by releasing the cries of their ancestors and showing the fight between the Charles’ and the Sutters.

Isherwood of The New York Times felt that “flaws are often part of the fabric of even the greatest plays. Here the tense dramatic climax toward which the play moves is resolved with an abruptness that pulls us up short.” While the ending is abrupt it is not dissatisfying. In fact, without the abrupt resolution the play is in danger of becoming wordy and overly philosophical by attempting to explain every loose end. This would take away from the simple drama of it all and would not do much for the plot of the story itself. Instead the play cuts short and the audience is left to ponder its meaning and the experience they’ve just had.

With Sutter’s ghost cast out of their home, Boy Willie finds peace in knowing that their family’s struggles are no longer hushed up but are shared proudly as the piano will once again be played. The piano lesson is perhaps a lesson that teaches Berniece and Boy Willie exactly what to do with their legacy of the physical piano but more importantly the legacy of their family’s past. The living must draw strength and wisdom from the past, consider the present, and step forward into the future or more simply one must let go but never forget.

August Wilson in an interview with The Believer shares, “…black life, that’s who I am – I’m gonna express that. That’s what I want my art to be about.” His success is evident in Isherwood’s review when he describes The Piano Lesson as a “full-hearted and wide-ranging depiction of the harsh, heady jumble of life – the diurnal beauty and the overriding mystery, the shadowing pain and the exalting pleasure.” Playwright Wilson was successful with his goal as this play can be read and appreciated by any culture but is told as a truth of black life.


amazon icon_tiny Purchase here: The Piano Lesson 

Meet August Wilson!

august wilson

August Wilson was an American playwright. His literary legacy is the ten play series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, for which he received two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Each is set in a different decade, depicting the comic and tragic aspects of the African-American experience in the twentieth century.

Website | Goodreads

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