The Piano Lesson

Setting:  1936
Written:  1986
Huntington Production:  1988

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  • AVERY: Thirty-eight years old, Avery is a preacher who is trying to build up his congregation. He is honest and ambitious, finding himself opportunities in the city that were unavailable to him in rural areas of the South. While fervently religious, he manages to find the time to court Bernice after her husband’s death.
  • BOY WILLIE: Brother to Bernice, Boy Willie is a thirty-year-old brash, impulsive, and fast-talking man. He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name. His story provides the central conflict for the play in that he plans to sell the family piano in order to buy land that his family worked on as slaves. He feels it’s important he does this in order to avenge his father, who grew up property-less—but not everyone in the family agrees.
  • LYMON: Boy Willie’s long time friend is a twenty-nine year old who speaks little, but when he does with a disarming straight-forwardness. As he flees the law, he makes a plan to begin anew in the North. Eliciting stories from the families past, Lymon proves a vehicle by which we learn about the family. He is also a big fan of women, and plays a part in helping Bernice move on from her husband’s death.
  • BERNIECE: Bernice, Boy Willie’s older sister, is a thirty-five year old widow who blames the death of her husband three years prior, on her brother. She resents her brother’s bravado and chides him for his rebellious ways. She doesn’t want to sell the piano, but also has no intention of playing it. She has an eleven-year-old daughter, Maretha.
  • DOAKER: Doaker is the tall, thin, forty-seven year old uncle to Bernice and Boy Willie. He has worked for the railroad his whole life—first laying rail and then as a cook. He functions as the family patriarch and the play’s oral historian, recounting stories, many about the piano’s history. The play takes place in the house that Doaker owns, and while he won’t take a side on whether to sell the piano, he does step in when things begin to get out of hand.
  • WINING BOY: Doaker’s wily, carefree brother who shows up in town and stays with the family whenever he is a bit down on his luck. He used to play the piano and made his livelihood making music, but quit that life when he decided he no longer wanted to be an entertainer. Despite this, he is protective of the piano.

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Act I:  The play is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, in the house that Doaker Charles, a railroad cook, shares with his niece, Berniece, and Berniece’s eleven year old daughter, Maretha.  Both Doaker and Berniece have come to Pittsburgh from the South.  Although the house is sparsely furnished, there is one extraordinary item whose presence dominates its surroundings:  an old upright piano, whose legs have been carved in the manner of African sculpture, with mask-like figures resembling totems.  Powerfully rendered, the carvings make the piano into a work of art. 

One morning, Doaker is awakened before dawn by someone calling his name outside his window.  It is Boy Willie, Berniece’s younger brother, who has arrived unexpectedly after having driven for two days from Mississippi with his friend, Lymon Jackson.  Both in need of money, Boy Willie and Lymon have come with a truck full of watermelons to sell.  Boy Willie plans to return to the South with his earnings; Lymon, who is on the run from the law, wants to make a new life for himself in the North.

Boy Willie, once he has awakened Doaker, starts yelling for his sister to come down.  Although it’s been three years since Berniece has seen Boy Willie, she greets him with irritation and stand-offishness.  Boy Willie has spent the past three years at Parchman Farm, a Mississippi correctional facility, and is clearly seen as trouble by his sister.  When Boy Willie tells them that Sutter, the man whose family used to own the Charles family during Slavery, has fallen into a well and drowned, Berniece suspects Boy Willie of having murdered him.  Berniece goes back to her bedroom, telling Boy Willie and Lymon she wants them to sell their watermelons and head back home.

Boy Willie tells Doaker that the reason he needs money is that Sutter’s brother, businessman from Chicago, has offered to sell Sutter’s land to Boy Willie.  While he can get some of what he needs by selling watermelons, Boy Willie plans to get the rest by selling the piano, which he owns jointly with Berniece.  Doaker tells Boy Willie that Berniece will never sell it, and that she has already been offered a good price for the piano when Avery, a preacher who has been courting Berniece, once send a man to the house to look at it so that he could get money to finance his church.  Berniece turned him down.  Boy Willie decides to find out from Avery who it was that made the offer. 

Suddenly, a scream is heard from upstairs.  Berniece enters, running and unable to speak.  When Berniece catches her breath, she claims to have seen Sutter’s ghost at the top of the stairs, calling Boy Willie’s name.  Boy Willie mocks Berniece, and tells her it was all in her head.  Berniece says she believes Sutter came looking for Boy Willie because it was Boy Willie who pushed him down the well.  As she vents her anger at Boy Willie, it becomes clear that much of her feeling toward him comes from the fact that she blames him for the death of her husband, Crawley, who was shot when he went with Boy Willie and Lymon to steal some wood from where Boy Willie was working.  She orders Boy Willie out of the house.  Boy Willie agrees to leave as soon as he sells his watermelons. 

Doaker starts cooking breakfast, and Maretha comes downstairs to get ready for school.  Avery comes by to pick up Berniece, who is going with him to the bank from which he is seeking a loan to start his church.  Until he gets that going, he is working as an elevator operator in one of the new skyscrapers downtown.  Boy Willie asks Avery about the man who wanted to buy the piano, and tries to get him name, but Avery no longer remembers it.  Berniece and Avery leave together, taking Maretha with them.

Lymon and Boy Willie go off to try to sell their watermelons, but their truck breaks down, and they have to leave it in the shop for a day for repair.  They return to Doaker’s to find that Doaker’s older brother, Wining Boy, has unexpectedly arrived from Kansas City for a visit on his way down South, having learned by letter that the woman who he once loved and lived with has passed away.  Wining Boy is a piano player, who once made a few records, but he now spends his time gambling and drinking.  When Boy Willie tells Wining Boy about Sutter falling in his well, Wining Boy says he believes it was the ghosts of the Yellow Dog that got him, like they got three other men, all of whom were involved in a violent incident long ago.

Boy Willie tells Wining Boy about his plan to sell the piano.  Doaker describes for Lymon the history of the piano, and the reasons why Berniece will never sell it.  During slavery, their family was owned by Robert Sutter, the grandfather of the Sutter whose land Boy Willie is hoping to buy.  Robert Sutter was the original owner of the piano, which he acquired in exchange for “one and a half” slaves—Doaker’s grandmother, and his father, who at that time was a child of nine.  The two of them were sent off to Georgia, while Doaker’s grandfather, Willie Boy, remained at Sutter’s farm by himself.

Willie Boy was a woodworker for Sutter, so skilled that people from around the region would pay Sutter to have Willie Boy make furniture for them.  One day, Sutter asked Willie Boy to set his skill to work on the piano, and so Willie Boy carved the legs, using images of his wife and son as he remembered them, as well as images of other members of his family.

After emancipation, Doaker’s grandmother and father were reunited with Willie Boy, and they became sharecroppers on Stovall’s farm, a farm not far from Sutter’s.  It was there that Doaker, Wining Boy, and their eldest brother, Boy Charles, the father of Berniece and Boy Willie, grew up.

Boy Charles had never forgotten the piano his grandfather had carved.  He felt the piano rightfully belonged to their family, and decided one day to steal it out of Sutter’s house.  Because Stovall’s farm abutted the train tracks, boy Charles had gotten to know some of the hobos who hitched rides back and forth on the Yellow Dog line.  He got some of them together, and on the Fourth of July in 1911, when they knew Sutter would be gone to the county’s annual Fourth of July picnic, they all took the piano from Sutter’s house, loaded it on a wagon, and hid it with Boy Charles’s relatives in the next county.  Afterward, Boy Charles and his hobo helpers jumped on the Yellow Dog and headed out of town.

When Sutter found the piano was missing, he and some local men had the train stopped to look for the piano.  They found no piano, but they did find Boy Charles and three hobos hiding out in a boxcar.  The boxcar was set on fire and all four of them were killed. 

Nobody knew for certain who was responsible for setting the boxcar on fire.  Two months later, however, a man named Bob McGrath mysteriously fell into his well and was drowned.  People said it was the ghosts of the four men killed in the boxcar getting their revenge.  Since then, Sutter, the grandson of the Sutter who owned the piano originally, was the fourth man to die mysteriously by falling in his well.

Berniece, Doaker explains, will never sell the piano because her father died for it.  Boy Willie believes the best thing he can do for his father’s memory is to do what his father never had the chance to:  farm his own land.  He believes his father died to give him that chance, by leaving him the piano, which can be the key to his future.

When Berniece returns with Maretha, it comes out the Boy Willie wants to sell the piano toe get the money to buy Sutter’s land.  Berniece firmly tells Boy Willie that she won’t sell the piano, and that he might just as well go home.  “Money can’t buy you what that piano cost,” she tells him.  “You can’t sell your soul for money.”  She blames Boy Willie again for what happened to her husband.  Boy Willie denies it, but all of Berniece’s pent up bitterness at the needless deaths, first of her father, then of her husband, comes pouring out in one vast flood, and she attacks Boy Willie, hitting and punching him until suddenly Maretha is heard screaming upstairs:  she believes that she has seen Sutter’s ghost.  Boy Willie tries to assist her, followed by Berniece and Doaker.

Act II:  It is the next day.  Doaker is in the kitchen cooking when Wining Boy, always short on money, returns from downtown, where he has tried unsuccessfully to pawn his silk suit.  Boy Willie and Lymon have fixed the truck, and have been out all day selling watermelons.  Berniece has been urging Boy Willie to leave, thinking that if he leaves, Sutter’s ghost will follow him.  Doaker has not told Berniece, however, that he saw Sutter’s ghost in the house, sitting at the piano, two weeks before Boy Willie even came.  He appeared just as Berniece had described him:  wearing a blue suit, with his hand on his head.  Doaker thinks that it is the piano that attracts Sutter’s ghost, not Boy Willie.

Boy Willie and Lymon return to the house after selling all of their watermelons, with their pockets full of money.  Lymon buys Wining Boy’s silk suit, and after changing into his new outfit, he and Boy Willie go out to try and meet some women.

Later that evening, Berniece is home along, preparing to take a bath and go to bed when Avery stops by.  Berniece had asked him to come and see if he could somehow bless the house or do something to get rid of Sutter’s ghost.  Avery agrees to research the problem and stop by tomorrow to see what he could do.  Before he leaves, Avery tries to convince Berniece that they should get married, but Berniece says she isn’t ready, and becomes angry when Avery tries to suggest that what she needs in life to make her happy is a man.  Avery leaves, frustrated that Berniece once again has made an excuse to delay their engagement.

Several hours later, after Berniece has gone to bed, Boy Willie returns home accompanied by Grace, a woman he has met in a bar downtown.  As Boy Willie attempts to persuade Grace to stay the night with him, Berniece is awakened.  Berniece tells Boy Willie he must take Grace somewhere else because she doesn’t allow that kind of thing in her house.  After they leave, Lymon comes home looking for Boy Willie.  He tells Berniece that all he found downtown were women who wanted to drink up all his money.  He gives Berniece a bottle of perfume he bought to give to whatever woman let him take her to the movies.  Something about Lymon touches Berniece, and when Lymon begins to caress her, she doesn’t try to stop him in the way she stopped Avery just a short time earlier. 

Boy Willie returns the next morning all excited and wakes Lymon up.  He has found the man who was interested in buying the piano, and has agreed to give Boy Willie $1,150 for it.  Boy Willie has promised the man that he would deliver it, and is anxious to get the piano moved out before Berniece comes back and tries to stop them.  The piano is too heavy for them to move by themselves.  Doaker returns home and tells Boy Willie not to move the piano until Berniece comes home.  Boy Willie says he’ll leave it just until he can find a plank and some wheels, but that then he’s taking it out. 

By the time Boy Willie gets back with the plank and wheels, Berniece and Maretha have returned.  Berniece is telling Doaker how she and Avery have decided to get married.  When Berniece discovers Boy Willie’s plan to move the piano, she threatens him, but he will not be deterred.

Lymon returns to help Boy Willie move the piano, accompanied by Grace, who has agreed to go to the movies with him.  Boy Willie and Lymon start to move the piano.  Berniece goes to her room and returns with a gun, and they continue to argue.  Grace, who has been waiting for Lymon in the truck, comes to the door to hurry him up.  Lymon leaves to take Grace home, and Boy Willie, obsessed with the idea of selling the piano and getting his money, tries to continue on by himself.  Avery, who has stopped by with his Bible to try to exorcise Sutter’s ghost, begins saying blessings and sprinkling holy water over the piano, which Doaker has told him is the root of their troubles.  Boy Willie laughs at Avery, saying that there isn’t any ghost.  He grabs a pot of water in mockery of Avery and starts flinging it around the room, calling out to Sutter’s ghost.  Suddenly some unseen but very real force seems to push Boy Willie.  As Boy Willie begins to defend himself against the unseen spirit, the others in their own way leap into action.  Avery begins praying louder.  Berniece crosses to the piano and begins to play, pleading with the Lord to help them.  Boy Willie, still wrestling with some unseen force, has caused it to retreat up the stairs.  Boy Willie calls Sutter’s name and chases upstairs after it.

(From the Huntington’s Curriculum Guide for The Piano Lesson)

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