The Piano Lesson By August Wilson Journal

Prompt 2: The Piano Lesson and the Blues

The blues is described as a uniquely African American musical tradition, combining folk music, traditional work songs once sun by slaves, jazz, and other musical traditions to describe both personal suffering and to create an oral history of all individuals who have sung it. In August Wilson’s 1986 play The Piano Lesson, an heirloom piano comes to embody the blues tradition for its central protagonists Boy Willie and his sister Berniece. Whether to transform the piano into money, as Boy Willie wishes to do, or to save it, becomes symbolic of the role of the blues in African American history and society. The blues, like the piano itself, is problematic because of its ties to the history of slavery, but it cannot be nor should not be eradicated, given the loss this will create for the community.

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The piano was carved by African American slave, and is an important part of the family legacy and history. While the family are sharecroppers during the Great Depression, and facing dire economic straits on one hand, the piano contains carved images of the family’s ancestors, symbolizing a vital link with the past Bernice believes must be preserved (44). Bernice, interestingly enough, is not a musician herself. One character explicitly says, Berniece “don’t play that type of music,” that was once heard coming from the piano, in other words the ancestral music of the blues (57). But Berniece still feels a connection and a bond the piano that other characters in the play do not, even though the piano’s legacy is mixed.

The legacy of the piano is so problematic because is both a product of slavery and also, the audience learns, possibly haunted. Sutter, the piano’s original owner, is said to have been seen playing the piano, even though he is dead. Boy Willie is accused of killing Sutter for money (4). The reason the piano was carved with images of the family was because the two slaves, a mother and child, were sold by a slave-owner to pay for the piano, and the husband of the broken family carved images of the missing man and woman as company for the slave-owner’s wife who missed her slaves (44). The problematic legacy of slavery itself is thus carved into the piano, given that its beautiful designs and intricate carpentry would not exist without it. “It ain’t done nothing but cause trouble,” says Doaker, Berniece’s uncle (57). However, it is a form of trouble that the family cannot be rid of without entirely sacrificing its connection to the past.

At the end of the play, Berniece appears with a shotgun, preventing her brother from removing the piano. Berniece gains a sense of independence and empowerment she lacked before, and effectively gets her way (98). Finally, the men show her respect, and the fact she dislikes their drinking and shiftless ways. By defending the piano, Berniece is defending the legacy she loves, her place in the family, and herself. “I’m fixing to play me some piano,” says Winning Boy, one of the older members of the family who appreciates its legacy and who is heartened by Berniece’s preservation of the instrument (99).

It should be noted that Wilson’s The Piano Lesson recognizes that holding onto the past can be problematic. Winning Boy, for example, is shown be a comical figure because of his inability to get rid of the past and move on. Berniece teaches her daughter Maretha to play piano but refuses her to burden her with the memory of her history and the piano’s troubled legacy. While Boy Willie’s focus on money and money alone is shown to be wrong, a focus on the past alone is not a viable way of moving forward and living in the world for the next generation.

Works Cited

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. Turtleback Books, 1990.



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