“The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson- Summary, Analysis, Characters & Themes

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About the Story: The Piano Lesson

TitleThe Piano Lesson
PlaywrightAugust Wilson
SettingPittsburgh, Pennsylvania, 1936
Time Period1930s
Major ConflictsThe conflict between Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano and Berniece’s desire to keep it, the conflict between the living and the spirits of the past, the conflict between African Americans and their white oppressors
Critical ReceptionPulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990
SignificanceExplores the African American experience in the 20th century and the importance of preserving family history

Analysis: The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson is a powerful play that explores the African American experience in the United States. The story revolves around a family heirloom, a piano, and the conflict between a brother and sister regarding its future.

It highlights the struggles of the characters as they grapple with their past and strive for a better future. Wilson skillfully weaves together history, culture, and personal relationships, creating a thought-provoking and emotionally resonant drama that offers insights into the complexities of identity and the cost of holding onto the past.

Characters: The Piano Lesson

The characters of “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson are:

  1. Boy Willie: He’s determined to sell the family piano to buy land. He’s ambitious and sometimes clashes with his sister, Berniece.
  2. Berniece: Boy Willie’s sister. She opposes selling the piano because of its sentimental value. She is protective of the family’s legacy.
  3. Doaker: Uncle to Boy Willie and Berniece, he lives with them. He serves as a narrator at times, sharing family history and insights.
  4. Avery: He’s a preacher and a potential love interest for Berniece. He’s focused on his religious calling but is willing to help the Charles family.
  5. Wining Boy: A wandering musician and friend of Boy Willie. He adds a touch of humor to the play.
  6. Maretha: Berniece’s daughter, who becomes entangled in the family conflict over the piano.
  7. Lymon: A friend of Boy Willie who helps him in his quest to sell the piano. He also becomes interested in Berniece.

Themes: The Piano Lesson

The themes of “The Piano Lesson” by August Wilson are:

  1. Legacy and Family History: The play explores the impact of a family’s history and the struggle to reconcile with the past, particularly through the family’s piano.
  2. Sacrifice for the Future: Characters grapple with the idea of sacrificing a valuable family heirloom, the piano, for a better future.
  3. Racial Injustice: The play touches on the African American experience, highlighting the challenges and injustices faced by the characters in a racially divided society.
  4. Spirituality and Tradition: Spiritual beliefs and cultural traditions play a significant role in the characters’ lives, influencing their decisions and perspectives.
  5. Economic Struggles: The characters confront economic hardships and the desire for financial stability, symbolized by the potential sale of the piano.
  6. Conflict and Resolution: The play explores internal and external conflicts within the family, addressing how these conflicts are resolved or persist over time.

Watch Full Video Summary of “The Piano Lesson”

The Piano Lesson Summary

Act 1: Setting the Stage

The play opens in the home of the Charles family, where siblings Berniece and Boy Willie clash over the fate of a valuable family heirloom – a piano. Boy Willie, recently arrived from the South, plans to sell the piano to buy land. Berniece, however, refuses to part with the piano, as it holds the painful history of their ancestors. The clash sets the stage for the central conflict of the play – the struggle between preserving heritage and the desire for economic progress.

The piano itself becomes a symbol of the family’s past, bearing intricate carvings that tell a haunting tale of slavery. As the act progresses, we learn about the family’s history and the ghostly presence of Sutter, the man who once owned the Charles family during slavery. The tension between past and present, legacy and progress, is palpable.

Act 2: Ghosts of the Past

In the second act, the play delves deeper into the history of the piano and the Charles family. Boy Willie’s friend, Lymon, joins the household, and the two attempt to sell the piano to a local buyer, Mr. Stovall. Meanwhile, Berniece seeks the guidance of a local preacher, Avery, in an attempt to exorcise the spiritual presence haunting the family.

The ghostly visitations escalate, with Sutter’s ghost making a physical appearance. This supernatural element heightens the stakes, emphasizing the weight of the family’s history and the impact it has on the present. The struggle between Boy Willie and Berniece becomes more intense as they grapple with the legacy of slavery and the question of whether to sell the piano or preserve it as a testament to their ancestors’ pain.

Act 3: Confrontation and Resolution

As tensions escalate, Act 3 brings the characters to a boiling point. The conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece reaches its climax when Boy Willie attempts to move the piano out of the house against Berniece’s wishes. The confrontation is both emotional and symbolic, representing the larger struggle within the African American community to reconcile the past with the present.

A key moment in this act is the appearance of the Ghosts of Yellow Dog, representing the violent past that haunts the family. The characters are forced to confront the trauma and legacy of slavery head-on. The piano becomes a focal point for this confrontation, embodying the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before.

In a pivotal scene, Berniece finally releases the pain and anger she has held onto for so long, allowing the spirits of the past to be put to rest. The resolution is bittersweet, with Boy Willie realizing the importance of preserving family history and deciding to leave the piano in the home. The act concludes with a sense of catharsis, as the characters come to terms with their past and look toward the future.

Epilogue: Legacy and Continuity

The play concludes with an epilogue that reflects on the legacy of the Charles family. The piano, once a source of contention, now stands as a symbol of resilience and continuity. The characters, having confronted the ghosts of the past, are poised to move forward with a greater understanding of their history.

The epilogue also touches on broader themes of African American identity and the ongoing struggle for equality. The Charles family’s journey becomes a microcosm of the larger societal challenges faced by the African American community during the 1930s. The play leaves the audience with a sense of hope and the belief that acknowledging and understanding one’s history is crucial for forging a better future.


What is The Piano about?

The Piano Lesson is about the conflict between preserving and selling a family heirloom piano that represents both the painful history of slavery and the potential for financial freedom.

What is the metaphor of The Piano Lesson?

The piano serves as a powerful metaphor for the legacy of slavery, the resilience of the African American spirit, and the importance of confronting one’s past in order to move forward.

What do the three hobos represent in The Piano Lesson?

The three hobos represent the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, the avenging spirits of those who were killed by Sutter, the man who stole the piano.

What is The Piano Lesson about slavery?

The Piano Lesson explores the legacy of slavery and the struggle to reconcile the past with the present.

What is the significance of the title The Piano Lesson?

The Piano Lesson’s title symbolizes the power of the past and the significance of family history, representing the struggle to reconcile the painful legacy of slavery with the pursuit of dreams in the present.

When was the piano stolen in The Piano Lesson?

The piano was stolen on July 4,1911.

What was the yellow dog in The Piano Lesson?

The yellow dog in The Piano Lesson is a symbol of slavery and the ghosts of the past.

What happened to Boy Charles in The Piano Lesson?

Boy Charles was lynched by a mob after stealing the Sutter piano from their home.

How was Sutter killed in The Piano Lesson?

Sutter’s death is left ambiguous, but it is implied that he was drowned in his own well by the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Who is the ghost in piano lesson?

The ghost in The Piano is the ghost of James Sutter, a white man who owned the piano and whose grandfather was a slave owner.

Who was Bernice married to in The Piano Lesson?

Bernice was married to Crawley.

What does Avery promise to do in the piano lesson?

Avery promises to return the next day and bless the house.

Is The Piano Lesson a good play?

Yes, The Piano Lesson is considered a good play due to its powerful storytelling, rich characters, and exploration of important themes.

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