The Piano Lesson is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, with all the action taking place in the house of Doaker
. A 137-year-old, upright piano, decorated with totems in the manner of African sculpture,
dominates the parlor.
The play opens at dawn. Boy Willie
, Doaker's nephew, knocks at the door and enters with his partner,
. Two have come from Mississippi to sell watermelons. Willie has not seen his sister Berniece
who lives with Doaker, for three years as he has been serving a sentence on the Parchman Prison Farm.
Willie asks his uncle for a celebratory drink: the Ghosts
of the Yellow Dog have drowned Sutter in his
own well. Willie intends to sell the family piano and use the money to buy Sutter's land, the land his
ancestors once worked as slaves. Doaker, however, is sure Berniece will not part with the piano
Brown—a preacher who has been courting Berniece since her husband Crawley died—
has already tried to get her to sell it. Willie schemes to get in touch with the prospective buyer himself.
Suddenly Berniece cries out off-stage, "Go on get away." Berniece claims she has seen Sutter's ghost,
calling Boy Willie's name. She is convinced that her brother pushed Sutter into the well. Shaken, she
refuses to cooperate with his plans.
Three days later, Doaker's brother Wining Boy
, a wandering, washed-up recording star, sits at the
kitchen table discussing the recent events with the men. Wining Boy mentions that he heard Willie and
Lymon were on Parchman Farm. Willie explains that some whites had tried to chase Willie, Lymon,
and Berniece's husband Crawley from some wood they were pilfering. Crawley fought back and was
killed while the other two went to prison. The men reminisce about Parchman and sing an old work
Doaker then explains the piano's history to Lymon. During slavery, a man named Robert Sutter, the
recently deceased-Sutter's grandfather, owned the Charles family. He wanted to make an anniversary
present out of his friend's piano but could not afford it. Thus he traded a full and half grown slave—
Doaker's grandmother Berniece and his father—for the instrument. Though initially Sutter's wife loved
the piano, she eventually came to miss her slaves, falling desperately ill. So, Sutter asked Doaker's
grandfather, Willie Boy, to carve the faces of his wife and child into the piano. Willie Boy did not only
carve his immediately family, however, but included his mother, father, and various scenes from the
Years after slavery, Berniece and Boy Willie's father, Boy Charles, developed an obsession over the
piano, believing that as long as the Sutters held it, they held the family in bondage. Thus, on July 4,
1911, he, Doaker, and Wining Boy stole it. Later that day, lynchers set Boy Charles's house on fire. He
fled to catch the Yellow Dog, but the mob stopped the train and set his boxcar on fire. Boy Charles
died along with the hobos in his car, all of whom became the ghosts of the railroad.
Once Doaker has finished his story, Willie and Lymon attempt to move the piano. Berniece enters and