The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary



It's 5 a.m. The Charles household is awakened by someone pounding on the door and yelling, "Hey, Doaker!" and "Hey, Berniece!" Doaker Charles answers the door to find his nephew Boy Willie and Willie's friend Lymon. The two men have just arrived from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to sell in Pittsburgh. Boy Willie yells for Berniece, and Doaker tells him to be quiet. Berniece has to work later in the morning and wants her sleep. Unfortunately, all the conversation has waked Berniece, who comes downstairs and tells her brother off for making so much noise and bothering the neighbors. Boy Willie isn't concerned. He tells Doaker to get out a bottle: "Me and Lymon celebrating. The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter." Three weeks earlier, he says, a 340-pound man called Sutter drowned in his own well, and "Everybody say the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog pushed him." Berniece suspects it was people who did the pushing, not ghosts. She also wonders pointedly where Boy Willie acquired the truck. When both he and Lymon say Lymon bought it, she's skeptical. Doaker says they wouldn't have driven there in a stolen truck, but they might have stolen the watermelons. Willie says they paid "old man Pitterford" $10 ($177 adjusted for inflation) for as many watermelons as they could load. Doaker reckons they have about 500. Boy Willie wants to see his niece, and yells, "Hey, Maretha!" Berniece shushes him and goes back upstairs.

Boy Willie asks after Doaker's brother, Wining Boy. Doaker says Wining Boy showed up about eight months earlier and stayed with them for two weeks; he didn't leave till Berniece asked him for $3 ($53 adjusted for inflation) to buy food. Boy Willie explains to Lymon Wining Boy used to play piano for a living and even made a couple of records. He tells Doaker Wining Boy turned up in Mississippi two years earlier, but since Willie and Lymon were each serving a three-year prison sentence then, they didn't see him. Doaker says you only ever see Wining Boy when he's run out of money.

Lymon spots the upright piano in the room and asks Boy Willie, "Is that the piano?" Boy Willie points out the carvings on it and how highly polished it is. Lymon says it looks "real nice," but he got tired of hearing about it on the trip north. Boy Willie explains Sutter's brother has offered to sell him the last hundred acres of Sutter's land and will wait two weeks for Boy Willie to get the money together. He has a third of the asking price already and figures he'll get another third from selling the melons and the last third from selling the piano. Doaker says Berniece will never sell. Avery, Doaker says, tried to convince her to sell it to help him in setting up a church, but she refused. Avery even sent "some white fellow" to the house who "offered her a nice price." Boy Willie decides he's going to find that man and sell him the piano; after all, he "own[s] just as much of it as she does."

Upstairs Berniece screams for Doaker, adding "Go on get away." She runs in. When she can manage to speak, she says she saw Sutter's ghost at the top of the stairs. He had his hand on his head as if he was trying to hold it in place, he was wearing a blue suit, and he was calling Boy Willie's name. Berniece thinks Boy Willie pushed Sutter in the well, but he denies it. She wants him to leave. He "bring[s] trouble with" him wherever he goes, she says; her husband would still be alive if not for him. Boy Willie counters Sutter wasn't looking for him; he was looking for the piano. If she wants Sutter to leave her alone, she should sell it. Berniece tells him to go sell the melons and then leave. She exits to get Maretha ready for school.

Doaker believes Berniece has seen Sutter. The three men talk about Doaker's career with the railroad. He says before becoming a cook, he worked on the track. He put together the Yellow Dog, he says, "stitch by stitch." He's making breakfast, and gives each of the other men a piece of toast. Maretha comes downstairs, and Boy Willie and Lymon talk about how much she's grown. Boy Willie gets her to play him something on the piano and finds out she doesn't know the piano's history. He tells her to ask her mother about the carvings on it.

Avery arrives. He's wearing a suit and a gold cross on a chain around his neck and carrying a Bible. Avery used to do farm work with Boy Willie and Lymon. Boy Willie wants to know why Avery decided to be a preacher, and Avery explains it started with a dream in which he volunteered to protect a group of people with sheep heads from a valley full of wolves. He intends to call his church Good Shepherd. Boy Willie asks about the man who wanted to buy the piano, but Avery has forgotten his name. Berniece and Maretha come back downstairs. Berniece is going to the bank with Avery; he's planning on taking out a loan to start his church. Boy Willie asks her for the name of the man who wants to buy the piano and explains why he wants to sell it. Berniece says she won't sell.


Scene 1 introduces all but two of the characters in The Piano Lesson. The first few lines set up the conflict that will carry through to the final scene—the confrontation between the cocksure, sketchy, and determined Boy Willie and his steady, law-abiding, and equally determined sister, Berniece. However, the clash between the brother and sister is implicit rather than explicit for most of the first scene. From the start, it's clear their personalities are very different. Boy Willie is loud and perfectly content to wake up not only the Charles household but their neighbors as well with his pounding and yelling. His uncle Doaker, who must also find this early morning intrusion annoying, warns Boy Willie that Berniece is sleeping and has to work in the morning, but Boy Willie doesn't care. He just goes to the stairs and hollers for her again. The audience recognizes Boy Willie is focused on his own concerns and doesn't stop to think about others' needs. This is typical of his character throughout the play. For example, he has used Lymon to supply transportation and will continue to do so while taking only a passing interest in Lymon's plans and desires. It is also in Boy Willie's own interest to convince Maretha to give up learning the piano and to learn guitar instead.

Since Boy Willie has just driven all the way from Mississippi to Pittsburgh, the audience might expect Berniece to welcome her brother with pleasure, even at 5 a.m. But that's not how she reacts. She's immediately angry with him not only for his noisy early-morning arrival, but also for being there at all. Her opinion of him is so low she readily accuses him of stealing the watermelons and of murdering Sutter. The audience realizes there's a history between the siblings, but it's one that will not begin to come to light until the next scene. The conflict between the two escalates when Boy Willie announces his plan to sell the piano so he can buy Sutter's land. All the audience learns about the piano in Scene 1 is it has been beautifully carved, there's a white man willing to pay good money for it, and, of course, that although she doesn't play it, Berniece won't sell. Why she won't sell becomes clear in Scene 2.

In addition to Berniece and Boy Willie, the first scene introduces three other important characters: Doaker, Lymon, and Avery. Like Berniece, Doaker and Avery live in Pittsburgh; Lymon hopes to live there also. They are four of the more than six million African Americans who left the South during the Great Migration of the early and mid-20th century—searching for work and freedom in the cities of other regions. Berniece, Doaker, and Avery are fortunate rather than typical; even though it's 1936 and the country will not recover from the Great Depression for another few years, all three have jobs. No one can say whether Lymon will be as lucky.

Lymon and his friend Boy Willie are alike in several ways. Their backgrounds are similar in that both are farmworkers; both have also been involved in criminal activities and served time in prison. Now both have high hopes for the future. Lymon wants to find work and freedom from persecution in Pittsburgh, and Boy Willie wants to buy land back home in Mississippi and have the freedom to plant, tend, and sell his own crops. Lymon, however, has retained an optimistic and easy-going attitude that eludes the members of the Charles family. Although he is determined to pursue a brighter future for himself, he is happy to go along with others in any immediate plans—as long as they don't get in the way of his own. As a result, he will help Boy Willie until he recognizes Boy Willie's plans run counter to his own—a realization that comes in the last scene of the play. Lymon is also a much quieter person than Boy Willie. He listens more than he talks; in fact, he spends much of the first act listening and quietly responding to others' ideas and proposals. Lymon's own thoughts and dreams will be revealed in Act 2.

Doaker, in contrast to his nephew and Lymon, has no desire and no need to go beyond his career with the railroad. He can count on keeping the job since, as he says in Scene 1, he's been with the railroad for 27 years and the railroad is a growing business: "whichever way you decide to go they got a railroad that will take you there." Doaker seems a staid, sometimes even boring man. He thinks people should stay on track and if they remained "in one place ... this would be a better world." However, he has surprising depths. Not only does he serve as a repository of the family's history, but as will become clear later, his outward equanimity covers bitterness and a racial anger that has led him to commit criminal acts.

Avery is another Mississippi man who has moved to Pittsburgh and is pursuing very specific goals. He wants to raise money to open a church and is already working to gather a congregation. He seems to awaken admiration and ridicule in equal amounts in the other characters. The dream that prompts Avery's decision to become a preacher is full of humorous images, such as the people who "all had sheep heads and was making noise like sheep make." At the same time, though, in the African tradition, which values portents and spirits, such a dream is a persuasive reason for deciding to become a preacher. A dream is one of the ways in which the spirits communicate with the living. What's more, like being a railroad man, being a preacher is a secure position. In fact, it's even more highly respected.

Finally, Scene 1 briefly introduces Berniece's 11-year-old daughter, Maretha, one of the two minor characters in The Piano Lesson. At the beginning of the play, Maretha is the only member of the household who plays the family piano and whose future would be impacted by Boy Willie's plans. If Boy Willie sells the piano, Maretha's training as a piano player—and her future career as a piano teacher—would come to an end.

August Wilson is adept at portraying complicated and authentic family relationships. This is clear in the way the bickering between Boy Willie and Berniece picks up as if they had last seen each other three weeks ago rather than three years ago. It's also apparent in the easy camaraderie between Boy Willie and his uncle Doaker and Boy Willie's affection for his niece, Maretha.

Wilson also infuses his plays with an easy humor that evokes surprised laughter when it appears in a serious context. Boy Willie's insistence on waking Berniece right after he's been warned not to is an example of the childish humor that typifies his character. Avery's dream image of bleating sheep people is funny, especially since it appears in such a serious context as his motivation for becoming a preacher. Audiences cannot help but laugh, too, at Doaker's hugely extended shopping list. Just as Berniece is about to rush out the door, Doaker starts talking at length about the relative value of lean versus fatty ham hocks and the various elements of that night's dinner. Wilson uses this moment of levity to relax the audience just in time for Berniece's discovery of Boy Willie's real reason for coming to Pittsburgh: to sell the piano.

Only a few members of the Charles family are present on the stage, but the entire clan, dating back to Berniece and Boy Willie's great-great-grandparents are elemental to The Piano Lesson, as is the Sutter family, who owned several generations of the Charles family during the days of slavery. The play explores how the characters deal with their legacy of family and racial history—a legacy that is embodied in the ever-present symbol of the carved piano Berniece and Boy Willie fight over. The issue of race is there from Boy Willie's first appearance, when he announces he and Lymon have come to sell watermelons, which were an ever-present aspect of the early–20th-century stereotype of African Americans as dirty, lazy, and childish—a stereotype that quickly spread in and beyond the American South after emancipation.

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