The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Act 1, Scene 2 | Summary

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Summary

It's three days later. Doaker Charles's brother, Wining Boy, is drinking whiskey at the kitchen table and talking about how "the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter." He says he'll leave town again if he sees Sutter's ghost. Wining Boy agrees with Doaker that Berniece will never sell the piano. Doaker tells him Boy Willie and Lymon have been trying to sell watermelons, but their truck keeps breaking down. Boy Willie wants to get the truck empty enough to hold the piano so he can take it away and sell it. When Wining Boy asks after Berniece, Doaker says she needs to stop "holding on to" her dead husband, Crawley, and find a man. The two men talk about their own wives. Wining Boy's wife, Cleotha, died recently, but he hadn't seen her for years. He explains he "loved to ramble" as much as he loved her and she accepted that. Doaker has heard his wife, Coreen, lives in New York City now, but he doesn't hear from her.

Boy Willie and Lymon return. They've found someone to fix the truck, but they still have more watermelons to sell. Boy Willie asks Wining Boy for money to help him buy the land, but Wining Boy says he was about to ask Willie for $5 ($89 adjusted for inflation). They get talking about the Yellow Dog ghosts. Boy Willie figures the ghosts have killed 10 or 12 people by now. He and his uncles start listing the ghosts' victims. Wining Boy says in July 1930 he was going through some hard times. He went and stood where the Yellow Dog and Southern railroad tracks cross and called out the ghosts' names—and they answered. He says the longer he stood on the crossing, the bigger and stronger he felt. That was the start of a three-year-long "stroke of luck." Wining Boy says he heard Boy Willie and Lymon used to work as prisoners on Parchman Farm—the Mississippi state penitentiary. Boy Willie tells him how they ended up there. They'd been hired to haul wood and kept some back to sell. Some "white boys" found out. Berniece's husband, Crawley, was with them, and when the sheriff's men arrived, he was killed while trying to fight them off. The sheriff caught Boy Willie and Lymon, and they spent three years in prison. Later Lymon was arrested again "for not working," and a Mr. Stovall paid his $100 fine ($1,928 adjusted for inflation), which Lymon was supposed to repay by working for Stovall. Instead, he ran off, so Stovall and the sheriff are after him. Lymon again says he's not going back. "They treat you better up here," he thinks. Boy Willie says if anyone mistreats him, he mistreats them right back. Wining Boy warns him the law is on the white man's side, but Boy Willie says he doesn't care about the law; he cares about what's right. They talk about the work on Parchman Farm, and Boy Willie starts singing a work song. The others join in, even Doaker. Boy Willie asks Wining Boy to play the piano, but he refuses, saying he got to hate the piano after hauling it around for a few years.

When Boy Willie again starts talking about selling the piano, Doaker explains to Lymon why Berniece will never sell it. The family used to be owned by James Sutter's grandfather, Robert. He wanted to buy his wife a piano as an anniversary present, but didn't have the money. So Sutter offered the piano's owner, Mr. Nolander, "one and a half [slaves]." The man chose Doaker's grandmother Berniece and her nine-year-old son. Berniece's husband stayed with Sutter. Sutter's wife loved the piano, but not as much as she missed Berniece and the boy. Sutter tried to give back the piano in exchange for them, but Nolander wouldn't do it. Instead, he offered to buy Doaker's grandfather, Boy Willie, to keep the family together, but Sutter refused; Boy Willie was a skilled woodworker and brought Sutter a lot of income. So Sutter had Boy Willie carve his wife and child's images into the piano. But Boy Willie didn't stop there; he carved his parents' portraits and scenes from the family's life. After abolition, Sutter still had the piano, and Doaker's oldest brother, Boy Charles, who was the father of present-day Berniece and Boy Willie, insisted the piano belonged with their family. Doaker and Wining Boy helped him take the piano from Sutter's house and store it with Boy Charles's in-laws in the next county. After Sutter discovered the theft, someone set Boy Charles's house on fire. He had already escaped, though, and hitched a ride on the Yellow Dog train. The train was stopped, and the boxcar carrying Boy Charles and some hobos was burned, along with its occupants. No one was sure who burned it, but there were several suspects. Two months later, one of those suspects fell down his well. People said the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog pushed the man. Berniece won't sell, Doaker says, "cause her daddy died over it." However, Boy Willie says his daddy left him that piano so he could do something more with his life than work on someone else's farm. Wining Boy starts playing the piano badly and singing loudly about being "a rambling man."

Berniece and Maretha come home. Berniece is happy to see Wining Boy and offers to make him dinner. While she and Maretha are upstairs, Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano. They can only shift it slightly, but an eerie noise is heard as they do. When Berniece returns, she tells her brother to put the piano back; she's not selling. She's angry about all the thieving and killing the men get up to. She blames Boy Willie for getting Crawley involved in his scheme to sell the stolen wood; that's what got him killed, she says. Berniece starts hitting her brother, and he just lets her.

Upstairs, Maretha screams in terror.

Analysis

Scene 2 introduces another member of the Charles family, explores family members more deeply, explains the source of Berniece's anger with Boy Willie, and provides the backstory of the piano and the ghosts.

Wining Boy's name refers to one of the nicknames—Winding Boy—by which iconic jazz pianist Jelly Roll Morton was known when he spent his teen years playing piano in bordellos. One of his songs of that time was "Winin' Boy Blues." Its seemingly autobiographical lyrics bragged very explicitly about his sexual prowess. Based on his work with jazz and blues artists, musicologist Alan Lomax defined winding as "rotating the hips in dancing or in sexual intercourse." When Wilson named his character "Wining Boy," he was invoking Morton's early life, when he was not only a musician, but a hustler and a pimp. Thus, Wining Boy's early career as an itinerant gambler and piano player is implicit in his name. However, unlike Morton, Wining Boy made only a few recordings and never became a successful professional musician. Even in his late 50s, Wining Boy is a freeloader, as Doaker made clear in Scene 1. Wining Boy never shows up until he's out of money, and his last visit ended when Berniece asked him to contribute a few dollars toward groceries. Even though he now claims to have plenty of cash, Wining Boy will hit Doaker up for money. Wining Boy is emotionally irresponsible, too. As a young man, he walked out on his wife, Cleotha, because he liked being on the road and despite still feeling affection for her, never went back.

Despite his freeloading and freewheeling ways, Doaker and Berniece are glad to see Wining Boy. They like having him around. He's open, affectionate, and generous with good advice. After all, he has learned a lot about the ways of the world—especially the ways of white people—during his decades on the road. For instance, he warns Boy Willie not to count on being able to buy that land; Sutter's brother may have sold it to someone else before Boy Willie gets back to Mississippi. Wining Boy is also Berniece's only ally in preventing Boy Willie from selling the piano.

Wining Boy's role in the Charles family is a significant one. As the oldest living member of the family, he holds the most knowledge about its history. He and Doaker function as griots—the storytellers of West Africa who passed down their tribe's oral history. Since griots were also musicians, Wining Boy fills this role even more accurately than Doaker, and Doaker sometimes looks to his brother to fill in gaps in his own knowledge.

The audience sees an unsettling side of Doaker in Scene 2. Up till now, he has seemed like a quiet, gentle bachelor, but it turns out he—like his brother—is estranged from his wife. However, Doaker doesn't speak of Coreen with the same affection Wining Boy shows for Cleotha. Instead, he speaks of her only very briefly and with a certain chilliness. It is likely Coreen, like Cleotha, suffered from her husband's wandering. After all, he has always been a railroad man, which has most likely kept him away from home a great deal. Moreover, Doaker shows an unsympathetic attitude toward Berniece's continuing grief over Crawley's death. He thinks she should move on and get herself a man—any man—and let him "grab a whole handful of whatever she got." He complains that Berniece "act like it done got precious." Such cold words about his niece's grief and sexuality redefine his character; he seems to harbor a pent-up anger toward women.

The question of why Berniece is angry with her brother is also answered in Scene 2. She blames him for her husband's death. Typically, Boy Willie refuses to accept the blame, saying it was Crawley's own fault because he insisted on fighting. It's impossible to know whether Crawley was aware the wood was stolen. Berniece insists he didn't know, and his willingness to defend it may speak to that. But the conversation between the siblings addresses a basic point of disagreement between the men and the women in the family. The women focus on family and continuity, while the men focus on themselves and their struggle with society. Berniece's mother wanted her to play the piano to maintain ties with the dead of the family; Cleotha told Wining Boy she loved him and he would always have a home with her; Berniece nurtures those around her, cooking for Wining Boy, helping Avery get his loan, and ensuring Maretha will be able to support herself when she grows up. In contrast, Berniece's father got Wining Boy and Doaker to help him take the piano from Sutter's house because he felt it rightfully belonged to the Charles family; in doing so, he got himself killed, leaving his children to grow up without a father and abandoning his wife to "seventeen years' worth of cold nights and an empty bed." Similarly, Wining Boy put his love of the road ahead of his love of his wife, and Boy Willie puts his desire for land ahead of Maretha's future and Berniece and Wining Boy's attachment to the piano.

In Scene 2 the audience also learns the history of the piano and the identity of the ghosts introduced in Scene 1. The piano is much more than the "piece of wood" Boy Willie intends to sell. Berniece sees it as the soul of the family. It embodies the entire history and legacy of the Charles family—not only because Papa Boy Willie carved that history into it, but also because others have suffered and died for it. However, this is also why Berniece won't play it. She doesn't want to waken the family ghosts. It turns out the history of the piano is also the history of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog and of the ghost haunting the Charles house in Pittsburgh. Soon after the boxcar and its occupants were burned, one of the men suspected of being involved with the fire fell down his well, and his death is attributed to the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Berniece sees these well deaths as killings rather than the actions of ghosts and accuses her brother of the most recent one, the killing of James Sutter. Boy Willie consistently denies ever killing anyone. But the audience may wonder if he did and even whether other members of the Charles family, such as Wining Boy or Doaker, might have been involved in deaths blamed on the ghosts. Wining Boy certainly speaks of communing directly with them, and this may be taken literally or figuratively. It is the most recent victim of the Yellow Dog ghosts who seems to be haunting the Charles family home during the play. James Sutter's ghost makes its presence felt whenever the piano becomes a focus of Boy Willie's intention. It first appeared sometime after Boy Willie decided to buy Sutter's land and is noticed whenever he tries to move the piano to sell it. Sutter's ghost never appears onstage, and whether it really exists is never made clear. It may be nothing more than a device to illustrate a shared response to the family's history. August Wilson's stage directions indicate the ghost's presence only through sounds, and these sounds might be interpreted in other, more prosaic ways. Still, the members of the family see the ghost at various times.

The various conversations in Scene 2 explicitly explore several themes of The Piano Lesson: legacy, law versus justice, and property.

  • Legacy: Berniece sees the piano as containing the soul of the family. Papa Boy Charles carved that soul into it, and her mother rubbed it in as she polished the piano with her sweat and tears. In contrast, Boy Willie sees the legacy contained in the piano as a monetary value passed down from their father when he acquired it from Sutter. That monetary value will enable Boy Willie to stop having to work for white men and to farm his own land.
  • Law versus justice: Berniece is law-abiding. She rails against the men's "thieving and killing and thieving and killing." Boy Willie is reticent to admit to stealing. He doesn't consider it theft for him and Lymon to have kept back some of Jim Miller's wood to sell for themselves. This is only fair because they have nothing of their own to sell, and by working for Miller, they acquire a right to a portion of his goods. Wining Boy explains black men and white men are different because "the colored man can't fix nothing with the law."
  • Property: In addition to questions about the ownership of and right to sell the piano or the pilfered wood, other questions of property ownership are discussed. Notably, Doaker describes how Robert Sutter owned the Charles family, including the carpentry produced by Papa Boy Charles.

The motif of African American music becomes central in Scene 2. As they sit around the table, Boy Willie, Lymon, Wining Boy, and even Doaker sing a well-known work song sung by prisoners at the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman, known as Parchman Farm, and collected in the 1930s by folklorists. The farm was a de facto cotton plantation and used inmate labor to produce its crops, which were then sold by the state. The field hollers and work songs collected at Parchman Farm did not originate there. Such songs had been sung by enslaved workers across the South for generations. Their rhythms reflected the rhythms of the various jobs being done, and their words reflected the singers' ideas. The roots of these songs were in Africa, and in the United States, they formed the basis of the blues. When the men sing together, they let themselves go in a celebration of a completely African American tradition. It is one of the most moving scenes of the play and evokes in song the legacy the piano represents. Later in the scene, Wining Boy begins to play the piano to sing a blues song, again recalling that legacy but bringing it into the 20th century.

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