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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Act 2, Scene 1 | Summary



The next day Doaker Charles is ironing his uniform and singing a railroad song along with the radio. Wining Boy comes in and reports he hasn't managed to pawn his old silk suit for the $5 ($89 adjusted for inflation) he wants for it. Doaker tells him no one else is home and confides he saw Sutter's ghost before Berniece did. The ghost was sitting at the piano. Another time he heard the ghost playing the piano. Doaker thinks the piano is trouble and Berniece should get rid of it. Wining Boy talks Doaker into lending him $5 so he can gamble and win enough money for train fare to Mississippi.

Boy Willie and Lymon arrive home excited over how much money they've made selling watermelons. Wining Boy convinces Lymon to buy the silk suit and a shirt for $4 ($71 adjusted for inflation) as well as a pair of shoes for $2 ($35 adjusted for inflation). Lymon wants to go to the movies and meet some women. Boy Willie is more interested in whether they have sold enough melons to make room in the truck for the piano. Lymon goes upstairs to dress; Boy Willie says he "ain't dressing up for these city niggers." After Lymon leaves, he complains all Lymon thinks about is women, and Wining Boy says Lymon's father was the same. He tells how Lymon's father always had bad luck. One time he got arrested for fighting with a white man, and the fine was $200 ($3,500 adjusted for inflation). All Lymon's mother could get together was $150 ($2,662 adjusted for inflation), so she asked Wining Boy for the rest. He said if he could keep someone out of prison, he would, so he gave it to her, and she invited him to stay the night with her. Later on Lymon's father went to a dance and was shot by someone who mistook him for someone else. Doaker comes in wearing his work uniform, just in time to agree Lymon's father "was one bad-luck nigger."

Lymon comes back into the room, wearing the silk suit, and Wining Boy offers him some advice on pickup lines. Doaker tells Lymon these days women don't fall for lines like that; you have to buy them presents.


The scene opens with Doaker singing along to the radio, another nod to Wilson's pervasive use of music as a motif. By listing various railroad routes and stops, the song reminds the audience of Doaker's statements in Act 1 about the railway, which Wilson frequently uses as a symbol of freedom, especially freedom of movement, which was denied to enslaved African Americans before abolition.

It appears Wining Boy was not being entirely truthful in Act 1 when he claimed to have plenty of money. Otherwise, he wouldn't need to gamble or pawn his silk suit for his train fare. In the production notes, Wilson writes of Wining Boy, "his music, his clothes, and even his manner of presentation are old." It's no wonder, then, he can't get the price he wants for his old silk suit from a pawnbroker. But Wining Boy is a good con man, so he persuades Lymon to buy the suit—as well as a shirt and a pair of shoes—by playing on Lymon's love of women. In persuading the younger man to buy the shoes, Wining Boy tells Lymon they're "the kind Staggerlee wore." This is a reference to "Stack" Lee Shelton, a St. Louis, Missouri, carriage driver and pimp. Shelton was famous for his dedication to dressing with style, which is why Wining Boy brings him up. He favored shoes with pointy toes adorned with spats and sometimes even tiny mirrors. Of course, it's doubtful Wining Boy's old shoes look anything like that—unless he's had them since he was a teenager. But by the 1930s Stagger Lee, as the folklore hero came to be called, was a household name. What turned this St. Louis pimp into a hero of African American folklore was essentially a political disagreement gone wrong. In 1895 the Republicans and Democrats were courting African American votes, and Shelton was an organizer for the Democratic Party. On Christmas Day he walked into a saloon, where he fell into a conversation with a friend of his, Billy Lyons. Lyons was a Republican organizer. The two men started arguing about politics. At one point Shelton damaged Lyons's bowler hat, so Lyons grabbed Shelton's Stetson. Shelton demanded his hat back. When Lyons refused to return it, Shelton shot his friend in the stomach, grabbed his hat, and sauntered out. Within two years the event had been immortalized in song. It was played up and down the Mississippi and even translated into work songs. By the second half of the 20th century, more than 400 artists had covered the song. Not only is this an excellent example of the way in which Wilson incorporated African American folklore into his work, but it continues the motif of music.

If it weren't for the conversation between Boy Willie and Wining Boy about Lymon's parents, the audience would never learn a thing about them. Lymon seldom talks about himself other than to say he wants to move to Pittsburgh and meet women. It turns out the relationship between the families goes back a generation, and, what's more, Wining Boy slept with Lymon's mother. It's unclear when this happened or what it might imply about Lymon's parentage. It is interesting Wining Boy had the money to help pay the fine; of course, it is likely he was more successful as a younger man and, given his name, it is likely he had income not only from playing piano and gambling, but also from pimping.

In Act 2 Wilson introduces a discussion of the divide between country dwellers and city dwellers. In the first scene of this act, it is Boy Willie who makes several comments at the expense of city dwellers. First of all, he makes fun of white people for being ignorant of farming. He recounts how he told one woman who asked if the watermelons were sweet that "where we grow these watermelons we put sugar in the ground" and she believed him. Later in the scene he says, "I ain't dressing up for these city niggers." Rural residents will also get their due when Wilson lets the "city niggers" give their opinion of country boys.

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