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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Act 2, Scene 2 | Summary



Later that evening Berniece is preparing a bath when Avery arrives. He's just seen the truck outside; it's almost empty. He reckons Boy Willie will be leaving soon. Berniece asks about the place Avery wants to rent for his church, and Avery says it would be $30 a month ($532 adjusted for inflation). He again asks Berniece to marry him. This isn't the time, she tells him, but he persists, complaining nobody can "get close" to her. This makes her angry. Why, she demands, is it fine for a man to be single, but everyone says "a woman can't be nothing without a man"? Avery warns her he won't wait forever.

Berniece's present concern is about Sutter's ghost, especially since Maretha has seen him, too. She hopes the ghost will leave with Boy Willie, who she suspects pushed Sutter into his well. Avery reminds her people have been falling into their wells for a long time. He sees no reason to suspect Boy Willie. He reminds her a preacher back home "used to preach on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog as the hand of God." Berniece says Boy Willie is stubborn and will keep trying to sell the piano, and she knows her uncle Doaker doesn't want it around. She tells Avery how her mother made her learn to play it and claimed to hear Boy Charles's voice in the notes. Berniece says she "used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house"; she doesn't want to "wake them spirits" by playing the piano again. Avery tells Berniece she has to leave all that behind, too, and encourages her to play a hymn on the piano. She refuses. Avery leaves, promising to return the next day to bless the house.


Avery is a persistent man. Moreover, he's a practical one. He sees Berniece as an asset to him as a preacher. In this scene he tries several approaches to convince Berniece to marry him, resulting in a good example of the rule of three, in which a series of events or ideas builds up to the strongest, funniest, or most frightening third one. Avery builds his case by moving from least to most emotional. His first argument is by marrying him Berniece would be helping him succeed because it doesn't look right for a preacher to be unmarried, and a married preacher "makes for a better congregation." But Berniece doesn't want to talk about it. Avery's second approach is more traditional; in essence he tells her she's the only woman for him. But Berniece isn't ready for marriage now. Doggedly Avery persists. His third approach is to allow his frustration to show. In keeping with the rule of three, it's the longest discussion and becomes heated. Avery implies Berniece is repressing her sexuality and pushes away anyone—such as Avery, Doaker, or Boy Willie—who might love her. Not surprisingly Avery's comments prompt Berniece to get angry and defend her position. Avery silences her by pointing out Crawley has been gone three years and goes so far as to threaten that Berniece might always be alone because he won't wait forever.

However, all Avery's bluster disappears when Berniece mentions Maretha's terror over the presence of Sutter's ghost. He immediately drops the subject of marriage in his very real concern for the girl. It's a poignant moment in the play, and the audience realizes whatever ploys Avery uses to convince Berniece to marry him, his priority really is her happiness and the happiness of her daughter. Even if Berniece is not convinced of his love, the audience is.

As Berniece defends herself and her gender, she asks why it is people say a woman has to have a man, but no one ever says a man has to have a woman. This recalls Doaker's comments about Berniece in Act 1. He is an excellent example of this double standard. He is completely content to live without his wife, and no one tells him he should find a woman. Yet his comments in Act 1 about Berniece finding a man were demeaning both in their crudeness and their assumption a woman's only value lay in her sexual relationship with a man.

One reason Bernice is not focusing on finding a man is she is concentrated on raising Maretha to look after herself and leave the past behind. Berniece wants her daughter to grow up without the burden Berniece's mother left her. This burden is embodied in the piano, but it is actually the legacy of enslavement and the "thieving and killing" it continues to breed. Berniece avoids playing the piano so as not "to wake them spirits." These are the spirits of the Charles ancestors, and in refusing to "wake" them, Berniece refuses to come to grips with her African heritage. It is not that Berniece denies their existence—although she doesn't believe in the kinds of ghosts that run around pushing people down wells—but she wants to protect Maretha from the pain of the past.

This is why Berniece requests that Avery bless the house, asking him to incorporate African spiritualism with African American Christianity. He is uncertain he can, saying she might need "a special kind of preacher to do something like that." Still, he finally agrees to try. However, in Act 2, Scene 4 the audience will learn he is right to doubt his appropriateness.

Even though Berniece refuses Avery's request to play a hymn on the piano, this again brings up the motif of music. Before this scene all the music performed or referenced was secular. Now another strong African American musical tradition appears—Christian hymns. Gospel music also has its roots on the plantations of the antebellum South. By the end of this act, Wilson will reach back to still older musical traditions.

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