The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Act 2, Scene 5 | Summary

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Summary

Later that day, Berniece walks in on Boy Willie screwing wheels on a plank of wood and telling Maretha about the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. The Yellow Dog, he says, is named for the yellow color of the boxcars used on that railroad line and the howling sound the whistle makes.

Boy Willie still intends to sell the piano; Berniece still won't allow it. Doaker Charles still refuses to take sides. Berniece sends Maretha out on an errand. As the fight between Berniece and her brother escalates, she threatens to get Crawley's gun, and Boy Willie says he's not afraid of death. He killed a cat once, he says, and therefore has the power of death. Doaker asks if Avery is still going to bless the house today. While they discuss that, Maretha returns. Berniece starts fixing Maretha's hair. When Maretha yells, "Ow," Berniece complains if she were a boy, they "wouldn't be going through this." Boy Willie tells his sister off for making Maretha feel bad for not being a boy. He repeats she should tell Maretha the history of the piano and not act like "it's something to be ashamed of." Berniece says he has no say in how she raises her child; he can choose what to tell a child when he has his own. This makes Boy Willie angrier. He feels he has nothing to offer a child, and he believes their father felt the same way—powerless. But he insists he can get what he wants: He's living at the top, not at the bottom. Berniece shouldn't teach Maretha she's at the bottom. But Berniece says you have to recognize where you are but know you "ain't got to stay there."

Avery arrives to bless the house. The bank has told him they may lend him the money, and his congregation is growing. He hopes to marry once his church is established, but Berniece still isn't making any promises. Lymon arrives with the rope. He says he met Grace, and she's agreed to go to the movies with him. Boy Willie shushes him and insists he help load the piano onto the makeshift dolly. Berniece goes upstairs and returns with the gun. Lymon tries to convince Boy Willie not to take the piano, but also tells Berniece he agrees with Boy Willie's reasons for selling it. He and Doaker just want a peaceful resolution. Berniece sends Maretha to Doaker's room. Wining Boy comes in drunk and talking about what happened to him today. He sits down at the piano and plays a song he wrote in memory of Cleotha. He says he won't let Boy Willie take the piano. There's a knock at the door; this time it's Grace looking for Lymon, who has left her sitting in the truck. Lymon says first he has to help move the piano. Sutter's ghost returns, and everyone senses its presence. Grace says, "Something ain't right here," and leaves. Lymon goes with her.

Avery begins the blessing, starting with the piano. As he reads from the Bible, he throws water at it. Boy Willie joins in, grabbing a pot of water from the stove and flinging it around the room, while screaming at Sutter. He starts up the stairs but is thrown down again, struggling against something invisible that seems to be strangling him. He wins free and runs upstairs. Avery gives up, but they can all hear a struggle going on upstairs. Berniece suddenly realizes she is the one who has to fix this. She sits down at the piano and begins to play and chant a song calling on her ancestors for help. A train is heard approaching, and the sounds of the struggle upstairs die out. Boy Willie calls for Sutter to "come back." Maretha reenters. Boy Willie comes downstairs and watches his sister at the piano. Berniece is repeatedly thanking the Charles ancestors.

Boy Willie asks if Wining Boy's ready to catch the train. He is. Before the men go, Boy Willie warns Berniece if she and Maretha don't keep playing the piano, "me and Sutter both liable to be back." After they leave, Berniece again chants, "Thank you."

Analysis

In his conversation with Maretha as the scene opens, Boy Willie is repeating only part of the explanation for the name of the "Yellow Dog." Dog was a railroad term referring to a local line. Also, the actual name of the line was the Yazoo Delta Railway, and its initials—Y.D.—also led to its being nicknamed "Yellow Dog." It carried mostly freight and ran only 20.5 miles from Moorhead to Ruleville in Mississippi, passing through Sunflower on the way. It was in Moorhead the Yazoo delta crossed the Southern line, where Wining Boy communed with the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. The "Father of the Blues," African American composer and musician W.C. Handy, wrote "The Yellow Dog Rag" in 1914 but said he first heard the line in 1903 when he came across a guitarist playing in a train station.

Whereas in Act 2, Scene 4 Doaker refused to take Boy Willie's side against Berniece regarding the piano, in Scene 5 he refuses to put Boy Willie out of his house when Berniece asks him to. He may want the siblings to resolve their issues, but neither is willing to give in. Boy Willie's action of drawing a line dividing the house into Berniece's half and his half is typically childish. Berniece's response of threatening to shoot Boy Willie is far from typical and comes out of the very real rage she feels toward him. Her threat leads her brother to explain why he isn't afraid of death. In doing so, Boy Willie lends some credibility to Berniece's earlier accusations he killed Sutter. Here he explains he killed a cat as a child and "got the power of death." Cruelty to animals is a warning sign associated with a child suffering abuse and also with the child's potential for growing up to be an abuser and worse. Even if Boy Willie was not abused by his parents, as an African American child growing up in the Jim Crow South, he was certainly a victim of endemic societal abuse.

Boy Willie describes the relationship—as he sees it—between "niggers" and white men. It comes down to the white man having the power of life and death over blacks. This began during slavery. It was illegal for a slave owner to murder a slave—a crime punishable by a year in jail. However, if slaves died while the slave owner was punishing them using "moderate correction," no criminal charges would be filed. Boy Willie is saying this sense of entitlement continued long after abolition. By learning how to kill, he feels, he learned how to deal with white men on their own terms. Nevertheless, he seems to have some concern about how Berniece will interpret his words because he goes on to justify them with reference to the Old Testament passage about "an eye for an eye." After that, he changes the subject.

Perhaps it is just because he wants to change the subject that Boy Willie decides to offer Berniece childrearing advice; after all, his comments are out of character. Nevertheless, they are surprisingly apt. Berniece has claimed she wants to empower Maretha, but her careless remark to the effect she wouldn't have to deal with Maretha's hair if Maretha were a boy achieves the opposite. The surprise is it's Boy Willie who recognizes that. For him it parallels the attitude he has experienced from whites—that it is the accident of skin color over which neither he nor they have any control—that makes them claim he is worth less than they are.

Boy Willie's argument about why he doesn't want to have children is interesting in light of his decision to stay in Mississippi. For him staying there and buying land is an act of defiance, a way of continuing his race's struggle against oppression. Berniece has taken her daughter to the North to give Maretha hope of a better life. Lymon also plans to have a family far from the injustices of the Jim Crow South. It is likely that, like Berniece, he hopes to protect his children from the social legacy of slavery. Boy Willie's priority is not protecting future generations, but avenging past ones.

Berniece is released from the confrontation with her brother by Avery's arrival, but Avery—with Doaker's support—tries to turn the conversation to another unwelcome topic—marriage. Berniece is still unwilling to discuss this, and the events of the scene give no clue as to whether she might ultimately decide to marry Avery. In fact, Avery's failure to exorcise Sutter's ghost and Berniece's success in doing so may speak against it.

No matter the outcome of Avery's pursuit of Berniece, Lymon seems to have made progress with Grace. Not only has he run into her while out buying rope, but he leaves with her rather than confront Sutter's ghost. He has a clear vision of his future and sets out to achieve it—quietly but resolutely. The audience perceives Lymon much differently now than in the first scene of the play, when he hardly spoke and seemed to be there only to help Boy Willie achieve his goals. Now, Boy Willie is going home without the money he hoped to get from the sale of the piano, and it is Lymon who has found a girl he likes, has money in his pocket from the sale of the watermelons, and may even have a job lined up. He set out to leave Mississippi behind and has done that.

Sutter's ghost faces three adversaries in the scene: Avery, Boy Willie, and Berniece. Avery's weapon is the Christian Bible, a weapon adapted by African American culture from European and European American culture. Avery's efforts succeed in agitating the ghost more than anything else so far but do not vanquish it. Boy Willie begins by mocking Avery but then confronts Sutter's ghost for the first time. He takes a physical approach with the ghost, fighting with it as he would with a man. For Boy Willie, the fight with Sutter seems to satisfy his need to prove himself by buying his own land. In confronting the spirit of the man whose ancestors once owned his ancestors, he has stood up for his family. Still, it is not Boy Willie who vanquishes Sutter's ghost. It is Berniece's invocation of the Charles ancestors that finally succeeds.

Berniece's chant draws on African spiritual traditions. African spirituality recognizes mystical powers and a spiritual hierarchy that includes nonhuman spirits as well as the spirits of the dead. These spirits may be good or evil, and exorcism can be used to cast them out of objects, places, or people they possess. Ancestor spirits remain close to their descendants and can use their spirit powers to protect them. In times of need, the living traditionally reach out to the spirit world through a specialist—a man or a woman adept at communicating with the spirits. However, Avery—a preacher—has failed. He has no direct connection with the Charles ancestors. Berniece realizes her connection to the Charles ancestors through blood and through the piano is the family's only hope. Her years of playing daily for her mother have trained her as a sort of medium—intensifying her connection with the spirits. She is aware of the piano as a sacred object connected with her ancestors. This awareness is at the root of her refusal to sell the piano but also of her refusal to play it. In this time of need, she returns to the piano and to her African roots. Her ancestral chant is another instance of Wilson's use of the motif of traditional African American music.

The Piano Lesson comes to a sudden resolution after the exorcism with Boy Willie's sudden departure. This ending was the product of much discussion between Wilson and his longtime director, Lloyd Richards. Wilson favored ending the play in the midst of the struggle between Boy Willie and Sutter's ghost. He envisioned the audience joining their voices to Berniece's and calling "out their grandmother's names, somebody they were calling on." But Richards insisted audiences would want to know which of the siblings won the fight for control of the piano and had a right to expect the play they paid to see had an ending. This ending emphasizes it is necessary for people not only to acknowledge the legacy they inherit but also to take strength from it. In his way, that is the point Boy Willie was making when he said their father would want him to sell the piano to buy his own farm. Now that Berniece has acknowledged and accepted empowerment from the piano, Boy Willie can relinquish his claim on it.

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