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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Charles Family History


All but three of the characters who populate the stage in The Piano Lesson are members of three generations of the Charles family. Another three generations are significant to the family's story. The following examines the significance and interrelationships of the various members of these six generations.

Note: Asterisk denotes an onstage character.


Papa Boy Charles
Mama Esther

Papa Boy Charles and Mama Esther were enslaved workers owned by the Sutter family. They had a son called Boy Willie, later called Papa Boy Willie.


Papa Boy Willie Charles
Mama Berniece

Robert Sutter traded Mama Berniece and her son, Boy Walter, to Joel Nolander for a piano, which Sutter gave his wife, Ophelia, as an anniversary present. After a while, Ophelia missed Berniece and her son, but Nolander refused to take the piano back in trade for them. Ophelia became depressed. So Sutter asked Papa Boy Willie, a skilled woodworker, to carve portraits of his wife and son into the piano. This he did, but he also carved portraits of his parents and significant scenes from the Charles family's lives.


Boy Walter Charles (traded for the piano as a child)
Mama Nellie

Boy Walter and Mama Nellie were young when the U.S. Civil War ended in 1865. Their three sons were the first members of the Charles family to be born free.


Boy Charles (1879–1911)
Mama Ola (died c. 1929)

Wining Boy* (born 1880)
Cleotha (estranged wife, died c. 1935)

Doaker* (born 1889)
Coreen (estranged wife, perhaps in New York City)

Boy Charles and his brothers, Wining Boy and Doaker, took the piano from the Sutters' home on July 4, 1911. Boy Charles—the father of Berniece and Boy Willie—goes on the run and is burned to death in a boxcar on the Yellow Dog line, becoming one of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Neither Wining Boy nor Doaker had children.

Current Adult Generation

Berniece* (born 1901)
Crawley (died 1933)

Boy Willie* (born 1906)

Berniece's husband, Crawley, was killed by the sheriff while defending a load of wood Boy Willie had pilfered and intended to sell. Boy Willie hopes to buy the last parcel of the Sutters' plantation using money from the sale of the piano. The land is available because James Sutter, the grandson of the man who acquired the piano from Nolander, fell down his well; it is suspected he was killed by the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.


Maretha* (Berniece and Crawley's daughter, born 1925)

Maretha is learning to play the piano and will, Berniece hopes, become a piano teacher—a respectable profession for a woman of any color and one that should ensure Maretha security and independence.

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