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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Piano Lesson is set in a house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1936. The house is owned by a railroad cook, Doaker Charles. Two family members live with Doaker—his niece, Berniece, and her 11-year-old daughter, Maretha. The play begins early one morning, when some visitors arrive.

All the characters are African American. All but three of them are members of the Charles family.

Act 1

At 5 a.m. one morning, Doaker Charles is awakened by someone pounding on the door and calling his name. It's his nephew, Boy Willie, and Boy Willie's friend Lymon. They've driven up from Mississippi with a truckload of watermelons to sell. Boy Willie has some news, too. The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog have pushed James Sutter into his well, killing him. Now Boy Willie wants to buy the remaining acreage of Sutter's farm. To do that, he needs to sell the watermelons and the piano he and his sister Berniece inherited from their mother. Suddenly, upstairs, Berniece screams. She has seen Sutter's ghost on the landing. Berniece is not happy with her brother's noisy arrival. She accuses him of killing Sutter and tells him to sell his melons quickly and then leave. When Maretha comes downstairs, Boy Willie comments on how she's grown and asks her to play the piano for him. He tells her to ask her mother about the carvings on it.

Avery Brown arrives to pick up Berniece. He used to be a farmworker with Boy Willie and Lymon, but since coming to Pittsburgh he has decided to become a preacher. Berniece and he are going to the bank, where he hopes to get a loan to set up his church. Before they go, Boy Willie tells Berniece he wants to sell the piano so he can buy Sutter's land. She refuses to sell.

For three days, Boy Willie and Lymon work on selling the watermelons, and they're doing good business. Their other uncle, Wining Boy, arrives in town and comes to stay with Doaker as well. He talks about how the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog helped him out of a rough patch. Doaker explains to Lymon why Berniece won't sell the piano: The family used to be owned by a man called Robert Sutter, the grandfather of the man who fell in his well a few weeks earlier. Robert Sutter traded "one and a half [slaves]"—Doaker's grandmother and her young son—for a piano. The piano was an anniversary present for his wife, Ophelia. His wife loved the piano, but missed the woman and the child. So Sutter had Doaker's grandfather, a master woodworker, carve their images on the piano. But he carved even more, including scenes from the family's life together. Years after abolition, Doaker's oldest brother, Boy Charles, decided to take the piano from Sutter's grandson's house; he said it rightfully belonged to the Charles family. Then he tried to ride the rails out of town. He was in a boxcar on the Yellow Dog line when his pursuers caught up with him and burned the boxcar and the men inside it. They are the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

When Berniece comes home, she's happy to see Wining Boy, but again tells Boy Willie to leave. She blames him for involving her husband in one of his schemes three years earlier—a scheme that ended in her husband's death and three years in prison for Boy Willie and Lymon.

Act 2

The watermelons are still selling well, and Lymon buys an old silk suit from Wining Boy. Lymon wears it to go out on the town with Boy Willie. He wants to go to the movies and meet some women. Doaker and Wining Boy advise him on how to treat women.

Later, Avery stops by to see Berniece. He still wants to marry her, but she says she has too much on her mind. Now even Maretha has seen Sutter's ghost and is terrified. Berniece explains she never plays the piano because her mother used to ask her to play every day and it seemed to bring the ghosts of the past to life. She doesn't want to put Maretha through that. Avery agrees to bless the house to get rid of Sutter's ghost.

Boy Willie comes home late with Grace in tow. They manage to knock over a lamp, waking Berniece, who kicks them out. A little later Lymon comes in, finding Berniece making a cup of tea. They talk about his desire to meet and marry a woman he gets along with, and Berniece expresses uncertainty about marrying Avery. Tension builds between them and culminates in a kiss. But Berniece breaks their embrace and goes up to bed alone, leaving Lymon feeling positive about his future.

The next day, Boy Willie decides there's room in the truck for the piano. He has arranged to sell it and just needs to transport it to the buyer. Every time he and Lymon try to move the piano, Sutter's ghost seems to get restless. Doaker tells Boy Willie he's not to take the piano without Berniece's OK, but Boy Willie insists he has a right to sell his half. He'll split the money with Berniece. But Berniece won't sell; she'll shoot her brother before she'll let him take the piano. Still, as soon as Lymon arrives with some rope, Willie starts trying to load it onto a dolly.

Avery arrives to perform the blessing. Wining Boy arrives, too, and refuses to let Boy Willie take the piano. As the fight over the piano escalates, Sutter's ghost returns, and everyone can sense its presence. Lymon leaves. Avery begins blessing the piano. Skeptical, Boy Willie imitates him but soon finds himself in a wrestling match with Sutter's ghost. Avery gives up, and Berniece realizes she has to take action. She begins playing the piano and chanting a plea to her ancestors for help. Sutter's ghost leaves. Boy Willie tells Berniece to keep playing the piano, or he and Sutter's ghost will come back. He and Wining Boy leave to catch a train to Mississippi.

The Piano Lesson Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Boy Willie arrives with a plan to buy Sutter's farm.

Rising Action

2 Berniece sees Sutter's ghost.

3 Berniece won't let Boy Willie sell the family piano.

4 Boy Willie tries to take the piano but can't move it.

5 Avery begins blessing the piano.

6 Boy Willie fights with Sutter's ghost.


7 Berniece plays the piano, invoking her ancestors' help.

Falling Action

8 Sutter's ghost leaves.


9 Boy Willie leaves, warning Berniece to keep playing.

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