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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Quotes


The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter.

Boy Willie, Act 1, Scene 1

Since the fiery death of Boy Charles and several hobos in the Yellow Dog boxcar, the deaths of white men in Sunflower County have been blamed on the men's ghosts. When Boy Willie arrives in Pittsburgh with the news James Sutter fell down his well and died, he repeats what everyone is saying: Sutter was killed by the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. But Berniece thinks the deaths are the work of human killers and even suspects her brother of murdering Sutter. Whatever the truth may be, the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog are out for revenge on white oppressors.


Whichever way you decide to go, they got a railroad that will take you there.

Doaker Charles, Act 1, Scene 1

As a railroad man himself, Doaker knows what he's talking about. The railroad offers freedom of movement to people who otherwise wouldn't have it. Doaker may focus on people using the railroad to get where they want to go, but he points out they can also change their minds, and the railroad will take them someplace else instead. There are several examples in the Charles family of people who use the rails to leave an unwanted place behind. For instance, Doaker's brother Wining Boy frequently travels in order to leave a place because he feels compelled to stay on the move.


That land ain't worth nothing no more. The smart white man's up here.

Doaker Charles, Act 1, Scene 2

Boy Willie wants to buy land and have his own farm, but his uncle Doaker feels there's no longer a future in farming. He has moved to Pittsburgh as a part of the Great Migration and believes for both blacks and whites the future is in the cities.


The colored man can't fix nothing with the law.

Wining Boy, Act 1, Scene 2

Wining Boy warns his nephew Boy Willie he shouldn't trust the white man from whom he wants to buy land. In Wining Boy's experience, the law favors the white man and there's nothing "the colored man" can do about it.

This is also Lymon's experience, at least in Mississippi, where he was put in jail for not working and then told he would have to work for nothing till he'd paid his fine. Lymon hopes things are different in the North.


I don't go by what the law say. The law's liable to say anything.

Boy Willie, Act 1, Scene 2

Boy Willie sees a distinction between law and justice. Having grown up in the Jim Crow South, he is familiar with a law designed to favor whites and to keep African Americans from moving up the socioeconomic ladder. In Boy Willie's experience, the law is arbitrary and unfair. He decides for himself what's right and takes his lead from that.


As long as Sutter had it, he had us. ... We was still in slavery.

Doaker Charles, Act 1, Scene 2

Doaker tells Lymon the history of the piano. It was acquired by Robert Sutter, who traded Doaker's grandmother and father (who was a child at the time) in exchange for the instrument. Family images and events were carved into it by Doaker's grandfather, whom Sutter still owned. Doaker and his brothers were born free, but Doaker's oldest brother, Boy Charles, believed as long as the Sutters still owned the piano, they owned the family.


Money can't buy what that piano cost.

Berniece, Act 1, Scene 2

This is the crux of Berniece's argument for not selling the piano. The family has placed their blood and their tears into it; it contains the soul of the Charles family. For Berniece, they cannot sell their soul no matter how much money is on offer or what that money can buy.


Land give back to you. ... But that piano don't put out nothing else.

Boy Willie, Act 1, Scene 2

This is the crux of Boy Willie's argument for selling the piano. Land is the ultimate freedom. Owning land makes a black man the equal of the white man. When people put their blood, sweat, and tears into the land, it gives back food, security, and status. The piano gives back nothing; all it can give back is the money someone will pay for it.


All this thieving and killing ... what it ... lead to? More killing and more thieving.

Berniece, Act 1, Scene 2

Berniece looks back at her family history and the history of her people in Sunflower County and sees a series of crimes that only hurt everyone involved. Her father stole the piano from Sutter's house and got killed for doing it. Now the so-called Ghosts of the Yellow Dog are continuing the killing. Boy Willie and Lymon stole some wood from a white man so they could sell it and make some money. As a result, Berniece's husband was shot dead by the sheriff. It's time, she thinks, to break the cycle of vengeance.


Everybody got stones in their passway. ... You ain't got to carry them with you.

Avery, Act 2, Scene 2

Avery followed Berniece to Pittsburgh when she moved North after her husband's death. Crawley has been dead three years, and Avery believes Berniece needs to let go and move on with her life—and marry Avery. Berniece tells Avery she has other things to worry about, especially the pain and memories associated with the piano—her father's death, the destruction of her family by Robert Sutter in the days of slavery, and the way playing the piano brings back these ghosts. Avery tells her everyone faces hardships, but they shouldn't carry the burden around with them.

In the end Berniece does not follow Avery's advice. She faces up to the painful personal and family memories and accepts them as a part of what she is.


They gonna try and make me work for Stovall when he don't pay nothing.

Lymon, Act 2, Scene 3

This was the final straw that made Lymon decide to come North. He was arrested for not working. A white man paid his fine, and the sheriff told Lymon to work for the white man for free till he'd repaid the money. Doing his time instead wasn't permitted. This is an example of the injustice faced by African Americans in the Jim Crow South.


I get ... a job and a ... place ... where I can make a woman comfortable.

Lymon, Act 2, Scene 3

Lymon's goal in life is unlike that of anyone in the Charles family. His desires are simple and traditional—to find a job and a place to live and to get married and have children. Lymon's simple, private goals contrast sharply with the more layered intentions of his friend Boy Willie, who wants to buy his own farm in order to prove himself the equal of any white man and leave his mark on society.


This is my house. ... I ain't gonna let ... nobody ... carry nothing out of it.

Doaker Charles, Act 2, Scene 4

Doaker seldom throws his weight around. His temperament is generally placid. But when Boy Willie insists on taking the piano away to sell it, Doaker takes a stand. The piano is jointly owned, and Doaker is a fair man. He may not like having the piano there, but Berniece is a half owner, and Doaker stands up for her rights.

Moments later he is equally adamant he is not going to throw Boy Willie out of the house. He wants Berniece and her brother to agree on what will be done with the piano. It is likely he hopes in coming to that decision, they will reconcile.


Some people get scared to hear a nigger's heart beating.

Boy Willie, Act 2, Scene 5

In explaining again why he wants to sell the piano, Boy Willie makes one of the most memorable speeches of the play. People—including his sister—want him to stop fighting, to stop making noise. But he isn't going to stop because his heart "beats just as loud as the next fellow's" and sometimes even louder. This frightens people, he says, and not just white people. He accuses Berniece of being frightened by it, too. He says she thinks African Americans should keep their heads down and just go along with the status quo. Boy Willie strongly disagrees.


You need to bless that piano. ... It ain't done nothing but cause trouble.

Doaker Charles, Act 2, Scene 5

Avery has come at Berniece's request to bless the Charles house in an attempt to exorcise Sutter's ghost. Doaker, whose history with the piano is much longer than that of his niece and nephew, feels Avery should focus on the piano; that's the ghost's focus and the source of the family's troubles for generations.

But in the end, the piano turns out to be the sacred object that allows Berniece to call on the Charles ancestors for help in ridding the family of Sutter's ghost.

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