The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Themes

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All the themes August Wilson addresses in The Piano Lesson inform a pervasive discussion of race and racial discrimination. The Charles family legacy, like that of many African Americans, includes enslavement and discrimination but also a rich and distinctive cultural history. The practice of slavery in the United States and the discrimination encountered by African Americans since that practice ended are reflected in matters of ownership, the definition of property—and in a system of laws that all too often have had little to do with justice.

Legacy

In The Piano Lesson Wilson explores the idea of legacy on several levels: as something tangible with monetary value, as something emotional related to a parent's hopes when making a bequest to a child, and as something cultural that knits together groups and generations. The play focuses on a very tangible legacy—the carved piano. It has a calculable monetary value, which is Boy Willie's focus when he arrives in Pittsburgh. He can sell it and get the money he needs to buy the land on which his ancestors worked as slaves. He knows his great-grandfather's carvings give the piano its high monetary value and his father died to make sure the family had possession of the instrument. He sees his sale of the piano to buy land as "build[ing] on what they left" him (Act 1, Scene 2). Boy Willie's sister, Berniece, however, sees the piano as an emotional legacy; for her, selling it would be like selling her soul because it contains generations of Charles family blood and tears. Instead of turning it into cash, she wants to turn it into a better life for her daughter. This Charles family legacy is also emblematic of the legacy of blood and tears passed down through every family descended from slaves.

In addition to his exploration of how Boy Willie and Berniece deal with their legacy, Wilson also examines—albeit in less detail—how others, such as Lymon, Avery, and even Sutter (as a descendant of slaveholders)—cope with the legacy of slavery.

Like Wilson's other plays, The Piano Lesson is enriched by interweaving the legacy of African American customs, folktales, music, and spirituality—which draws on the culture of two continents. Family and cultural history is passed down orally, with the two uncles relating generations of family history just as griots or musical storytellers voiced the history of their villages in Africa. The various songs chanted and sung throughout the play draw on jazz, slave, and African musical traditions. Folk heroes such as Staggerlee, whose killing of his friend Billy Lyons is commemorated in an American folk song, and the (invented) Ghosts of the Yellow Dog populate the characters' conversations. Avery's dream in which he was called to be a preacher and Berniece's invocation of the Charles ancestors during the exorcism of Sutter's ghost draw on African spiritual traditions.

Property

Defining who owns what is closely associated with legacy and with the question of law versus justice. Does the piano belong to the Sutters or to the Charles family? Whose property is it now, and what right does each sibling have to decide whether or not it should be sold? The question goes back even further. In Act 1, Scene 2 when Doaker tells Lymon about the piano's history, he begins by explaining "our family was owned by a fellow named Robert Sutter." Today's audience might bristle to hear of one person owning—and selling—another, but in The Piano Lesson the Charles family is still dealing with the effects of slavery on a daily basis.

As Doaker talks about Robert Sutter owning the Charles family he explains Papa Boy Willie's woodwork became Sutter's property by virtue of his owning the craftsman. Therefore, it was Sutter who sold Papa Boy Charles's work and pocketed the profits. Papa Boy Charles had no rights. This was affirmed by the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court in his opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857): "the right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution. ... And no word can be found in the Constitution which gives Con[gr]ess a greater power over slave property, or which entitles property of that kind to less protection than property of any other description. The only power conferred is the power coupled with the duty of guarding and protecting the owner in his rights."

After emancipation, African Americans saw ownership of real property as a way of establishing their rights as citizens. After abolition a group of African American religious leaders met with the secretary of war and United States Army Major-General Sherman in Savannah, Georgia. The religious leaders chose Baptist minister and former slave Garrison Frazier as their representative. On the subject of property Frazier said, "The way we can best take care of ourselves is to have land, and turn it and till it by our own labor—that is, by the labor of the women and children and old men; and we can soon maintain ourselves and have something to spare." (Frazier felt the young men should go into service for the government.) Boy Willie represents this stance. For him to own his own farm is to reclaim his rights and dignity as a human being. It would place him on an equal footing with the Sutters of the world. For that property to be carved from the former plantation where his ancestors were enslaved would be an even stronger signal of his ascendance.

Law versus Justice

In The Piano Lesson, Wilson shows how the law favors whites. For instance, in Act 1, Scene 2 Wining Boy doubts Boy Willie can succeed in owning his own farm even if he manages to come up with the money. First of all, Sutter's brother will probably have sold it to someone else before Boy Willie gets back to Sunflower County despite the promise he made to hold off for two weeks. Moreover, Wining Boy believes whites who sell property to African Americans will find some way of tricking the buyer. For example, if there are berries on the land, the white seller will manage to use the law to keep the berries even while selling the land. Boy Willie, of course, knows this. He realizes "The law's liable to say anything." That's why Boy Willie "go[es] by if it's right or not" (Act 1, Scene 2).

Wilson offers other examples of the law's favoritism that are less explicitly discussed by the characters. One of these is part of Lymon's reason for coming north. He was arrested and jailed for "not working" (Act 1, Scene 2). A Mr. Stovall paid his fine; as a result, Lymon was supposed to work for Mr. Stovall till he'd paid the money back. The sheriff wouldn't allow Lymon to do time instead. This was a way for Stovall to indenture Lymon for an unspecified period of time against Lymon's will.

And of course, Boy Charles believed he was on the side of justice when he stole the piano from Sutter's house; after all, his family had paid the price for it, and his grandfather had created the carvings on it. As he interpreted justice, Sutter was the one who had no right to keep it. The law, of course, did not agree, and never punished the white men who burned Boy Charles alive.

This dichotomy under the law had clear precedents in the legal status of slaves. If anyone attacked a slave, it was generally felt they had attacked the owner's property. But the slave had no legal standing as a person. A law in South Carolina, for instance, stated slaves were not "within the peace of the state, and therefore the peace of the state [was] not broken by an assault and battery on" them. Similarly, a slave could not form a binding contract; in 1860 an Alabama court found slaves had "no legal mind, no will which the law can recognize. ... Because they are slaves, they are incapable of performing civil acts." These laws help set up the strong dichotomy between the law and justice in Wilson's play—and continue to raise questions about a fair and equal American society to this day.

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