The Piano Lesson is part of August Wilson’s cycle of ten plays that portray the black experience in America in the twentieth century. The first play in this series was the Tony Award-winning Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (pr. 1984), which dealt with jazz musicians in the 1920’s who were exploited by white entrepreneurs. Fences (pr. 1985), which won a Pulitzer Prize, takes place in the 1950’s and dramatizes the effects of the exclusion of black baseball players from professional baseball. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (pr. 1986) takes place in 1911 and portrays the anguish of those who had fled the enforced labor gangs of the South and suffered the destruction of their families and the tribulations of a migratory existence. Wilson was committed to write a history of African Americans and of how they have been denied participation in American life. Wilson said that African Americans are “leftovers from history,” meaning that when free labor was needed, African Americans were valuable, but as the world moved into the industrial age and the computer age, “we’re no longer needed.” The Piano Lesson is a vivid documentation of history in the process of expelling African Americans and of the African American’s struggle to retain dignity, pride, and personhood by clinging to the symbols of history.
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“Family is everything” is a well-established archaic saying. This is exactly what The Piano Lesson attempts to convey to us. An intriguing yet heartfelt playwright set in the early 1930’s by August Wilson, The Piano Lesson highlights hard-hitting aspects of life such as family, slavery, racism, legacy, vengeance, dreams and a hint of feminism, the principal motif being family and the acceptance of one’s own heritage (58).
The Piano Lesson is actually about the lessons left to the estranged siblings by their ancestors. The piano in the play is a symbol of the past and the future of the Charles family. It stands for a family accepting and owning their past and leveraging their combined strength to beat the odds. The piano teaches Willie and Berniece the importance of a family looking out for one another.
For example, both Berniece and Boy Willie are shown to have conflicting ideas regarding family legacy which were not completely right (Costen, 4). Boy Willie was wrong when he wanted to sell the piano and hand over the family heirloom to a stranger and Berniece was wrong to keep the piano with her, refusing to play it, thereby disrespecting her ancestors. She was unable to wield its power as she refused to accept her family’s history. As both were at odds, Sutter’s ghost silently fed off of their despair and weakness, growing stronger. However, in the final act, when Boy Willie is being attacked by Sutter’s ghost, Berniece accepts her family’s past and plays the piano, yields its power, calling upon her ancestors for help and dispelling Sutter’s ghost.
Realizing and accepting the power of family and its endowments is a rare yet empowering gift, given to us by The Piano Lesson. The piano tells us that family is, without a doubt, everything.