I am reading my way through the list of texts I will teach in AP in the coming year, and as August Wilson is an important writer who often appears on the test, I found myself reading this play. I’m so glad I did. I have read and taught Fences, which might be his more famous play, but I found this play to be much more exquisite, and I liked the characters a great deal more.
The Piano Lesson is the story of a family piano. An intricately carved work of art, the piano’s legs include family portraits carved by Willie Boy, the family patriarch. Willie Boy, a slave owned by the Sutter family, was asked by Sutter to carve the faces of his wife and child, whom Sutter had sold away, into the piano to please Sutter’s wife. Instead, Sutter carves the faces of his entire family. Willie Boy’s son Boy Charles steals the piano because he believes it more rightfully belongs to his family than it does to the Sutters, The piano entwines the two families even in death. Siblings Boy Willie and Berniece spend most of the play arguing over the piano. Bernice wants to keep it because of its importance to the family, but Boy Willie wants to sell it in order to buy the deceased Sutter’s land.
There are many things going on in this play: the tension between enjoying art for art’s sake instead of more “practical” objects, such as land; the importance of family; what it means to be successful in life. The piano lesson of the title is really the argument that Boy Willie and Berniece are having about the piano: would it be better for the family to keep it or to sell to buy Sutter’s land? It’s an important conversation to have, as the play is set at a time when many African Americans did not have either a family history they knew and could cling to or an opportunity to own land.
Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, and I can see how a production would be quite something to watch. However, Toni Morrison makes a successful argument for simply reading the play in her introduction, and it is indeed a delight to read as well. I would consider this an important work of the Great Migration and of American drama in general. I’m not sure if this would make a good movie—I think it is meant to be on the stage. It does look like it’s been made into a movie at least once.Rating:
This story is probably set no later than the 1930’s, solidly in the period of the Great Migration, as Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandparents had been slaves, and Sutter would have had to have still been around at the beginning of the play. However, as the play also includes a truck (that is one of the liveliest characters in the story, I will add), vehicles have to be somewhat common. As it was published in 1988, it counts as historical fiction.