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The Piano Lesson

The Piano Lesson

by August Wilson

Race Theme

The Piano Lesson, like all of the plays in August Wilson's ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, deals with issues of race. The goal of the cycle is to document the African-American experience in the twentieth century, decade by decade, and it does just that. The Piano Lesson is a snap shot of the black experience in 1930s America, the time of the Great Depression, and also highlights the effects of the Great Migration which brought so many blacks north to industrial cities like Pittsburgh in search of jobs. The play shows the differences in race relations in the North and the South at the time. Though it doesn't mention the racist Jim Crow laws directly, it does show that blacks were more fairly treated in the North. The Piano Lesson is a document of these momentous events in African-American history. Beyond that, it seems to ask the question: how black people make use of this history? How can this cultural heritage be built upon?

Questions About Race

  1. What does Boy Willie mean when he says that he lives at "the top of life" (2.5.52)?
  2. How have race relations changed from the time of slavery to the 1930s when the play is set?
  3. What differences do you see in each character's perspective on race relations?
  4. In what ways does The Piano Lesson show the law as being on the side of white people?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Berniece draws on the strength of the African-American race when she plays the piano to banish Sutter's ghost.

Though Boy Willie accuses her of being pessimistic, Berniece's view of race relations is simply more pragmatic than her brother's.

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