The Piano Lesson
by August Wilson
Where It All Goes Down
The Charles Family House in Pittsburg, PN, 1937
The play is set in living room and kitchen of the Charles houses. These specific rooms are important because they allow the family to congregate, share their stories, and have their battles.
The stairs that lead to the upstairs could be important. Notice that during the course of the play Sutter's ghost is always seen at the top to the stairs. This could possibly symbolize that the white man has more in power in America. At the play's climax, Boy Willie keeps getting thrown down the stairs as he tries to wrestle Sutter's ghost. However, Boy Willie determinedly climbs them each time he's thrown down.
We think this could possibly symbolize Boy Willie's determination to live "at the top of life" (1.5.52). This basically means that he is determined to see himself as equal to the white man. No matter how many times the ghost of Sutter throws him to the bottom, he climbs back to the top of the stairs. It seems to us that these stairs are more than just a set piece; they are a metaphor for the black struggle for equality in America.
Like all but one of Wilson's plays, The Piano Lesson is set in August Wilson's hometown of Pittsburgh. The setting of Pittsburgh seems to be particularly important, because of what it and other northern industrial cities represented for many black people. Many travelled north to escape poverty and racial discrimination in the South. They hoped to find work in the factories of the steel mills and other factories in towns like Pittsburgh. This northerly exodus was called the Great Migration.
We should also not that the play is set in the 1930s – 1937 to be exact. During this time the United States was locked in the Great Depression. The economic ruin of the Depression is part of what motivated so many black people to leave the South. They hoped they could escape poverty by finding jobs in the North.