The Piano Lesson
by August Wilson
Analysis: What's Up With the Title?
No, The Piano Lesson isn't a manual on how to play the piano, but it is about someone with something to learn. By the end of the play, all of its characters appear to have learned a "lesson." "Oh, but what is this lesson? I must know, I must know," you desperately say. Settle down, settle down…class is now in session.
The Charles home is being haunted by the ghost of Sutter, the man whose family once owned the Charles family when slavery was legal. They try everything to get rid of the ghost. Avery, a preacher, tries to pray it away, and Boy Willie tries to wrestle the ghost. Both of these tactics flop. Avery's prayers seem to make the ghost mad, and Boy Willie just keeps getting thrown down the stairs. It's not until Berniece plays the piano and calls upon the spirits of her ancestors that the ghost is finally given the boot.
"But what is the lesson?" you ask us. Chill out, we're almost there. The piano that Berniece plays on to exorcise Sutter's ghost is a symbol of her family's history and also the history of all African Americans. (For more on all that, check out "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory." Also, check out "What's up With the Ending?") Berniece has done her best to forget her family's history. She tries hard to ignore that it ever happened. However, when she's forced to play the piano again, she learns there is strength in knowing and embracing where you've come from.
The lesson of the play seems to be that African Americans must embrace and celebrate their past (even the painful parts) if they are to build a future. In many ways, this is the lesson of all of August Wilson's plays. His ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle documents the African-American experience in every decade of the twentieth century. Wilson saw it as a way of recording and representing the black experience.
Before we peace out on this entry, we should definitely note that the play shares its title with a painting by Romare Bearden. Check it out here. This is the picture that originally inspired Wilson to write the play. Bearden's amazing collages of African-American life were a huge influence on August Wilson. Wilson's play Joe Turner's Come and Gone was also directly inspired by Bearden. For more on this artistic relationship, click here.