Symbolic Value of the Piano in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”

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Set in Pittsburg during 1936, The Piano Lesson centers on the conflicting wills of a brother and sister (Boy Willie and Berniece) as they fight for possession of their family’s most important heirloom, the piano. The play explores African Americans’ relationship to family history, particularly to the history of their slave ancestors.

The central symbol of the play is the 137-year-old piano, an object that incarnates the Charles’ family history. It takes on a number of meanings through the course of its life. A gift purchased through the exchange for slaves, it originally exemplifies the interchangeability of person and object under the system of slavery. This traffic in flesh reaffirms a white kinship network at the expense of black ones.

Note that the piano is an anniversary present. Carved to placate Miss Ophelia, the piano’s wooden figures indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and ornament for the master. As Doaker notes, “Now she had her piano and her niggers too.” The slave is the master’s gift and accessory. The piano is a concrete representation of the still-existing conflicts and connections between the past, present and the future. The fate of the piano has a significant effect on Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s future as they start to understand the true meaning of this carved piece of wood.

So, why the power struggle over a musical instrument? To answer that, one must understand the history of Berniece and Boy Willy’s family. During slavery, a man named Robert Sutter—the recently deceased Sutter’s grandfather—owned the Charles family. He wanted to make an anniversary present out of his friend, Joel Nolander’s, piano but could not afford it. Thus he traded a full and half grown slave, Doaker’s grandmother Berniece and his father, for the instrument.

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Symbolic Value of the Piano in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”. (2018, Aug 08). Retrieved from