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

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Set in 1936 Pittsburgh, The Piano Lesson tells the story of Boy Willie and Berniece, siblings who battle over their family’s prized possession, the piano. This play delves into the connection African Americans have to their family’s past, with a specific focus on their ancestors who were enslaved.

The play revolves around a 137-year-old piano, which represents the history of the Charles family. This piano carries various meanings as time goes by. Initially bought with slave exchange, it symbolizes how people and objects were seen as interchangeable during the era of slavery. This trade in human lives reinforces white familial bonds while marginalizing black ones.

The piano is a gift given to commemorate an anniversary. Its carved wooden figures serve to appease Miss Ophelia and symbolize how slaves are seen as interchangeable possessions by their masters. As noted by Doaker, Miss Ophelia now has both the piano and her slaves. The piano itself represents the ongoing conflicts and connections between the past, present, and future. The fate of the piano greatly impacts the futures of Berniece and Boy Willie as they come to realize the profound significance behind this intricately carved wooden object.

Therefore, the reason behind the power struggle concerning a musical instrument lies in the historical background of Berniece and Boy Willy’s family. To comprehend this, we must delve into the family’s history. Back in the days of slavery, Robert Sutter, the grandfather of the recently deceased Sutter, was the owner of the Charles family. In an attempt to create an anniversary gift for his friend Joel Nolander, Robert desired to acquire a piano but lacked the financial means. Consequently, he exchanged Berniece, Doaker’s grandmother, and his father for the instrument in question.

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

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