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Theatre / The Piano Lesson

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The Piano Lesson is a 1987 play by August Wilson. It is the fourth play in his ten-play "Pittsburgh Cycle".
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Pittsburgh, 1936, the Hill District. The Charles family is a black family that in the relatively recent past has moved to Pittsburgh from Mississippi. Bernice, a 35-year-old widow, lives with her 11-year-old daughter Maretha in the home of her uncle Doaker. The family's prized possession is a grand piano, carved with the faces of their recent ancestors. The piano was formerly owned by the Sutter family, who a few generations back also owned the Charleses as slaves. In 1911 Bernice's father Charles and his brothers Doaker and Wining Boy, who believed they were entitled to the piano for their work on it and their family's decades of unpaid labor, stole it. As a result Bernice's father was killed.

Bernice's loud, brash brother Boy Willie arrives from Mississippi after recently getting out of prison. Boy Willie wants to buy the Sutters' land, now for sale after the latest Mr. Sutter's death. To raise capital, he wants to sell the piano. Bernice flatly refuses to sell the piano, which after all is a family heirloom. Tensions mount as the siblings argue over the piano—tensions exacerbated by the appearance of Sutter's ghost in the household.

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Samuel L. Jackson appeared in the original production as Boy Willie. See also Fences, another play in the Pittsburgh Cycle.


Tropes:

  • Banishing Ritual: To banish Sutter's ghost, Avery attempts this, reading from the Bible and saying "Get thee behind me, Satan" and the like. But it fails, as the ghost battles Boy Willie upstairs. It takes Bernice sitting down at the piano and playing, something she hasn't done since her mother's death, to banish the ghost. It also banishes Boy Willie, who makes his peace with Bernice keeping the piano and leaves.
  • Double-Meaning Title: There's piano lessons; Boy Willie wonders why Bernice doesn't teach anybody if she's so determined to hold on to the piano. But there's also the lesson that the family is learning from the piano, about staying connected to your past.
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  • Ghostly Chill: Sutter's ghost, which is gathering strength, casts a chill on the house when it appears in the last scene.
  • The Good Shepherd: Avery, who is becoming a preacher, hopes to be this. In fact the new church that he's building will be called the Good Shepherd Church of God in Christ.
  • The Lost Lenore: Bernice still mourns her husband Crawley, three years dead, shot by white thugs while hauling wood with Boy Willie and Lymon.
  • Maybe Ever After: Bernice and Lymon, Boy Willie's friend. Lymon is looking for a soulmate. Bernice has not dated since her husband died three years ago. She lets Lymon kiss her after he gives her a bottle of perfume. The scene ends and that plot thread isn't further pursued, but the implication of a relationship remains.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Just how did Mr. Sutter die? Did he fall down the well? Did Boy Willie murder him to get his land, like Bernice thinks? Or did the "Ghosts of the Yellow Dog"—the five people lynched in 1911 over the piano, including Bernice and Boy Willie's father—do it? It seems that at some point in the past another member of the lynch mob strangely fell down a well to his death...
  • Memento MacGuffin: The piano, carved with portraits of the family's ancestors. The major conflict is what to do with it.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Sutter's ghost at first only materializes. Later it seems to gain strength, casting a ghostly chill and playing the piano. And during the banishing ritual it gets stronger, and fights with Boy Willie.

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