The Piano Lesson takes place in 1930’s Pittsburgh. It opens up with a quote from Skip James, “Gin my cotton Sell my seed Buy my baby Everything she need. ” This can be described at the central theme of the play, what does a person do with their inheritance, their legacy? Does one keep and cherish it, or sell it to make a minor profit? The play opens at dawn with Boy Willie knocking at the door and calls for his Uncle Doaker. Doaker lets him in, and Willie enters with his partner, Lymon. The two have come from Mississippi in a truck to sell watermelons.
Willie then calls for his sister Berniece. He has not seen her in three years because he had spent time on the Parchman Prison Farm. Boy Willie asks his uncle for a drink in celebration. When the two ask why there is a need for celebration, Boy Willie tells them that the ghosts of the yellow dog have drowned Sutter in his well. The Sutter family owned the Charles during slavery and Boy Willie intends to buy the land that his ancestors worked day after day. Bernice does not believe them and asks how they got the truck they drove to her house. Lymon explains that he bought it to hide from the law.
Bernice insists they leave her house immediately and that she doesn’t want them waking up her daughter Maretha. Boy Willie then calls upstairs for her and Bernice storms up the steps in a very angry manner. Lymon then asks about the piano. Willie intends to sell it and, with the profits from the watermelons as well, use the money to buy Sutter’s land. Doaker, however, is sure Berniece will not part with the piano. Indeed, Avery Brown, a preacher who has been courting Berniece since her husband Crawley died, has already tried to get her to sell it. Willie schemes to get in touch with the prospective buyer himself.
Suddenly Berniece yells out, “Go on get away. ” Berniece claims she has seen Sutter’s ghost, calling Boy Willie’s name. She is convinced that her brother pushed Sutter into the well. She then refuses to cooperate with his plans. Three days later, Doaker’s brother Wining Boy sits at the kitchen table discussing the recent events with the men. Wining Boy mentions that he heard Willie and Lymon were on Parchman Farm. Willie explains that some whites had tried to chase Willie, Lymon, and Berniece’s husband Crawley from some wood they were pilfering. Crawley fought back and was killed while the other two went to prison.
Doaker then explains the piano’s history to Lymon. During slavery, a man named Robert Sutter, owned the Charles family. He wanted to make an anniversary present out of his friend’s piano but could not afford it. So he traded Doaker’s grandmother, Berniece, and his father for the instrument. Sutter’s wife loved the piano, but she eventually missed her slaves. She became very sick. So, Sutter asked Doaker’s grandfather, Willie Boy, to carve the faces of his wife and child into the piano. A few years later, Boy Charles, Berniece’s father, became obsessed with it and thought that as long as the Sutter family had it, they owned their family.
So in 1911, he and others set out to steal it. And they succeeded. But then the mob set his house on fire. He escaped, but soon after died on the Yellow Dog train car and became the railroad ghosts along with the other hobos. Once the story is over, Boy Willie and Lymon try to take the piano, but Berniece intervenes. She talks of their mother who worked on it night and day. Then Maretha is heard screaming because she saw Sutter’s ghost. The next morning, Winning Boy sells an old suit to Lymon promising him luck with the ladies. He, Winning Boy, and Boy Willie then set out to find women.
Later that night, Berniece is preparing her bath. Avery walks in and again tries to court her. He fails and Berniece asks him to bless the house. Avery leaves and Boy Willie returns home with a woman named Grace. They begin to go at it on the couch when Berniece walks in and kicks them out. Lymon returns afterwards with his suit and gives Berniece perfume and they kiss. The next morning, Willie Boy returns home and begins telling Maretha ghost stories of the Yellow Dog. Berniece puts a stop to it and she and Boy Willie begin to argue about the piano again. Berniece runs upstairs to get Crawley’s gun.
Avery comes to bless the house and the piano. Winning Boy returns home drunk and cuts the tension in the house. He sings a song on the piano he wrote for his wife. Lymon and Grace return from their date just as Sutter’s ghost appears one final time. Boy Willie chases it upstairs as Avery begins his blessings. Berniece panics and begins playing the piano and asking her ancestors for help. Sutter’s ghost settles and leaves for good. The next day Boy Willie, Winning Boy, and Lymon leave for Mississippi and give their last farewells. Berniece and Maretha sit and play the piano, giving thanks.