Posted: March 18th, 2023
Piano Lesson”: Ambivalence And Legacy
The piano of August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson” is symbolic of the complex and ambivalent relationship Bernice and Willie have to the land their ancestors toiled as slaves, and the ability of African-Americans to re-tell and re-interpret their ancestral history of slavery in a positive and empowering manner. At the beginning of the play, Willie wants to sell the piano so he can symbolically defeat the attempts of the Sutter family to own his family. His sister Bernice sees the enduring presence piano as symbolizing her family’s freedom, forged by her father.
Long ago, the family’s images were carved into the piano after Willie and Bernice’s ancestors were traded for the piano. Bernice’s father came to believe that if another person owned the piano, the family would still be in bondage, so he took the piano and crafted its wood into a living testimony of the family. Bernice and Willie’s father: “say we was still in slavery,” while the piano rested in the hands of another person, Bernice recalls (45).
On one hand, Bernice hates the piano because it reminds her of her legacy as a slave and the Sutter family who owned and traded her ancestors, and because she fears that it is full of ghosts. But the piano is also inlaid with carvings made by her father’s own hands. Bernice’s ambivalence is also exemplified in the fact that Bernice refuses to sell the piano, yet she also refuses to play the instrument, for fear of waking the spirits within it. “I don’t play that piano ’cause I don’t want to wake them spirits” (70).
Bernice’s brother Willie scoffs “ain’t no ghost,” which demonstrates his often limited understanding of the need to still retain a connection to his family’s past struggles and legacy (104). However, when the ghost of Sutter comes, Bernice is able to gain the courage to play, and eventually she and her brother establish a kind of peace between themselves and their ancestors. Whether the ghost is real or not does not matter, what matters is that both sister and brother have exorcized the evil demons of the past, and resurrected the influence of the piano in a positive light. They have also forged a new, healthier relationship.
Wilson, August. “The Piano Lesson.” New York: Plume, 1990.
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