Doaker is the closest thing the Charles family currently has to a patriarch, as the more stable and grounded of the two surviving siblings. He has worked his entire life on the railroad, first laying rail and now as a cook, and is given to incorporating the mythos of the rail into his everyday philosophy. He refuses to take sides in the drama over the piano, but steps in to stop the situation from getting out of hand.
Boy Willie is Doaker's energetic nephew, a schemer who is always embroiled in some plot or another. his current ambition is to validate his family's past and secure its future by purchasing the land they worked as slaves. But in order to do this, he must sell the piano. He gets his way not through persuasion but by bulldozing people, but his sister's conviction proves an insurmountable road block.
Lymon is Boy Willie's friend from down South, and his partner in crime. Although Boy Willie considers himself the brains of the operation, Lymon is just more inclined to geniality and taking things as they come. He can be proactive, in a mild yet effective way that is often upstaged by Boy Willie's brash style. In the end, he gains a will and identity of his own, and parts ways from Boy Willie.
Berniece is Boy Willie's sister, and she's a hard woman to please. Her husband died three years previous, and she has lived with her uncle and daughter since, living day to day and worrying only about raising Maretha. Her stubborn refusal to change her ways is shown in her unwillingness to marry Avery or to sell - or even play - the piano. She is the type of woman who thinks men are only good for messes of things, and leaving women to clean up after them.
Maretha is Berniece's young daughter. She doesn't know much about her family's history, but she is interested when Boy Willie starts to tell her. Her mother allows Maretha to take piano lessons, but never explains why she herself won't play it. Maretha's fear of the ghost upstairs leads to Boy Willie's confrontation with the specter.
Avery considers himself Berniece's beau, although his affections are not quite reciprocated. He more than anyone in the cast has settled into his role in the white man's world, and enjoys his steady job as an elevator operator while saving money to start his true calling as a preacher. Although not well educated, he makes a good show of it, and is called upon to help dispel the spirits from the house.
Wining Boy is Doaker's ne'er do well brother, who appears in town whenever he is down on his luck. He is a charmer and a strong personality, similar to Boy Willie, and indeed he too has fun pushing Lymon around. Wining Boy used to make his livelihood on the piano before it became permanently parked in Berniece's living room, but he quit that life when he began to feel chained to the piano and his identity as an entertainer. Nevertheless, he is protective of the piano, and plays it when he is in town.
Grace is a girl that Boy Willie picks up in a bar, although Lymon had his eye on her first. She is perceptive and doesn't like to cause trouble, or be around trouble - she leaves the apartment when Berniece disapproves of her tryst, and later when she senses the ghost's presence. In the end, Lymon begins to win her over.
The Piano Lesson Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Piano Lesson is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Boy Willie wants to sell the piano. Berniece wants to keep it. Cue conflict. But since the piano is a symbol for the family’s history, it runs much deeper than that. The scholar Alan Nadel sums it up succinctly: “Berniece, we could say, wants to...