Act I, scene 1
It is early morning in the house shared by Doaker, his niece Berniece, and her young daughter Maretha. The action starts with the arrival of Boy Willie, Berniece’s brother, and his friend Lymon. They bang on the door until Doaker wakes up, and explain that they’ve come from Mississippi to Pittsburgh to sell the load of watermelons they’ve got in a truck outside. The truck broke down three times on the way north, but they made it. And Boy Willie aims to see his sister, no matter the hour.
Berniece awakes, grumpy at the noise. Boy Willie reports that Sutter drowned in his own well, and was probably pushed. Boy Willie thinks he was done in by the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Sutter, as gradually becomes clear, owned the land once worked by the Charles family, and was a frightful man.
Berniece challenges the origin of the truck outside, and Lymon insists he bought it – though he doesn’t say where he got the money to do so. He also refuses to say why he is avoiding the sheriff, and plans to stay in Pittsburgh after selling the cargo. Boy Willie will take the train home. Berniece exits to wake Maretha to see her uncle. Doaker mentions Wining Boy, his brother, who plays the piano and pops in and out of their lives every few years, whenever he has money troubles. The beautiful carved upright piano in the house was his for a time.
Boy Willie’s master plan is to sell that piano. Wit his savings, the watermelon sales, and the money from his share of the piano, he’ll have enough cash to buy Sutter’s place and work it himself. Doaker says Berniece will never sell that piano – the fledgling preacher Avery sent a man around once trying to buy up instruments, and he made a fine offer that Berniece refused. Avery is also trying to marry Berniece, but she refuses him as well – she is still mourning her husband Crawley, three years dead.
Berniece rushes downstairs in a fright. She has just seen the ghost of Sutter. The ghost wore a suit and said Boy Willie’s name, leading Berniece to believe that Boy Willie pushed Sutter in that well. Boy Willie denies it as impossible – how would the ghost know who pushed him anyway, as Sutter was pushed from behind? Berniece says if it weren’t for Boy Wilie, Crawley would be alive. He scoffs and says that the way to lose the ghosts is to sell the piano. Berniece tells them to get out, and she and Doaker go upstairs.
Boy Willie says Lymon is staying north because he is afraid of working, but Boy Willie intends to work that land hard. Doaker returns and says he believes Berniece saw Sutter in the suit he was buried in. he begins to talk about his 27 years on the railroad, first laying rail and now cooking. He muses about why people ride the trains, concluding that the train will never take you where you’re going, only where it’s going.
11-year-old Maretha comes downstairs. She has been taking lessons on the piano, and Boy Willie asks her to play. She does, and Boy Willie then demonstrates a boogie woogie tune, but Maretha can’t copy it because she needs to read music. Boy Willie says he will get her a guitar so she won’t need any music paper.
Avery enters, and explains how he is trying to start a church and become a preacher. He was called by God in a dream, in which he volunteered to lead a flock of sheep-men through a field of woods. Berniece reenters and takes Doaker’s market order. Boy Willie unsubtly asks the name of the guy who wanted to buy the piano previously, and tells Berniece of his plan to buy the Sutter land. Berniece dismisses any thought of selling the piano, and leaves. Boy Willie tells Doaker that if Berniece doesn’t let him sell the piano, he’ll cut it in half and sell his share.
Wilson hits the ground running in the first scene of The Piano Lesson. We open in the Charles household, but with a visitor at the door. There is no period of observing the status quo before the play’s triggering incident – the triggering incident brings the curtain up. And as in a Greek drama, the triggering incident is the arrival of a messenger at dawn.
A whole network of family, friends, and enemies – and their histories and conflicts – are fluidly established in this opening scene. Note how subtly Wilson lets us see that Sutter was an evil white landlord, without ever saying those words explicitly. It is clear in Boy Willie’s announcement of his death, and Berniece’s non-reaction to the news. Likewise, the concept of the Ghosts of Yellow Dog is seeded at this early juncture, over an hour before any explanation of their name and origin is given. We see the psychological effect of Sutter and of the ghosts, not the details of their histories.
Similarly graceful is the lack of stage directions in the early part of the script. Aside from exits and entrances, the playwright stays in the shadows, allowing action to arise from the dialogue. It reads almost like Shakespeare or Gilbert, an old script with merely the spoken words and no intervening explanation from the author to mediate the performance.
The basic premise of the conflict is simple and quickly expressed, within five minutes of the start of the show. 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 hide from history and Boy Willie wants to get rid of it. Wilson, however, wants to rewrite it, even if he has to use traditionally white instruments, even if he has to resurrect some ugly ghosts, for the alternative, it would seem, is to deny African Americans their art and their history.”
Two refrains continually punctuate the dialog of this scene – “there’s a truckload of watermelons out front,” and “she can go back to bed,” in various forms. The watermelons signify one third of Boy Willie’s master plan to raise the money to buy Sutter’s land. Watermelons are a stereotypically African American food, but Boy Willie subverts this stereotype by selling a truckload of the fruit to white northerners eager to experience something exotic – and willing to pay through the nose for it. In essence, one third of that plot of land is being bought for Boy Willie by the white people.
Boy Willie’s other refrain is a call to consciousness. He enters the play and the other characters’ lives by shouting. “Wake up!” he cries. “Wake up! It’s time for the story to start!” The other characters are reluctant – they are settled into their storyless routine – but Boy Willie promises they can go back to their unthinking slumber when he’s done with them. But as long as Boy Willie is there and ready to fight, they’ve got to at least be aware of what’s going on. Pay attention, Wilson is telling the audience. A story is starting. A game is afoot. A history is being ignored. Pay attention – if you must, you can stop caring again when the curtain comes back down.