Act I, scene 2
Three days later, Wining Boy has come to town. Doaker updates him on all we’ve learned so far. Wining Boy mentions that his ex-wife Cleotha died – he is saddened by this, and carries the letter with the news on his person. She was a good woman, he says.
Boy Willie and Lymon enter and report that the truck broke down on the way to the white area, and one of them will have to sleep with the truck that night to protect the watermelons. Boy Willie accuses Wining Boy of being broke, but Wining Boy says he is doing fine.
The men tally off the names of those who have been killed by the Ghosts of Yellow Dog. Wining Boy has stood on the tracks and spoken to these ghosts, and believes it firmly, even if Berniece doesn’t. Boy Willie meanwhile is sure Sutter will wait on him to buy the land, but the others smell a con. He also explains that Crawley died when helping him and Lymon out of a spot involving stolen lumber. Lymon is on the run from the same event.
Wining Boy says that white men can fix the law but the colored man cannot; they better watch out or they’ll end up working back on Parchman farm, busting their backs. This leads to everyone singing a work song about a girl named Alberta who should marry a steady-working railroad man and not a farmer.
Wining Boy tells how he gave the piano up – years of carrying a piano on his back and growing sick of being paid in whisky and women. Doaker then tells the story of the piano (for Lymon’s benefit) to explain why Berniece won’t sell it. When the family was owned by the Sutters, Mr. Sutter wanted to buy a present for his wife Ophelia. Nolander had a piano, and Sutter traded Doaker’s grandmother and 9-year-old father for it. Ophelia loved the piano but soon missed her slaves; Nolanger, however, would not trade it back. So Sutter called in the first Willie Boy, Doaker’s grandpa, who wasn’t sold with his family, and who was an expert woodworker. He was asked to carve likenesses of his wife and son into the piano for Ophelia. But he went a step further and carved their entire family history.
After the war, the piano was still owned by Sutter. So the brothers Doaker, Wining Boy, and Boy Charles (Berniece and Boy Willie’s father) schemed to steal it. They got away with the piano, but the white men caught up with Boy Charles on a boxcar on the Yellow Dog train, and set it afire with him and four hobos inside. And they became the ghosts of Yellow Dog. Berniece won’t sell the piano, because her father died over it.
Boy Willie doesn’t care, because the piano isn’t growing or doing anyone any good. Farming creates capital, but a piano does not. Boy Willie wants to own the land his family long worked. Wining Boy goes to the piano and sings a song from his barplaying days.
Berniece comes home and passes through. While she’s out of the room, Boy Willie and Lymon test lifting the piano, and we hear the sound of the ghost. Berniece enters, angry that they still think they can sell the piano, when it would be selling their soul. Boy Willie explains that he’d understand the piano if she gave lessons on it or ran a choir, but that it only has sentimental value. He says their daddy would have understood that it was more important to have land.
Berniece offers a sharp rebuttal, noting that their mother polished the piano with her tears for seventeen years. All men do is thieve and kill. Boy Willie says he never killed, but Berniece says he killed Crawley, by mixing him up in his scheme. Boy Willie denies it, and Berniece insists, getting angry and raining blows on Boy Willie’s chest. Their fight is broken up by Maretha shouting from upstairs in terror.
The second half of the act consists largely of explanation, with long, powerful speeches making sure we and all the characters know just what that piano is and what it means to each person on stage. For Doaker, it is a symbol of family history and suffering. For Wining Boy, it is his connection to his old performing life on the road, and as such is both a souvenir and a shackle. For Berniece, it is a symbol of loss and waste and her mother’s suffering – the women must esteem the piano priceless in order to justify the price paid for it in blood. And for Boy Willie, it means economic freedom.
It is from these warring interpretations of a single symbol that arises the action of the play. Wilson deftly folds these explanations into the scenes, with each character’s ideology toward the piano (and, by extension, toward their lives and the legacy of slavery they live with) revealed both in stand-alone speeches and in repeated actions and comments. The dialog repeats endlessly, circling around the piano like water toward a drain. Boy Willie wants to sell it. Berniece won’t let him. Repeat. But each iteration pulls the noose in tighter, and the detail and conflict are heightened until blows come at the end of the act.
The conflict over the piano can be boiled down to two representative concepts – the deprivation of African Americans of their past, and the hopelessness of their future. Berniece clings to the one symbol of their history, and Boy Willie strives for a chance at a future, but these goals are mutually exclusive. The past must be sold out in order to reach for the future. To do nothing breeds stagnation – as in Berniece’s love life, since she has not sullied the memory of her husband by taking any other man. But the question is: is the piano (and Berniece’s love life) stagnant, or lying fallow?
Wining Boy’s story about the blackberries is more than just an anecdote – it is a story in which the lines are drawn and the rules are set by a white man. And not just any white man, but one who owns property. This serves to bolster Boy Willie’s argument that owning property is the key to success – he can’t make himself white, but he can try to give himself the advantages that come with that skin tone. And property ownership, in Boy Willie’s eyes, is the first and biggest step.
Wining Boy’s other speech about the piano reflects a conflict in African American identities. Am I Wining Boy, or am I the piano player? Black men in America have historically been defined by their roles, not by their actual individual identities. Wining Boy felt the same conflation taking place in his own life, until the piano he once loved became a symbol of his nonexistence in the eyes of white men. His only recourse, then, was to “shoot the piano player.”