Act II, scene 5
Boy Willie is screwing wheels on a plank and telling Maretha the history of the Yellow Dog train, and about its ghosts. He hasn’t spoken to them, but Wining Boy has. Berniece comes home and sends Maretha upstairs, though she’s afraid of the ghost. Boy Willie goes with her to fight off the ghost for her. Berniece tells Doaker she is done playing games with Boy Willie, and has a gun if need be. She and Boy Willie go another round, with Doaker refusing to take sides or kick anyone out. Boy Willie says he isn’t scared of death, ever since he killed a cat and discovered he can wield death just like the white man. Doaker says Avery went to get his bible to bless the house, and Boy Willie argues that they are taking the bible halfway, ignoring the “eye for an eye” section.
Berniece begins to grease Maretha’s hair with a hot comb. Boy Willie rants that Berniece hasn’t told Maretha about the piano, when it should be a cause for celebration, not sadness and shame. Berniece says that he should have his own child if he’s so keen on raising one. But Boy Willie wouldn’t want to bring a child into this world. If he were Rockefeller he’d have fifty kids, but he has no advantages. His father had to work for the man because he had no other way of working for himself, and Boy Willie aims to change that cycle by having his own land. With land, everything else falls into place. He refuses to live at the bottom of life. Berniece says he’s on the bottom with the rest of them, but Boy Willie says you are only on the bottom if you think you are. Boy Willie just wants to make a mark on life, to say he was here.
Avery enters, and Boy Willie asks him if you can get to heaven on half the bible. Avery says that you must be born again. Boy Willie refers to the “eye for an eye” line, but Avery begins talking about his congregation. He’s there to bless the house, which should make any ghost leave, and at least can’t hurt.
Lymon enters with the string. He ran into Grace on the way. Boy Willie and Lymon start trussing the piano. Berniece goes upstairs and comes back with Crawley’s gun in her pocket. Lymon for the first time wants Berniece to have her say, but Boy Willie yells at him. Lymon apologizes to Berniece, but she is only focused on Boy Willie. He says she’ll have to shoot him to stop him. Bernice is quite wiling to do that, and sends Maretha upstairs.
Wining Boy enters, drunk. They try to put him to bed, but he intends to play the piano. He sings a song he wrote for Cleotha. Boy Willie tries to get him up so he can move the piano, but Wining Boy says that if they take it he is going along with it. Grace knocks on the door. She’d been waiting in Lymon’s truck. Berniece tells Lymon to leave with Grace, but Boy Willie says he has to help move the piano first. Everyone suddenly senses Sutter’s presence. Grace feels it too, and says something isn’t right, and runs off. Lymon follows to take her home.
The characters acknowledge that Sutter is upstairs. Bernice tells Avery to bless the house. Doaker says to bless the piano, for it is what is causing all the trouble. Avery reads the bible and casts holy water on the piano. Boy Willie grabs his own pot of water and flings it about, yelling at Sutter. He runs upstairs, and is thrown back. He tries again and again, wrestling the ghost upstairs while everyone listens, stunned.
Berniece crosses to the piano and begins to play, singing repetitively “I want you to help me,” and invoking her dead family members. There is the sound of a train, and the ghost of Sutter disappears. Bernice thanks the ghosts, and embraces Boy Willie. He takes his leave, heading home on the next train, and telling Berniece that if she doesn’t keep playing that piano, he and Sutter will be back.
On a superficial level, the last scene of the play begins with the same stalemate that was introduced in the first scene, with little development. And indeed, the piano has not budged an inch. But the conflict over the piano has worn tempers thin and piled association after association onto the concept of the piano, raising the stakes significantly for both the characters and the audience.
The dramatic finale of The Piano Lesson brings the problem of the play to its inevitable conclusion, but not through easily anticipated means. The Solomonic compromise offered by Boy Willie early on foreshadowed that he would not end up with the piano, but neither could Berniece’s status quo be maintained without any changes to her life or lessons learned. Yet Wilson has created two characters who were so set in their plans and ways that no amount of yelling at one another would produce a dramatically suitable outcome. Indeed, in later interviews, Wilson noted that the Broadway production went into rehearsals without an ending yet chosen.
The ending Wilson found might be the only possible satisfactory conclusion to this story. Through the outside force of the ghosts, Berniece is forced to play the piano and release its spirits - which forces Boy Willie to relinquish his claim to the instrument. This invocation of the spirits of the piano is not a defeat of Berniece, but a triumph. The song that calls upon the ancestors of the Charles family is joyful and redeeming.
It is also a battle cry for a nascent African American community. At one point, Wilson even hoped that members of the audience would contribute the names of their own ancestors to the cause. Although this did not come to pass, the idea still penetrates the theatrical moment. Throughout the play and throughout the Wilson oeuvre overall, there are many criticisms of the African American community, it's divisiveness and transience and gender-coded battle lines. But Berniece calls upon the common history that binds all the members of the Charles family - and all their friends and neighbors and acquaintances - to work together. Past, present, and future, the entire African American community is united to drive out the spirit of the white slave-owner. It is not difficult to read a political context into this moment when so considered.
The last scene is the only extended scene of the play with a full stage. The whole Charles family is here for the finale, plus Lymon and Avery and Grace. Of course there is a dramatic purpose to a full stage, as it makes a finale feel more finale-like and weighty. But this is also a visual illustration of Wilson's extended statement about community. A family is a unit that can be defined in many ways - including a family with two sets of siblings and no couples - and branches out to friends, lovers, and even the dead. All are present for the final battle against Sutter, because all must bear witness and work together for the final battle to be a success. In a true community, no one fights alone.