Act II, scenes 3 and 4
That night, Boy Willie brings home a young woman, Grace. Boy Willie tries to romance her, but she balks when she realizes that there’s no bed, only a couch. Grace tries to get Boy Willie to go back to her place, maintaining that her ex Leroy probably won’t be there, but Boy Willie refuses to go anywhere Leroy might show up. They begin to kiss, and knock over a lamp. Berniece enters from upstairs, and sees Grace. Berniece doesn’t allow overnight guests, and tells Grace to leave. Grace is happy to go, but Boy Willie resists. With some pressure, the two leave.
Berniece puts on the kettle, and Lymon comes home. He tells Berniece that the only woman he found wanted to use him for free drinks. He saw one woman he liked, but Boy Willie got her first – it was Grace. Lymon is wistful about missing his opportunity with Grace. He says that Maretha looks like Berniece, and that he likes kids. Lymon is staying in the city because the sheriff is looking for him down south, and he figures that up north he can get a job and get himself settled down. Berniece remarks that the women in saloons, who go home with men, get old very fast. She doesn’t understand that life. Lymon figures them for lonely. He used to be the same, but now he has to really like a girl to want to be with her. He just hasn’t found the right one.
Berniece says she’s doing the same, and Avery isn’t anything special. Lymon asks if she goes out much, but she replies that she just stays home with Maretha. Lymon compliments her fancy nightgown, and gives her a bottle of perfume that he’d bought to give to Dolly if he’d liked her more. Lymon puts some of the perfume behind Berniece’s ear, and they kiss briefly. Berniece leaves. Lymon strokes his magic silk suit lovingly.
The next morning, Boy Willie comes home and wakes Lymon. Boy Willie did in fact have a run-in with this Leroy, but he got away. Boy Willie has called the man about the piano, and he has offered $1150. Lymon says he should have asked for more – white folk have a lot of money. They try to lift the piano, and the sound of Sutter’s ghost is heard. The piano won’t budge. They keep trying, but it is stuck in place. Doaker comes in and shoos them away, saying that no one carries anything out of his house without his permission; he insists they leave it till Berniece gets home. They ignore Doaker and keep trying to budge the piano. Doaker tells them off threateningly, and they leave to find some string and wheels for the job.
In this lighter scene, Berniece blocks Boy Willie’s attempt to spend an evening with Grace. In her home, all sexual behavior is forbidden, not just her own. The critic Kim Marra reads this moment as Wilson implicating the black matriarchy as a partner with white supremacy in the emasculation of the black man. Wilson aligns Berniece with the white man, Marra writes, by having each of Boy Willie’s attempts to move the piano interrupted by the anger of either Berniece or Sutter’s ghost – they are effectively interchangeable. And this scene drives home the point by having Berniece prevent Boy Willie from even having a romantic evening.
The portrayal of Berniece is rather cold and hard, but this scene serves to slowly soften some of her defenses. Boy Willie and Avery had tried the tactic of attacking Berniece like a fortress, but Lymon makes more progress by quiet, slow steps. He is a dreamer, looking for the right woman. Or maybe that’s just a line – but if it’s a line, it’s a successful one. The feminine nature sought by Avery is still there – it’s just not at the surface.
Lymon gets through some of Berniece’s walls, but a door once opened may be stepped through in either direction. Lymon gets through to Berniece, and she gets through to him. Their personal connection makes Lymon consider her side of the piano issue for the first time. When he and Boy Willie next try to move the piano, it won’t budge. This might be the work of Sutter’s ghost – or it might be the result of Lymon’s new doubt in Boy Willie’s plan. His sympathies are now aligned with Berniece, and he can no longer unthinkingly move the piano out of her house.
There is also significant contrast established here between Lymon and Boy Willie. Up till this point they have functioned mostly as a traditional comic duo, with Boy Willie taking the lead and Lymon following passively, existing just to provide color and someone for Boy Willie to scheme with. In the nighttime scene, though, we really see the difference in their respective characterizations. Boy Willie is annoyed by Grace’s reluctance to spend the night on the couch, noting that his grandpa took women on the backs of horses. Lymon, on the other hand, compliments Berniece on her fancy nightgown and gives her perfume. Boy Willie “sure is country,” and Lymon is aiming to become a city man, but their differing attitudes toward women are what really speak volumes.
Boy Willie also talks more of his plan to cut the piano in half and sell his share. This imagery is meant to evoke the biblical story of King Solomon and the two mothers. A child was in dispute, with each woman claiming motherhood, so Solomon proposed to cut the body in half. One woman protested, saying she’d rather lose her baby than have it killed. Solomon deemed her the true mother. By evoking this story, Wilson cues the audience – Boy Willie is not the true owner of the piano, because he is willing to cut it in half. But the unspoken part of the Solomon story is the question of how well exactly the true mother was caring for her child, if that child could be so easily claimed by another. Berniece is vulnerable to the same suspicion in her neglectful stewardship of the piano and its legacy.