The Piano Lesson


Doaker Charles: The owner of the Charles household; the uncle of Berniece and Boy Willie. He lives with his niece Berniece and great-niece Maretha. A tall and thin 47-year-old man, Charles recounts the most detailed parts of his lives with his job on the railroad. Doaker plays the role of the storyteller, giving detailed and long accounts of the piano's history. Due to his old age, his connection to the past is expressed through his stories.

"Ain’t nobody said nothing about who's right and who's wrong. I was just telling the man about the piano. I was telling him why we say Berniece ain’t gonna sell it."[3]

Doaker is also one of the only characters that truly understand Berniece's desire not to sell the piano so that the legacy of their family may remain. He may maintain a neutral view of whether the piano should be kept or sold, but he does prevent Boy Willie from taking the piano and bolting without Berniece's knowledge.

Boy Willie: Berniece's impulsive 30-year-old brother represents the lack of accepting one's past. A sharecropper and recently delivered out of prison from Mississippi, Boy Willie plans to sell the piano and use the earnings to buy the land where his ancestors had formerly toiled. His use of the legacy comes down to practicality; Willie finds the rich culture of his history engraved on the piano through pictures, blood, and tears to be a simple conversion to money. Rather than looking upon his past and accepting it, Boy Willie finds the constant need to prove himself as equal to the white man.

"If my daddy had seen where he could have traded that piano in for some land of his own, it wouldn’t be sitting up here now. He spent his whole life farming on somebody else's land. I ain’t gonna do that. See, he couldn’t do no better. When he come along he ain’t had nothing he could build on. His daddy ain’t had nothing to give him. The only thing my daddy had to give me was that piano. And he died over giving me that. I ain’t gonna let it sit up there and rot without trying to do something with it."[3]

Unable to understand the importance of keeping one's legacy around one to understand and grow from it, Boy Willie only concerns himself with labels and capital. In the last scene of the book, after Berniece calls to the ancestors, Boy Willie finally understands that there is no escape from living his ancestral legacy and the only way to benefit from it is to learn from it.

Lymon: Lymon is the 29-year-old friend of Boy Willie and is much more secretive and shy in comparison, however, upon becoming more comfortable with the family, his attitude changes to be a sympathizer who doesn't offer many original opinions. He does not speak brashly and attempts to escape the law by staying in the North and starting a new life.

"Yeah, I can see why you say that now. I told Boy Willie he ought to stay up here with me."[3]

One of the few characters in this play not related to the members of the Charles household, Lymon offers help and sporadic advice to the other characters. He listens to Doaker's version of the piano story, sympathizes with Boy Willie's desires to sell the piano, and attempts to understand Berniece's connection to the piano. Lymon is also obsessed with women and plays a large role in allowing Berniece to slowly relieve the mourning of Crawley, her deceased husband.

"I just dream about woman. Can’t never seem to find the right one."[4]

His desire to please women and find his soul mate softens Berniece's gaze on crude men and gives him a slight leeway to kiss her.

Berniece: The 35-year-old mother of Maretha, Berniece symbolizes the guardian of her ancestors' past. She remains the only member of the family to adamantly demand the keepsake of the piano heirloom. Her relation with her brother further portrays her mourning of her late husband Crawley. Blaming Boy Willie for Crawley's death, Berniece questions Boy Willie's foolish actions more than others. While Boy Willie represents an opposing figure to their father Boy Charles by wanting to be a property owning man, Berniece draws similarities to her mother Mama Ola who never seemed to recover from the mourning of her husband either.

"Look at this piano. Look at it. Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in…mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it. Every day that God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it. ‘Play something for me, Berniece. Play something for me, Berniece.’ Every day… You always talking about your daddy but you ain’t never stopped to look at what his foolishness cost your mamma."[3]

Berniece feels as if the piano should stay in the home rather be sold and it is a family heirloom. The piano is in her residence and was the one who was led to the piano first. She did not feel the need to rearrange her ancestors' past and instead embraced it. To Berniece, the piano represents her father's life, since he died over it, and her mother's toil, since she incessantly asked Berniece to play after his death.[5] Originally playing the role of the messenger between the dead ancestors and the living descendants, Berniece prefers to stop channeling her family's ghosts after her mother's death. Since she does not want to disturb the spirits in the piano, Berniece leaves the piano untouched and does not play it.

"I told you I don’t play on that piano…When my mama died I shut the top on that piano and I ain’t never opened it since. I was only playing it for her. When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano. She used to have me play on it…say when I played it she could hear my daddy talking to her. I used to think them pictures come alive and walked through the house. Sometime late at night I could hear my mama talking to them. I said that wasn’t gonna happen to me I don’t play that piano ‘cause I don’t want to wake them spirits. They never be walking around in this house."[6]

To save her daughter from the burdens that Berniece had to endure from playing the piano and helping her mother go through the pain and misery of losing her husband, Berniece refuses to let the spirits of her ancestors come back into her life. However, in the last scene, Berniece finally resumes her role as the middle person between the living and dead. In this last scene, Berniece plays the piano again and fulfills her duty to her family's legacy.

Maretha: The 11-year-old daughter of Berniece, Maretha plays the role of the future generation for the Charles family. Although Berniece teaches her how to play the piano, she does not allow any history of the piano to become apparent to Maretha.

"Maretha…don’t know nothing about it…She don’t have to carry all of that with her. She got a chance I didn’t have. I ain’t gonna burden her with that piano." ."[6]

Maretha's encounters with ghosts are approached without Berniece's liking. Maretha also allows experimentation among the future progeny of the Charles family, leading observations regarding the best way to pass down family history.

Avery Brown: A 38-year-old preacher who has been attempting to court Berniece ever since the death of Crawley, Avery Brown is a man of honest and good intentions. Constantly stressing his Christian view on things and advocating his hopes to build a congregation, Avery is aware that Berniece will never sell her piano heirloom. Also not related to the Charles family, Avery often offers advice to Berniece in an effort to help her let go of the fears of her past and the lingering mourning of her husband.

"You got to put all that behind you, Berniece. That's the same thing like Crawley. Everybody got stones in their passway. You got to step over them or walk around them. You picking them up and carrying them with you. All you got to do is set them down by the side of the road. You ain’t got to carry them with you. You can walk over there right now and play that piano…and God will walk over there with you."[6]

Avery's humble personality further emphasizes Berniece's lack of relieving her deceased husband's memory. He tries desperately to help her find her path and supports her through her pain. In the final scene, Avery's blessings on the house help bring Berniece back to her position of communicating between the living and the deceased.

Wining Boy: The comical figure in The Piano Lesson, the Wining Boy is the 56-year-old elder brother of Doaker Charles. He tries to portray the image of a successful musician and gambler, but his music and attire are extremely dated. Instead of wanting to live in the present and the future like his nephew Boy Willie, Wining Boy drowns himself in the sorrows of his past. Whenever he ends up bankrupt, he wanders back into the Charles house to retell the days of the glory and fame.

"I give that piano up. That was the best thing that ever happened to me, getting rid of that piano…Now, the first three or four years of that is fun. You can't get enough whiskey and you can’t get enough women and you don’t never get tired of playing that piano. But that only last so long. You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano. But that's all you got. You can’t do nothing else. All you know how do is play the piano. Now, who am I? Am I me? Or am I the piano player?"[6]

His former days of glory emphasize the submergence of his soul in the past. Wining Boy is also the only other character, aside from Berniece, who can speak with the dead. He speaks to the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog and to his deceased wife, Cleotha.

Grace: One of the last figures to be added to the play, Grace shows the desires of both Boy Willie and Lymon. Both men attempt to be with her and play to her good graces. Since she is not a member of the Charles family, the tension she feels in the last scene of Act Two demonstrates how strong the presence of the ancestral ghosts are in the Charles household.

Mentioned characters
  • Crawley: Berniece's deceased husband of three years
  • Mama Ola: Berniece and Boy Willie's mother
  • Boy Charles: Berniece and Boy Willie's father
  • Sutter's Ghost: The man who owned the Charles family in the time of slavery
  • Cleotha: Wining Boy's deceased wife

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