Act II, scenes 1 & 2
Doaker is singing in the kitchen. Wining Boy has failed to pawn his silk suit for an acceptable price, and tries to get five dollars from Doaker. Doaker says he saw the ghost of Sutter before Berniece, sitting by the piano. Doaker thinks he should just get rid of it, but Wining Boy agrees with Berniece and doesn’t care what a ghost thinks.
Boy Willie and Lymon come home victorious from a day of melon sales, and count their earnings. Wining Boy talks Lymon into buying his suit from him at full price, and the young men get ready to go out to find women. Wining Boy tells how he bailed Lymon’s father out of jail once, and spent a night with his mother in return. His father had bad luck and was killed shortly thereafter.
Later, Berniece is fixing her bath when Avery makes a call. He observes that the melons are almost all gone. His real purpose is to propose again – soon his church will be established, and a preacher needs a wife. Berniece isn’t ready to re-marry. Avery asks whether she is still a woman. She is hurt, and angry that a woman isn’t a woman unless she has a man. Avery asks how long she can carry Crawley around with her.
But Berniece has other things to worry about, like Sutter’s ghost. Maretha saw it too, last night. She asks Avery to bless the house to rid it of ghosts, but he doesn’t know if he can do that. Avery thinks she should start a choir at his church so that Boy Willie will understand keeping the piano. But Berniece refuses to play the piano, and hasn’t since her mother died – it awakens too many ghosts. Avery likens her inability to move past her husband to her inability to move past the piano’s history. Berniece dismisses Avery, at which point Avery says he’ll be back tomorrow to bless the house.
The second act opens with a bit of comedy, as we watch Wining Boy the greaser at work, mooching money from his brother and making a hard sell of his silk suit to Lymon. This is a man used to getting his way through sheer force of will and charm, and who manipulates others entirely benevolently; Lymon is happy with his new suit. And in Wining Boy’s telling, Lymon’s mother was also happy to go to bed with Wining Boy in exchange for bail money. Wining Boy is not a con man because no one comes away feeling conned.
Wining Boy’s story about Lymon’s mother is more than an amusing anecdote – it also serves as thematic reinforcement. Throughout the play and particularly the second act runs the idea of selling one’s soul to achieve economic independence. African Americans in this era were forced to compromise their morals and do things they might not have wanted to do in order to wiggle out from under the thumb of the white man. Whether selling the piano for farm money or selling oneself for bail money, the play's characters are forced to create new values in order to survive within the white world’s rules.
Berniece is the only woman in the play of significance. We also meet Maretha and Grace, but their roles are insubstantial and functional. Therefore, the burden falls on Berniece to show the woman’s role in this world – and indeed, the woman’s role is that of shouldering disproportionate burdens. Berniece, like her mother before her, felt compelled to carry all grief and history of her family on her own. A bitterness ensues, as Berniece inherited from her mother a distrust of all male plans, knowing from sad experience that they always result in imprisonment or death. Only the women are responsible enough to safeguard the family and to shoulder the burden of its past.
Avery doesn’t understand this, even less so than Boy Willie and Lymon. He accuses Berniece of frigidity, but to her mind she is just busy. Busy caring for her daughter, busy scraping together a living, busy protecting herself from the memories and ghosts that threaten to drag her down.
The character of Avery also shows an interesting contrast between the traditional folk beliefs of the African American community and their received Christianity. Throughout the play, Christian and folk beliefs intermingle, with the characters seeing no distinction between the two sets of mythologies. Avery is a Christian preacher, but he is asked to remove ghosts from the Charles household. The Christian symbols and structures, Wilson suggests, have been appropriated by the African American community, while at the same time the folk beliefs of ghosts and curses that make up the peculiarly Southern cosmology are preserved as though in amber. Like the piano, which is a European instrument decorated in an African style, the religion of Avery and the Charles family is an amalgamation of what their people preserved of their own culture, and what they received from the white man.