The 'Piano Lesson' is a play which is not related to lessons on Piano playing at all, but rather it can be said to be a discussion of lessons learned surrounding a piano. The play is set in the ancient American setup in the wake of slavery. It basically casts a black family comprising the Charles' namely Berniece and Boy Willie and their mother. Their father had a piano made in their shape before he sold it to the white man, Mr Sutters, who owned the entire Charles family, which is he was their master. The setting is in Pittsburgh in the 1930s. Michael Morales (105) notes this as the representation of the black history and the slavery at that time. Boan has depicted this in the response of the play and he is on course to show the American past, broken relationships and the slavery that was prevalent at that time.
The historical complications of the play span back to the generations of the Charles' family, back to Boy Willie's great grandparents who treasured their tradition. As stated by Boan, the play is driven by conflict in the Charles family, where Berniece and Boy Willie fight over the amount of proceeds that arise from the sale of the Piano. The piano is the center of the events that unfold in the play.
Boy Willie, the great-grandson of the slave whose figure is embedded the piano and is the among the main characters in the play, has come north to Pittsburgh to claim his share of the sales of the piano, which is currently in the custody of his sister, Berniece. Boan notes that Boy Willie is a ruffian, and feels that the proceeds from the sale of the piano will offer him his best chance to get away from the miseries that would have been brought by financial constraints that have for a long time burdened the men in his family since slavery. However, Boy Willie's dream of escape is thwarted by his niece's ,Berniece, unwillingness to sell what is, for her, a sacred symbol of the family's past inheritance. As noted, she insinuates, “Money can’t buy what that piano cost. You can’t sell your soul for money...... It’ll shrivel and shrink to know that you ain’t taken on to it. But it won’t go with the buyer” (Wilson 50). Pareira (90), notes that the Piano becomes a thing of bedazzlement, that will bring a lot of misery to the families and may be evaluated.
Basically, the reason as to why Berniece did not want to let go of the family heirloom, the piano, is that the piano was carved o it the figures of the two on it, as a reminder of their past, so that they had to keep it as a reminder of their past (40-46).
The play centers on Boy Willie who bring so out the dynamism of the slavery situation. The slavery depicted in this play is two-fold. There is one, the slavery that is outward seen, that is by them being owned by Sutter as their Master, and two, by Boy Willie being imprisoned by the notion of culture and misery of lack of finance and living a poor life (105). the carvings on the Piano by his father are a symbolism of bondage in slavery, a position that they could not escape, just like the carvings will remain in the Piano. Boan brings this out very clearly in his response. Lack of family heritage is also portrayed in this play. This can be attributed t the fact that despite the Piano being the family heirloom handed down from generations, Boy Willie plots to sell it in order to get finances to purchase land owned by Sutter. Selfishness is the driving force in Willie, and the action is the starting point of many woes that they encounter. Boan quotes Arnold Rampersad (105) in this respect.
According to Morales (106), the play 'Piano Lesson' can be taken as a representation of the past Black American history and also an avenue of passing the oral history transmission , depicting it as a sacred altar of the ancestor. Being a shrine, the piano was a solace to Boy Willie's mother who many times on end would sit by the piano, not playing it but rather listening to the tune that it gave when played by Berniece after Boy Willie's death, claiming she heard his voice in the tunes. Boy Willie was enshrined in the piano by his mother, Mama Ola (108). For seventeen years, Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears and for the same number of years she rubbed on it till with her hands until they bled." (Wilson 52).
Maretha is a symbol of emancipation. Mama Ola teaches her how to play the piano that was recovered from the Sutters. She is an icon of transition from the past into the future. Though she is the one who battles with the ghosts of the piano, she embraces her past and knows from where she came in order to forge a way ahead. Boan has not brought this out very clearly.