In August Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, Berniece is the protagonist or the heroine and main character, who represents the traditions and heritage of the family going back to the times of slavery and even to Africa itself. Willie on the other hand is the antagonist, a violent and angry man, a thief and a murderer who takes revenge on the Sutter family but now intends to use the money from the sale of the piano to buy their land. In short, he is a young capitalist who intends to move up in America and take the place of Sutter, but Berniece decides against this. From the start, she refuses to cooperate with Willie, but for most of the play she is reluctant to accept the piano at all during the first two acts of the play, but in the climactic scene at the end, she uses its power to save her brother’s life from the ghost of James Sutter. Finally, she also teaches her daughter Maretha about its history and meaning, ensuring that the family legacy will be passed down to the next generation. Berniece is the protagonist and heroine because her conflict with Willie drives the entire play, and ultimately the choices about whether to sell the piano and how to use it are always in her hands. She is the key matriarchal and spiritual figure in the story and finally invokes the spirits of their ancestors and saves their traditions for the future.
In Act I, Bernice is revealed to be the protagonist at once, she clearly intends to prevent her brother Willie from selling the piano, even though she fears and dislikes it. Throughout the drama, the central conflict will always be between Berniece and Willie, and will ultimately be resolved in her favor. Although she is highly ambivalent about the piano and the legacy it represents, she never supports Willie’s plan to sell it in order to buy the Sutter land. Only at the end of the play does she come to accept it as the symbol of their family traditions going back to the time of slavery, and to Africa even before that. She also blames Willie for her husband’s death, which came about as the result of a fight he provoked with some white men back in Mississippi. This was why he had been in Parchman Prison for three years, and from the start Berniece makes it clear that she does not want Willie in the house at all. She makes it clear immediately that she suspects Willie of murdering the white landowner James Sutter, saying that “somebody down there pushing them people in their wells” (Wilson 5). Symbolically, she also represents their entire family line, including an ancestor named Berniece who the slave master Robert Sutter traded for the piano 137 years ago.
Berniece is still reluctant to go near the piano in Act II for fear of letting loose the spirits of the dead in the house, and when Avery proposes to her he suggests that she either sell it or give it to him for choir practice in his church. She again reveals her suspicions that Willie murdered Sutter and laments that “all this thieving and killing and thieving and killing, and what did it ever lead to? More killing and more thieving” (Wilson 52). If she could, she would simply escape the past and leave it buried and forgotten, although in the end she makes a different choice. She has an affair with Willie’s friend Lymon, which symbolizes the end of her widowhood, but she also seems reluctant to marry him — or Avery for that matter. Given that she is the heroine of the story and the true keeper of the old traditions, neither of those characters seem quite up to her standards.
In the last act of play, Berniece finally accepts the power of the piano and everything that it represents, by using it to save her brother’s life against Sutter’s vengeful ghost. At the same time, she also had a gun and was prepared to shoot Willie if he attempted to move the piano without her permission, but when it came to the struggle against Sutter, she has to protect her brother and reluctantly invokes the spirits of their ancestors when Avery’s prayers fail to exorcise the evil spirit. Up to this time, she had feared to power of their ancestors, but when it became a matter of saving Willie’s life she cries out “I want you to help me” and names her mother Mama Ola, and also Mama Esther and Mama Berniece.
In the end, the ancestors drive Sutter out of the house thanks to the power of Berniece, although she was also prepared to kill Willie or anyone else to protect the piano. Berniece is truly a heroic shaman and priestess, even though the play is set in Pittsburgh during the Great Depression, which would seem a very unlikely location for any of these traditional beliefs. Throughout most of the play she had actually feared this and may even have considered marrying Avery, the Christian minister. She decides whether the old traditions, legacies and family history will survive rests in her hands, since she could simply have agreed to sell the piano and taken half of the money, or agreed to let Avery use it in his church. Her choice was to save her brother’s life but not to follow his plans to take the place of the Sutter family, which had enslaved, oppressed and lynched them for generations. Instead, her path was the feminist and matriarchal one, that leads them back to Africa and away from modern America.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. Penguin, 1990.
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