In his play Piano Lesson August Wilson examines the idea of heritage on various levels. The piano is both an object with a material value that can be sold and an object with emotional and cultural importance that connects generations. One of the characters, Boy Willie, focuses on its monetary value and wants to sell the piano while his sister Berniece sees it as a symbolic heritage that has to be preserved. For this woman, selling the piano means selling the soul and memories of the whole generation of slaves. This paper aims to analyze the main female character Berniece and her role in the play.
Berniece is a good-looking 35-year-old African American woman with a determined character. She is the most powerful feminine voice in the play. She is also the main representative of the Charles family’s maternal line. This woman is not afraid to oppose the men around and defend her position about the piano. For her, it is not only a tangible thing but the family relict that symbolizes the life and suffering of the whole generation of slaves. Berniece is a decisive personality who stands in her brother’s way when he tries to sell the family legacy. She tells Boy Willie that it is a sin and “money can’t buy what that piano cost” (1.2). Their father Boy Charles lost his life over the piano, and she sees it as her duty to honor his memory. This is the main motive that drives Berniece and makes her a powerful antagonist.
Berniece is a strong character because she does not allow anyone to tell her that she needs a husband. When Avery tries to make her marry him, she refuses and keeps the distance. Her decision not to remarry is not only a feminist claim. It is clear for other characters that she is in “mourning for her husband” (1.3). She keeps refusing men because she is still in deep grief. In Act 1, the readers can see that this feeling bursts when she attacks and accuses her brother of being guilty of her husband’s death. However, in Act 2, she becomes a little bit more open and allows Lymon to kiss her.
This woman is a doer who always takes an action and is accustomed to resolving her problems by herself. She decides to move to Pittsburgh after her husband’s death and gets a job there to supports her daughter Maretha. When her brother intrudes into her house all of a sudden, she asks him to go away. After her brother disregards her request and tries to sell the piano, she threatens to kill him. Finally, when Sutter’s ghost assaults Boy Willie, the woman calls her father’s spirit to drive it out.
Berniece’s character changes at the end of the play when she overcomes her fright of letting the spirits of her ancestors out. She realizes an emotional tie between the piano and the history of the African American people and calls on the power of her forefathers to stop the evil ghost. The character moves out of the shell where she has been hiding for many years. She regains her femininity and heritage when she plays the piano to suppress Sutter’s ghost. She restores good relations with her brother and, being not afraid of her past anymore, give a rise to a better future.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. Penguin, 2019.