August Wilson’s Century Cycle > Spoiler-free scene breakdown
Premiered: 1987; Broadway & Pulitzer Prize 1990
Setting: 1930s, Doaker’s house, Pittsburgh
Scene description mentions an old upright piano with legs carved in African style.
Offstage Boy Willie calls, waking Doaker (severe, settled railroad cook). BW introduces Lymon, from “back home.” He asks for Bernice. They have driven from Mississipi in Lymon’s truck, full of watermelons to sell. He tells her “the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter.” (Son of the man who enslaved their mother fell down a well; we learn Stovall (down South) is looking for Lymon; Sutter’s brother wants to sell Sutter’s land, says he’s holding it for Boy Willie. We learn Bernice’s husband Crawley died 3 years ago and Avery came from down south to woo her. Bernice gasps, reports seeing Sutter’s ghost at the top of the stairs. Her daughter Maretha, 11, plays “something any beginner first learns” on the piano, while Boy Willie. being very attentive to her, plays “a simple boogie-woogie.” Avery is adapting well to life in the North, proud of his job as an elevator operator; he describes his dream that inspired him to start a church. Boy Willie tells Doaker he’ll cut the piano in half if Bernice doesn’t agree to selling it.
I.ii. (3 days later)
Wining Boy, Doaker’s older brother and faded musician/gambler, talks about the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, and listens as Doaker describes how Boy Willie and Lymon are having trouble getting their watermelon truck around the hilly neighborhood; Wining Boy describes a preacher who role-played the life of Christ, right up until the crucifixion, then told every one to go home and come back for the resurrection sermon. Wining Boy fondly discusses Cleotha, who asked him to leave years ago, but was kind about it, and who died recently. Boy Willie and Lymon return, recounting more truck misadventures. BW taunts Sutter’s ghost. Wining Boy briefly discusses the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. BW describes the incident that got Crawley killed and sent him and Lymon to prison. Wining Boy tells a parable on justice, about berries on land that belongs to a white man. They sing a song warning a woman not to marry a farmer but marry a railroad man instead. Wining Boy describes the burden of being a piano player. Doaker tells the story of how his family was owned, by Robert Sutter, grandfather of the man who just died; he split up the family; the piano is a memento from that time. (I”m leaving out the details because it’s a good story, with some twists that I don’t want to spoil here.) Boy Willie is inspired to use the piano to help him get land that used to belong to the man who enslaved his ancestors; Doaker keeps insisting Bernice won’t sell the piano; Boy Wining plays and sings a song about being a rambling wanderer. Bernice and Maretha return. Boy Willie asks Lymon to help him test how heavy the piano is; there is a subtle reaction elsewhere in the house. (I’m leaving out details here.) Boy Willie and Bernice each make their case; Doaker tries to mediate, but Bernice blames Boy Willie for her husband’s death. Their tension escalates, and then something else happens that ends the act. (No spoilers here!)
II.i (next morning)
Doaker ironing his uniform, cooking, and singing a railroad song. Wining Boy couldn’t sell his old-fashioned suit. They discuss the incident from last night. Boy Willie and Lymon return excited from a profitable day selling in a white neighborhood. Wining Boy easily convinces the rustic Lymons to buy the out-of-style suit, and shoes. Lymon encourages Boy Willie to join him in looking for women. Wining Boy tells a story about Lymon’s parents.
II.ii. (late that same evening)
Bernice is setting up a tub in her kitchen. Avery visits, reporting his progress getting a loan to start a church, and says a preacher needs a wife. Bernice is noncommittal; Avery talks about God’s power, Bernice talks about the ghosts. Avery wants her to run the choir at his church. Bernice hasn’t told Maretha the story behind the piano; she doesn’t want to pass the burden along.
II.iii. (hours later)
Boy Willie sneaks Grace in; they kiss, knock over a lamp; Bernice objects, tosses them out; Lymon comes home, saying a woman he was with was clearly just drinking up his money; Lyon says Maretha looks like Bernice, says he likes kids; Lymon presents her with perfume, they touch… etc.
II.iv. (next morning)
BW tells Lymon he’s set up the sale of the piano. His goal is to sneak the piano out of the house while Bernice isn’t around.
II.v. (shortly afterward)
BW, preparing to remove the piano, tells the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog story to Maretha. Bernice arrives, confronts Boy Willie. Doaker is staying out of it. Boy Willie tells a story about his childhood dog that died. Bernice does Maretha’s hair, Boy Willie gripes that Bernice isn’t bringing Maretha up right; they debate their philosophies. Avery arrives, intending to bless the house to rid it of Sutter’s ghost. Lymon returns with a rope, giving a curious reason for the delay. Wining boy plays and sings in protest, Avery offers traditional prayers, Boy Willie uses his muscles, and things escalate, as things tend to do in the last scene in an August Wilson play. It’s all up to Bernice, and the ending is surprising on many levels. (No spoilers here!)