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August Wilson's The Piano Lesson and American Commerce and Materialism

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American Consumerism

In August Wilson’s play, The Piano Lesson, his characters dance with the memories of a ghost, and flirt with thoughts of murder and theft, as Wilson dramatizes the nature of the cultural depiction of a family in 1936’s Pittsburg. Through Wilson’s common, yet revealing dialogue between characters, readers are left to uncover the unnerving mystery hidden beneath the keys of an old piano. Although the main plot of the play caters attention towards the ghost and the piano, Wilson’s animalistic, selfish character of Boy Willie distracts readers into an uncomfortable vortex created by Willie’s attitude and unpleasant personality.

Boy Willie, one of Wilson’s main characters, an energetic, unforgiving, and irrational presence in the play, acts as a constant entrepreneur. Throughout the play, Boy Willie attempts to get rid of everything; his sister Berniece’s piano, his watermelons, and the truck, and in his desire to sell all his possessions, the text reveals its sneaky commentary on American commerce and materialism. Boy Willie’s rude, insensitive, and shallow arguments for selling the possessions of his loved ones disregarding any harsh consequences sheds light on the brutal atmosphere of the time period in which the play is set, one of no regrets and no regard for anyone else. Boy Willie is a testament to the typical annoying American commercial image shoved down throats of modern day citizens while appealing to viewers and readers alike through his dry presence and quick and witty tongue.

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Boy Willie uses many tactics to get what he wants, and he plays games with not only Berniece, but with all the other characters in the play as well. In his pursuit of money and land, Boy Willie terrorizes the relationships he has built with his family over the years of being involved with them. Despite his ten year absence from Berniece, Doaker, and Maretha’s lives, Boy Willie still somehow manages to anger them upon his entrance into Doaker’s front door. The text suggests a hostile tone and atmosphere as soon as Boy Willie asserts himself into the first scene of the play. Not only does this tell the readers about how Boy Willie creates an obsessive and unpleasant surrounding when he arrives, it portrays the American entrepreneur to perfection. In American culture, the materialistic salesman will pester and nag until he gets his way. Boy Willie is no different. He, like so many other salesmen will stop at nothing until they reach their fiscal goals, a silly affair to be concerned with when watching the relationships we saw him form earlier crash and burn.

Every action Boy Willie commits is charged by money, a sad and unfortunate reality we see in the main character. This unattractive personality trait created by Wilson gives Boy Willie the personality of a rat, a scavenger with no regard for his friends. The terrible truth about his obsession with money is that Boy Willie is not obsessed with the tangible object of currency, but more so, he is motivated by the thought of glory and riches. Boy Willie chases after what he does not have, and what he might never have; scheming and plotting with no regard for his loved ones, and certainly no remorse or guilt. Is this not a trait seen in commercial businessmen today? Their main goal is not to make their customers happy with their product, but to satisfy their financial desires. By pushing their luck to the brink of illegality, these guilty businessmen do not understand morality or common courtesy, and Boy Willie follows in those exact footsteps. Upon his arrival to Doaker’s house, his watermelon selling scheme goes into full effect. He sets up his truck in the center of town so that all the white folks will buy his product. Through common buyer/seller conversation, Willie convinces a white lady to buy his watermelons because he told her, “Lady, where we grow these watermelons we put sugar in the ground.” This cheap, sneaky dialogue that the play provides gives readers a view into the relationship that black America had with white America. They were a business scheme, an easy way to get money, and a foolish group of people that were gullible enough to believe that someone would put sugar in the ground to grow watermelons. The dynamic between Boy Willie’s family and himself is eerily similar. In fact, the very reason he came home was to sell something, get money, buy something else, and sell the harvests from his purchase. For what? Boy Willie is motivated by money, but does not even use it to his advantage, he makes money to make more money, similarly to the slick and slippery slope of American commerce and materialists.

Boy Willie is an unpleasant presence, and he transforms each situation he inserts himself in. Whenever Boy Willie makes an appearance, the rest of the main characters in the play get aggressive, snippy, and quick to make conclusions about Boy Willie. They accuse him of theft, murder and general havoc in mere moments as he enters the house. He does not complain, and this adds an interesting aspect to the overall progression of the play. Does Boy Willie recognize that no one really likes having him around? His ignorance towards the pressures to act as a good family member from the other members of his family do not faze Boy Willie, and his attitude makes a reader ponder his motivations even more. His understanding of priorities are warped to say the very least, and hurting someone whom he is related to by blood does not seem to bother Boy Willie in the slightest. Boy Willie is inattentive to the feelings of others. When Berniece first sees the ghost in the house, Boy Willie denies her request for help, and even mocks her by saying “That’s all in her head. There ain’t no ghost up there.” It is comments like these that get Boy Willie into trouble, making the other characters willingness help him in his childish endeavors to diminish before Boy Willie’s. All of the other characters, at some point or another, attempt to lend advice, or give guidance to Boy Willie, to which, of course, he resists. Boy Willie does not help himself out in this regard, seeing as he is lost in his own greed and selfishness. The only other thing Boy Willie needs is advice, and it is the only thing he ends up pushing away.

Another one of Boy Willie’s flaws is his lack of listening skills, an important human trait that helps one make friends. When Boy Willie refuses to listen to Berniece’s reasoning to keep the piano, he digs himself into a hole too far to climb out of. This aspect of the text’s characterization of Boy Willie is intriguing because he acts as a perfect example as someone you would never want to spend time with. Most times, in families, one or two relatives can get on your nerves often, and this is something that Wilson communicates beautifully in the play. Boy Willie identifies as that cousin no one really wants to spend time with, something that most families can relate to. While the play’s plot is centered around the struggles the family has with the haunted piano, Boy Willie’s struggle with identity is also a tragic aspect of the play. Today, in modern America, the media shows and promotes losing yourself in material possessions on a daily basis. Many times, if you do not have a certain brand name, then you can be a social outcast, an upsetting reality all Americans have to decide if they will conform to. Americans today must decide if they will fall victim to the commercialist virtues, and Boy Willie is seen as a prime target for the materialistic views of the day.

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