August Wilson titles his play, "The Piano Lesson", however, the play has nothing to do with piano lessons at all. The lesson learned in this play is one of African American history. Wilson gives his audience a profound look at the past and how it influences the present.
The basic theme of the play is universal for both blacks and whites on how the past can burden the present. However, Wilson puts an interesting twist on this theme by giving his audience a perspective in African traditions and mystical beliefs. The characters in the play have lost touch with their African lineage and neglected their ancestors, which is the underlying cause of the play's conflict.
The piano is the center of conflict. Boy Willie wants to sell it and Berniece refuses to because her father died retrieving it from the Sutter's home. The piano is engraved with carvings of the Charles family history. We can compare the piano to an orita meta. Translated in English, orita meta means "sacred altar" and was considered by ancient African tribes as a crossroad between the living and the dead. In his article, Ghosts on the Piano: August Wilson and the Representation of Black American History, Michael Morales argues that the piano is a direct link to the past that serves as both a "sacred ancestral altar" and a tool used to "transmit" oral history. (106).
The only way this illiterate civilization could pass on their history and traditions were through art and oral history. The carvings on the piano of the Charles" family and important events in their lives represent traditional African art brought over by the slaves. The songs played on the piano by Boy Willie and Whining Boy are also a representation of the oral history passed on from the African tribes to American soil.
Ancient African tribes had strong mystical beliefs in their dead ancestors. They would often make shrines to their ancestors or gods and offer gifts of urine, blood and meal to them in return for their protection (Morales 108).