The Piano Lesson, a play, is set in Pittsburgh in 1936, and shows a glimpse into the lives of the Charles family, particularly siblings Boy Willie and Berniece. The two have inherited an antique piano onto which their great-great-grandfather, a slave, carved stories of his life. Berniece wants to keep the piano, while Boy Willie wants to sell it so that he can use the money to buy the land where their ancestors toiled. The two's disagreement paints a poignant picture about the importance of a painful legacy.
Act 1, Scene 1 Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, from Mississippi and enter the Charles' household at five in the morning. They have brought a truck of watermelons to sell. Against Doaker's advice, Boy Willie wakes his sister Berniece, and tells her of Sutter's death. Berniece accuses Boy Willie of shoving Sutter down a well, and she asks him to leave. Instead, Boy Willie wakes Berniece's daughter, Maretha, causing Berniece to run back up the stairs where she sees Sutter's ghost. Lymon notices the piano which Willie intends to sell to buy Sutter's land. Doaker insists that Berniece will not sell the piano, because she refused to sell when Avery brought a buyer to the house. Willie insists that he will convince her. Maretha comes downstairs, and Willie asks her to play the piano. She plays the beginning of a few simple tunes, and he answers her song with a boogie-woogie. Berniece enters with Avery, and Willie asks whether she still has the prospective buyer's name, explaining he came to Pittsburgh to sell the piano. Berniece refuses to listen and walks out.
Act 1, Scene 2 Wining Boy and Doaker talk in the kitchen when Boy Willie and Lymon enter and claim to have located the piano buyer. Willie's uncles warn him that Sutter will cheat him but Boy Willie refuses to listen. The story behind Lymon and Boy Willie's term in Parchment Prison Farm is revealed. Lymon and Willie both gather different perspectives from their experiences. Lymon wants to flee to the North where he will be better treated, while Willie feels that whites only treat blacks badly if the blacks do not try and stop them. They ask Wining Boy to play the piano, but instead he explains that being seen as nothing more than a piano player became a burden.
Doaker then tells the story of the piano's history. Generations earlier, Sutter, their family's slave-owner, broke up a family by selling a mother and child to pay for the piano which he bought for his wife as an anniversary present. The wife was happy with the piano but missed having the slaves, so Sutter had that family's husband/father (who was a carpenter and too valuable to sell), carve their likenesses on the piano. He carved likenesses of his entire history on the piano. In 1911, Boy Willie's father stole the piano from the Sutters; in retaliation he was killed. Willie declares that these are stories of the past and that the piano should now be put to good use. Willie and Lymon attempt to move the piano to test its weight. As soon as they try to move it, Sutter's ghost is heard. Berniece tells Willie to stop and informs him that he is selling his soul for money. Willie refutes her, Berniece blames Crawley's death on Willie, and the two engage in a fight. Upstairs, Maretha is confronted by the ghosts, and she screams.
Act 2, Scene 1 Doaker and Wining Boy are again together in the house alone. Doaker confesses that he saw Sutter's ghost playing the piano and feels that Berniece should discard the piano so as to prevent spirits from traumatizing the Charles family. Wining Boy disagrees. Lymon and Willie walk into the room after a watermelon sale. Wining Boy sells his suit and shoes to Lymon, promising its swooning effects on women. Both Lymon and Willie leave the house in hot pursuit of women.
Act 2, Scene 2 Later that day as Berniece is preparing for her bath, Avery enters and proposes that Berniece should open up and let go. He tells her that she cannot continue to live her life with Crawley's memory shut inside her. Berniece changes the topic and asks Avery to bless the house, hoping to destroy the spirit of the Sutter ghost. Avery then brings up the piano and tells Berniece she should learn to not be afraid of her family's spirits and play it again. Berniece breaks down her story of her mother's tears and blood mingled with her father's soul on the piano and refuses to open her wounds for everyone to see.
Act 2, Scenes 3–5 Boy Willie enters the Charles house with Grace and begins to fool around on the couch. Berniece orders them out and opens the door to see Lymon. Lymon is upset over his inability to woo women and begins to talk about women's virtues to Berniece. The two kiss, breaking Berniece's discomfort over Crawley's death, and Berniece heads back upstairs.
The next morning, Lymon and Willie try to move the piano out and are stopped by Uncle Doaker. Willie, frustrated, demands that he will sell the piano no matter what. The day to move the piano draws closer. Excited to sell the piano, Willie quickly partakes on his actions without a care of his sister's words. Berniece appears with Crawley's gun, leading Doaker and Avery to urge them to talk it through first. Sutter's presence as a ghost is suddenly revived. Avery attempts to drive the ghost away with his blessings but is not successful. Suddenly, Berniece knows that she must play the piano again as a plea to her ancestors. Finally, the house is led to a calm aura, and Willie leaves.