“The Piano Lesson” play is a historical metaphor about the life of African-Americans during the period of slavery. Though the play is about a simple fight between siblings over the fate of a musical instrument, it has a far deeper meaning and it is historical. August Wilson makes it clear that that all the men (except Avery) in the play had served time on Parchment Prison Farm as an indication that most African-American men at that time were imprisoned under different circumstances in one way or another. Perhaps Avery is an exception because of his prominence and importance as a preacher which is symbolic of the significance of religion to the African-American culture.
This situation has different meanings regarding each male character in the book. Boy Willie got in trouble with the police after being involved in an illegal racket, where Crawley, his brother-in-law, died while trying to protect him. Willie is a prisoner of history and that is the reason he is so determined to revitalize the land that his enslaved ancestors toiled. Doaker Charles on the other hand is an old man who works as a railroad cook and had previously worked as a builder on the railroads. He is acts as a mediator between the grudging siblings, Willie and Berniece. He is a prisoner of himself when he acts as a neutral party yet he has the power to end the dispute by taking the right side. Just like Boy Willie, he also is a prisoner of the past as he is the main storyteller of the family history. Wining Boy Charles is a conman who is also subject to alcohol and gambling; his presence during the failure of music is symbolic just like the fate of the piano. Lymon runs away from the North to escape prosecution so he is also a prisoner of his past.
The significance of the time the men spent in Parchment Prison Farm and the fact that the men are still prisoners of their past are symbolic of the after-effects of slavery. It takes time for such wounds to heal, and the scars of such injustices never disappear.