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STAGE REVIEW : Latest Play in August Wilson Saga of Blacks

Times Theater Critic

Los Angeles has seen two plays by August Wilson: “Fences” at the Doolittle and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at the Los Angeles Actors Theatre. San Diego also knows Wilson from having had “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” in ’88 at the Old Globe Theatre. (LATC will stage it this spring.) Pretty fair country plays.

But only warm-ups--finger exercises--for “The Piano Lesson.”

It opened at the Goodman Theatre here Monday night, the holiday honoring the birth of Martin Luther King Jr. This was no coincidence. Like King, Wilson shows the black experience as part of the American experience, without losing sight of what makes the black experience special.

Take the moment when the uncle in the play (Paul Butler) starts to trace the history of the strangely carved piano that his grown-up niece (S. Epatha Merkerson) and nephew (Charles Dutton) are fighting over.

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The story goes back to the days of slavery. “See,” he begins, “our family was owned by a fellow named Robert Sutter. . . .”

It’s not surprising that this remark should ring a bell for the black people in the audience, as a post-performance discussion at Sunday night’s preview made clear that it did.

What’s interesting is that it also rings a bell for the white viewer. He is suddenly certain that at some point along the line his family, too, was owned by somebody.

The intuition has got something to do with the matter-of-fact way that Lewis reads the line. He’s not commenting on the evils of slavery; he is simply noting that all families were once slaves. So why should your family have been spared?

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Other bells get rung when Lewis opens a bottle and the stories really start to flow. How Grandpa told off The Man when he tried to pay him for a whole season of work with $50 and a bottle of liquor--an Irish story, surely. This play could make you believe in the collective unconscious.

Yet it would be condescending to say that “The Piano Lesson” is about “all of us.” All of us didn’t see our fathers burned to death for having stolen back the piano that his father had carved for The Man. Wilson is writing about a particular black family living in Pittsburgh in 1936: part of his grand scheme to write a play about black life in every decade of the 20th Century. He keeps his feet under his characters’ kitchen table at all times.

But he doesn’t stop with that. Kitchen-sink plays are fine, but Wilson is also on the trail of the Furies here, just as Aeschylus was in “The Oresteia.” And he doesn’t see any contradiction in that.

The Greeks believed in the unseen, after all. So do the people in this house. When a ghost appears on the top landing, they’re startled, but they’re not surprised. Given the piano’s fatal history, it makes sense for a ghost to show up. But how do they get rid of him?

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This leads to a problematic final scene that Wilson and director Lloyd Richards will probably continue to work on during the play’s Chicago run. (The show is being presented at the Goodman as a work-in-progress, just as “Fences” was.)

The closing attempts to put the play on a new supernatural plane. But it looks like a way of slipping past the need to answer what one took to be the play’s basic question: Who gets the piano--Berniece or Boy Willie?

An answer is implied. But we’d really like to have it straight out. If a way could be found to do this without compromising the supernatural element in the play, “The Piano Lesson” will become an American classic.

Boy Willie, as played by Charles S. Dutton, will become a classic American character. At first, this big-talking country boy with a truck full of watermelons seems to be every bit the blowhard that his sister claims he is.

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Wrong. Actor Dutton makes it clear that the man is not just running his mouth. He knows what he’s doing. He sells those melons--just as he said he would. He finds a buyer for that piano--just as he said he would.

And he’s going to deliver that piano, and get himself some land down home with the money. If his sister doesn’t like that, she can shoot him.

Boy Willie means it. His sister also means it. Her father’s piano is not leaving this house. (Actress Merkerson is coming from an entrenched negativity that a brother’s charm is not going to crack.) The issue is powerfully joined, with right on both sides.

They are not just fighting about a piano. “The Piano Lesson” is about the allure of totems and the need to get past them--and yet honor them. As in “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” Wilson’s play says that there are forces out there that can do us real harm unless we learn to respect them.

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Not since O’Neill has America had a playwright with such a firm belief in mystery. Happily, Wilson enjoys listening to his characters rather than dictating large statements, so we don’t get a lot of talk about mystery. Melons, yes.

The dialogue is yeasty and funny, and it’s handed around to an interesting circle of subsidiary characters--not subsidiary in their own minds, of course. Like Boy Willie, none of these people is the stereotype that he at first suggests.

Lymon (Rocky Carroll) isn’t Boy Willie’s brainless stooge, but a quiet young man who knows how to size up a situation: He should do well in the city. Avery (Tommy Hollis) isn’t your standard fake preacher: He really does believe that Jesus came to him in a dream, and he tells it amazingly well.

Wining Boy, the piano player (Lou Myers), is a drifter who loves to come home. His brother Doaker, the railway cook (Paul Butler), is a homebody who loves to go out on the road. Even Grace, Willie Boy’s one-night stand (Tonya Pinkins) has something to say for herself--plenty, in fact. Not so Maretha, Berniece’s daughter (Tressa Janaee Thomas), but she’s only 9.

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They come and go, but under Richards’ direction they are unquestionably a family, picking up the conversation where they left it, which may have been three years ago. We also get a sense of all the shirttail cousins down-home. “The Piano Lesson” knows its people, knows the world, generates even more energy than “Fences” and does, after all, cross the finish line. You just wish the end were as strong as the rest of the journey.


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