Although Charles S. Dutton, with all good reason, is given star billing above the title of August Wilson's "The Piano Lesson," it might have been more accurate to give that place of honor to the most fully developed of Wilson's characters, the piano.
The play, set in 1936, concerns the fight of a brother and sister, Boy Willie and Berniece, over whether to sell the piano. In the course of the evening, we learn more about this instrument than we do about Boy Willie and Berniece.
Their great-grandfather turned the piano into a piece of sculpture in slavery days. In his carvings, he expressed his love for his wife, who had been bartered for the piano. If the exterior of the piano reflects hopeless love, its history also has its share of blood.
For this reason, Berniece does not want to sell the instrument, which has found its way back into family hands. Even though she no longer plays it, the spirits of her forebears are too entwined in it for her to regard it as salable goods.
Boy Willie (whom she calls "nothin' but a whole lotta mouth") sees the piano not as a receptacle of the past but as a way to redeem historic suffering. With his share of the profits, he can buy some land on which their grandparents worked in bondage, though he seems less cognizant of this than the simple fact that "land is the only thing God ain't makin' no more of."
This is a fascinating struggle. Though we learn more and more about the piano, however, the arguments for and against selling it are not developed, merely reiterated. Nor do we really delve deeply into the lives of Boy Willie and Berniece. We learn that Berniece's husband died as an accomplice to an act of petty thievery of Boy Willie's. We know that Boy Willie is a scamp, and that Berniece is full of repressed anger.
Ultimately their fight is settled by supernatural means, which is not illogical, considering the piano is a haunted object. But the occasional arrival of ghosts is not very convincing.
Much of the play simply establishes atmosphere, Berniece, for example, lives with her Uncle Doaker, a railroad conductor, and one of the play's loveliest moments has Doaker poeticizing the stops the train makes in Mississippi. In another peripheral sequence of great charm, Boy Willie's friend, Lymon, is fast-talked into buying a chartreuse suit.
That these moments, which add little to the central story, are so captivating is due to Wilson's splendid ability to capture the rhythms and music of period black speech. ("The Piano Lesson" is set in the Depression, but no one seems to be affected by it. It could just as easily have been set a decade or two earlier.) In this play, as in "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," Wilson is trying to go beyond the poetic realism of "Fences" into a combination of realism and mysticism. As yet the attempt seems strained, but Wilson's efforts to find mystic depths in the everyday are important, because they may help push the American theater beyond the mingy naturalism in which it seems so hopelessly mired.
As Boy Willie, Charles S. Dutton could not be more beguiling. Dutton never seems to walk onto the stage. He invariably bounds onto it, bristling with high spirits and irrepressible energy. It would be easy for Boy Willie, whose attitude toward the piano is mercenary, to seem a villain, but not as Dutton plays him. Wilson has given Dutton a virtuoso piece of business at the end of the play, which Dutton plays with bewitching fervor and grace.
Berniece is played by S. Epatha Merkerson with imposing dignity. Everything she says seems supported by great strength held in reserve, suggesting years of suffering that have ended in firm resolve rather than easy, understandable bitterness.
Carl Gordon has an expected resonance and power as the railroad man, and Lou Myers has all the necessary verbal and physical nimbleness to play the relative who has gone into show business.
Rocky Carroll has a wonderful poignant innocence as he is being sold the flashy suit. He makes the country boy funny but deeply sympathetic. Lisa Gay Hamilton is suitably sophisticated as a girl both he and Boy Willie pick up. Tommy Hollis handles the role of a humorless minister with a bit too much anguish. Apryl R. Foster is lovely as Berniece's daughter.
As always, director Lloyd Richards has maximized the virtues of every scene.
Now about that piano: Like everything about the production, it is designed and lit with love and great care.
August Wilson's wonderful Pulitzer-prize winner, "The Piano Lesson," which opened last night at the newly and happily named Walter Kerr Theater, is a play of magnificent confrontations.
The fourth, best and most immediate in the series of plays exploring the Afro-American experience during this century that Wilson and his collaborative director, Lloyd Richards, have brought to Broadway, "The Piano Lesson" is first a confrontation of the heritage of the past and the promise of the future.
But as Wilson well knows, that is the stuff of political speeches rather than living drama, and it is his gift for the seat-edgingly theatrical and thrillingly, mysteriously dramatic that has made him the most acclaimed playwright of his time.
Wilson's plays thrive on danger - the danger of one character squaring up to another, usually each of equal moral and certainly both of equal dramatic worth, with each threatening to destroy the other's world. Wilson never quite takes sides, and as an audience you swing poised between one right and another, wondering which right is really wrong.
"The Piano Lesson" is a play about a piano, or perhaps about the moral lesson the piano can provide. It is no ordinary piano. We are in Pittsburgh in 1936. It is the house of a railway worker, Doaker Charles, where he lives with his widowed niece, Berniece, and her 9-year-old daughter, Maretha.
And the piano - strange, carved and ghostly - stands in the living room; it is a living symbol of the family's past - its slavery and its escape, its blood and its tears. Two of the family ancestors, a wife and her 9-year-old son, were sold by a white slave-owner for that piano - and the carvings were placed there by the bereft and grieving father in memory of his loss.
And it was his grandson, Boy Charles, born out of slavery but still enslaved, who lost his life in retrieving the piano from the whore masters. But the piano is now with the Charles family - an heirloom of tragic memory and meaning.
On the death of Boy Charles, the piano passed to his two children, Boy Willie, who still lives in the South, and Berniece, who has brought it with her to Pittsburgh. Now the once slave-owning white family, the Sutters, has died out, old man Sutter, the last of his line, mysteriously falling down his own well. And now his land is to be partitioned and sold, and Boy Willie has the chance to buy a prime piece of it. But he needs money.
With his friend Lymon, Boy Willie comes to Pittsburgh with a truck-load of watermelons to sell. With the profits from this, his savings, and half the proceeds from the sale of the now very valuable piano, he will have enough to stake his personal claim in God's land.
But Berniece - hanging onto the past and the memory of what it meant - is adamant in her refusal to sell. Nor, it seems, is she the only claimant to the piano: For possibly the house is being visited by Sutter's ghost, who it seems has his own feeling for the piano.
Just to state the theme does it no justice - it would be possible to make it sound like "Raisin in the Sun" meets "The Exorcist" - and Wilson, and through him his audience, thrive on complexity.
But yes, the ghost is real. Yes, the moral conundrum - this terrible choice between the needs of the present and the demands of the past - is solved. And, yes, those chilling confrontations between man and man, and man and spirit, rush fast and furious through the play.
Yet this iron-firm and fascinating dramatic framework, the skillful architectonics of the play, does not for one moment completely explain Wilson's power and charm.
Helped at every stage by Richards, the playwright has a gift for people - he fills his plays with characters you could have known, characters who live and breathe, characters who shiver with life.
How, you might ask, can I, a white writer from a totally different background from that of a black family of sharecroppers in the '30s, offer an opinion on their reality? The same way I can with Shakespeare - by intuition and a feel for human nature. The comparison with Shakespeare is, in at least one sense, very apt, because both playwrights find humor and pain cheek by jowl in the human condition.
Despite the violent drama of "The Piano Lesson," it is also extraordinarily funny. A dissolute blues-singing uncle called Wining Boy adds to the merriment, as does a solemn yet mildly comic preacher, Avery, who is a suitor for Berneice's hand. And most of all there is the humor of the hero Boy Willie - a clown of iron, a man who boisterously determines to have his own way, and then laughingly has it.
The performances of the entire cast - exquisitely kept in precise balance and motion by Richards - is the best ensemble playing currently on Broadway, but Charles S. Dutton as Boy Willie, and S. Epatha Merkerson as Berniece, go beyond ensemble in performances of amazing grace.
Dutton lives his role as if he had crawled into its skin, and Merkerson, constantly and nervily edged on reality, is in her quieter way just as fine.
But praise must also be heaped on Lou Myers as the racy, no-good uncle, and on Carl Gordon's stolid Doaker, his brother, while Rocky Carroll exudes a diffident charm as Willie's easily beguiled friend, and Tommy Hollis brings total conviction to Berniece's preacher-suitor.
This is a play in which to lose yourself - to give yourself up as hostage for three hours to August Wilson's thoughts, humors and thrills, all caught in a microcosm largely remote for many of us from our own little worlds, yet always talking the same language of humanity.
This is a wonderful play that lights up man. See it, wonder at it, and recognize it.
The piano is the first thing the audience hears in ''The Piano Lesson,'' the new August Wilson play at the Walter Kerr Theater. Three hours later, it seems as if the music, by turns bubbling and thunderous, has never stopped.
Though Mr. Wilson won a Pulitzer Prize last week for this work, no one need worry that he is marching to an establishment beat. ''The Piano Lesson'' is joyously an African-American play: it has its own spacious poetry, its own sharp angle on a nation's history, its own metaphorical idea of drama and its own palpable ghosts that roar right through the upstairs window of the household where the action unfolds. Like other Wilson plays, ''The Piano Lesson'' seems to sing even when it is talking. But it isn't all of America that is singing. The central fact of black American life - the long shadow of slavery - transposes the voices of Mr. Wilson's characters, and of the indelible actors who inhabit them, to a key that rattles history and shakes the audience on both sides of the racial divide.
Set in the Pittsburgh of 1936, just midway in time between ''Joe Turner's Come and Gone'' and ''Fences,'' Mr. Wilson's new play echoes his others by reaching back toward Africa and looking ahead to modern urban America even as it remains focused on the intimate domestic canvas of a precise bygone year. Though ''The Piano Lesson'' is about a fight over the meaning of a long span of history, its concerns are dramatized within a simple battle between a sister and a brother over the possession of a musical instrument. The keeper of the piano, a family heirloom, is a young widow named Berniece (S. Epatha Merkerson), who lets it languish unused in the parlor of the house she shares with her uncle and daughter. Her brother, Boy Willie (Charles S. Dutton), barges in unannounced from Mississippi, intending to sell the antique to buy a farm on the land his family worked as slaves and sharecroppers.
One need only look at the majestic upright piano itself to feel its power as a symbolic repository of a people's soul. Sculptured into its rich wood are totemic human figures whose knife-drawn features suggest both the pride of African culture and the grotesque scars of slavery. As it happens, both the pride and scars run deep in the genealogy of the siblings at center stage. Their great-grandfather, who carved the images, lost his wife and young son when they were traded away for the piano. Years later, Berniece and Boy Willie's father was killed after he took the heirloom from a new generation of white owners.
In ''The Piano Lesson,'' the disposition of the piano becomes synonymous with the use to which the characters put their ancestral legacy. For Berniece, the instrument must remain a somber shrine to a tragic past. For Boy Willie, the piano is a stake to the freedom his father wanted him to have. To Mr. Wilson, both characters are right - and wrong. Just as Berniece is too enslaved by history to get on with her life, so Boy Willie is too cavalier about his family's heritage to realize that money alone cannot buy him independence and equality in a white man's world. Like all Wilson protagonists, both the brother and sister must take a journey, at times a supernatural one, to the past if they are to seize the future. They cannot be reconciled with each other until they have had a reconciliation with the identity that is etched in their family tree, as in the piano, with blood.
Mr. Dutton and Ms. Merkerson prove to be extraordinary adversaries through every twist of their no-holds-barred dispute. They command equal respect and affection through antithetical acting styles. As he first revealed as Levee, the discordant trumpet player in Mr. Wilson's ''Ma Rainey's Black Bottom,'' the burly, broadly smiling Mr. Dutton is a force of nature on stage: a human cyclone who, as Berniece says, sows noise, confusion and trouble wherever he goes. Here is that rare actor who can announce that he's on fire and make an audience believe he might actually burn down the theater. Yet the impressive Ms. Merkerson remains quiet and dignified holding her ground against him - at least up to a point. In the evening's most devastating scene, she slugs her brother in impotent fury, as if her small fists and incantatory wails might somehow halt the revenge-fueled cycle of violence that killed her father and her husband and their fathers before them.
Although the second act contains its dead ends, repetitions and excessive authorial announcements - an O'Neill-like excess in most of this writer's plays - Mr. Wilson prevents the central conflict in ''The Piano Lesson'' from becoming too nakedly didactic by enclosing it within an extended household of memorable characters. The ebb and flow of diurnal activity in Berniece's home thickens the main theme while offering a naturalistic picture of a transitional black America in an era when movies, skyscrapers and airplanes were fresh wonders of the world. A Wilson play feels truly lived in - so much so in Lloyd Richards's supple production that activities like the cooking of eggs, the washing of dishes, and the comings and goings from an audibly flushed toilet never seem like stage events, but become subliminal beats in the rhythm of a self-contained universe.
Still, the play's real music is in the language, all of which is gloriously served by the ensemble company that Mr. Richards has assembled and honed during the more than two years that ''The Piano Lesson'' has traveled to New York by way of the country's resident theaters. Carl Gordon, as an uncle who has spent 27 years working for the railroad, and Lou Myers, as another uncle who has hit his own long road as a traveling musician, trade tall and small tales of hard-won practical philosophy, political wisdom, women and whisky - some of them boisterously funny, others unexpectedly touching. At other moments, their colloquial verbal cadences trail off seamlessly into riffs of actual song, whether piano blues or roof-raising vocal harmonies, that express their autobiographies of pride, defiance and suffering as eloquently as their words.
A younger generation of dispossessed black men with a different set of experiences and aspirations is just as vividly represented by Tommy Hollis, as a Bible-toting elevator man with dreams of leading his own Christian flock, and Rocky Carroll, as a wide-eyed rural drifter dazzled by his first exposure to the big city. A scene in which Mr. Carroll briefly courts Ms. Merkerson by presenting her with a dollar bottle of ''French perfume'' is, in writing, staging and performance, a masterly romantic duet of crossed signals and unacknowledged longings that seems to float up from a distant, innocent time like a hallucination.
While there are no white characters in ''The Piano Lesson,'' the presence of white America is felt throughout - and not just by dint of past history. Boy Willie repeatedly and pointedly announces that he will sell the piano to a white man who he's heard is roaming through black neighborhoods ''looking to buy musical instruments.'' Whatever happens to the piano, however, the playwright makes it clear that the music in ''The Piano Lesson'' is not up for sale. That haunting music belongs to the people who have lived it, and it has once again found miraculous voice in a play that August Wilson has given to the American stage.