When August Wilson's ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' opened on Broadway three years ago, the American theater was put on notice: The country's most promising black playwright had arrived. Since then, Wilson's dizzying series of dramas - more than one play per year since 1984 - has won the author recognition as one of the most compelling voices in contemporary American theater. The accolades and awards have come with equally dizzying speed. ``Fences,'' which opened on Broadway last spring, earned both the Tony Award and the Pulitzer Prize for drama. This season, Broadway will see the arrival of another Wilson work, ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone.''
Now, Wilson's fourth, and perhaps most anticipated, play, ``The Piano Lesson,'' has premi`ered here at the Yale Repertory Theatre. Although flawed, the drama is a testament to Wilson's continued progress as the dramatic chronicler of the black American experience.
In his attempt to ``concretize'' that experience derived from African and American traditions, Wilson has set each of his plays in a different decade of the 20th century. ``The Piano Lesson'' occurs in a post-depression 1936, a time when blacks and whites were reaching for a new economic brass ring. Boy Willie Charles has traveled north from Mississippi to claim his half of the family's legacy - a valuable and valued piano that is the crowning glory in his widowed sister's home. This instrument is prized not only for its economic but its emblematic value; it was once traded by slave owners for Charles's family ancestors, who later carved their portraits into its legs. Boy Willie wants to sell the instrument to buy the land his family once worked as slaves. Berneice, his sister, is equally committed to preserving the piano as totem to the family's brutal past.
The piano is Wilson's clearest, most fully realized symbol, one that reverberates with Western and African significance while forming the fulcrum of the play's metaphysical debate: how to use the past to inform the future. The play's inherent dramatic conflict, the brother and sister arguing over their shared legacy, is also Wilson's strongest to date. It is a knotty problem - the author accords each position equal weight - one that goes beyond an historical and socioeconomic interpretation to embrace a spiritual perspective.
Certainly Wilson explores the decade's big social issues - the demise of the rural South, the evolution of urban black America. But ``The Piano Lesson'' also functions, like his other plays, as a ghost story. It is an approach that offers some of the richest thematic rewards - individuals are literally haunted by a past not of their own making - but is also fraught with peril: how to dramatize a wraith?
In ``Fences,'' the protagonist narrates a mystical encounter with Satan. In ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone,'' the main character slashes himself to exorcise a bone-rattling ancestral vision. In ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' the characters rail at a cosmic power beyond their comprehension. In ``The Piano Lesson,'' the characters confront the real McCoy. Under Lloyd Richards's direction, this ghost of decades past is portrayed in Rod Serling-ish terms: a fluttering curtain, a shaft of light, a disembodied laugh, some spooky music. By play's end, Boy Willie is locked in a life-or-death struggle with this invisible visitant from the family's brutal past.
This mystical coda (never mind the overkill special effects) functions as a sort of reverse deus ex machina. Boy Willie, one of Wilson's most engaging and fully drawn characters, is literally wrested from his future by this inescapable legacy. It's an undramatized moment that blunts the play's power.
It's an unfortunate misstep, for Wilson's writing, which ripples with a muscular grace, is too good to be saddled with this kind of peekaboo metaphysics. His plays have always toed that fine line between realism and the supernatural - an artistic high-wire act steadied by the author's rich, incantatory prose and dead-on accurate ear for the black American vernacular. While his eye for dramatic structuring has been less sure (he often meanders when he should confront, describes when he should dramatize), Wilson is relying less and less on poetic imagery and fuzzy mysticism to achieve his dramatic effects. The dialogue here is meatier, less ornamental. There is real muscle in ``The Piano Lesson's'' characters, which are among the author's most satisfying.
And Richards brings them to life with a superb cast. Samuel Jackson as Boy Willie captures the anger, but, more important, the joy of this man-child bucking decades worth of tradition. (It's unfortunate that Jackson has been directed to holler his crucial Act II speech as 10-minute harangue.) Rocky Carroll brings equal agility to his role of Lymon, Boy Willie's best friend, a character that requires measures of naivet'e and spunk, which Carroll delivers with endearing gawkiness. Although Starletta DuPois seems 10 years too old for her role, she displays the fire and steel of Berneice, who is nobody's fool but everybody's sweetheart. Lou Myers and Carl Gordon are ably adept as the two uncles - one a saloon musician and the other a railroad man - who evince the yin and yang of the black American's economic traditions; the one entertains, the other serves.
At Yale Rep through Dec. 19. The production reopens Jan. 9 at Boston's Huntington Theatre.