THE PIANO LESSON Play by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Starring Charles S. Dutton. At the Walter Kerr Theatre. A PULITZER Prize winner just before it arrived here, ``The Piano Lesson'' reconfirms the major status of playwright-poet August Wilson. The new drama at the Walter Kerr Theatre (formerly the Ritz) continues his cycle of plays dealing with the African-American experience in the 20th century. Broadway has already applauded and honored ``Ma Rainey's Black Bottom'' (the 1920s), ``Fences'' (the 1950s), and ``Joe Turner's Come and Gone'' (1911).
The latest and most searching Wilsonian examination of black America's present as related to its past takes place in Pittsburgh in 1936. Bursting in on the lives of Uncle Doaker Charles (Carl Gordon) and his widowed sister, Berniece (S. Epatha Merkerson), comes Boy Willie (Charles S. Dutton), a rambunctious farmer from Mississippi. Boy Willie is bent on selling the elaborately carved upright piano now gracing Doaker's parlor, an instrument which is far more than a family heirloom. With proceeds from the sale of his truckload of watermelons and the disposal of the piano, Boy Willie plans to buy the farm land on which previous generations of Charleses slaved and sharecropped - and that will free him to ``live my life the way I want to live it.''
As the play unfolds, so do the Charles family's poignant associations with the piano. In the days of slavery, two family forebears were traded for it by their white master; another ancestor carved the elaborate totemic figures representing the family's history. Boy Willie and Berniece's father lost his life in the theft of the piano from the former slaveowner whose parlor it had graced.
Mr. Wilson departs from the central conflict with seeming digressions which are really part of the total human fabric of this remarkable play. Doaker, who used to work on the railway, delights himself with a free-flowing recitation of timetables and destinations. Avery (Tommy Hollis), Berniece's would-be suitor, describes the dream that inspired the fervent elevator man to start his Church of the Good Shepherd. To cut a more dashing figure, the naive young Lymon (Rocky Carroll), Boy Willie's pal, buys a sleek second-hand outfit of clothes from gambler Wining Boy (Lou Myers). Wining Boy's song to his own piano accompaniment, while delightful in itself, is integral to the musical themes of ``The Piano Lesson.''
Over Berniece's protests and remonstrations, the unfazed Boy Willie presses on with his preparations to remove and sell the piano. As the obstreperous intruder, Mr. Dutton sweeps through the Charles household ``like a tornado'' (in Wilson's phrase).
The star, whose formidable powers helped animate ``Ma Rainey,'' energizes the entire production of ``The Piano Lesson.'' Boy Willie challenges his sister not only over the piano itself but over her ambivalent feelings about it and a past carved so deeply and psychologically into their shared history.
While Dutton plays Boy Willie for all of the role's emotional dynamics and comic possibilities, his bravura portrayal never strays over the line or indulges in mere buffoonery. The attractive Miss Merkerson proves equally capable of defending Berniece's position and of being touched by Lymon's momentary shy advances. Apryl Foster as Berniece's 11-year-old daughter and Lisa Gay Hamilton as a local bar girl complete the cast.
The performance staged by Lloyd Richards, Wilson's longtime collaborator, responds both to the rich humanity of ``The Piano Lesson'' and to the theatrical supernaturalism which takes full stage as Boy Willie grapples with the white slave owner's ghost that haunts them all. Credit Christopher Akerlind's lighting and G. Thomas Clark's sound effects for enhancing the spooky excitements of the climactic exorcism. E. David Cosier Jr. designed the modest but hospitable setting for what proves to be a momentous theatrical occasion.