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Gambit Weekly Ghosts of the Past

By Dalt Wonk

AUGUST 3, 1998:  To celebrate its 25th anniversary, Ethiopian Theater has christened an attractive new performing space in Armstrong Park with a revival of August Wilson's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Piano Lesson.

Perseverance Hall, one of the group of buildings on the far side of the lagoon opposite the Municipal Auditorium, is a high-ceilinged, comfortable, air-conditioned room that makes a very serviceable little theater. Security is provided by a police substation housed in one of the adjacent buildings.

In addition to commandeering the scenic talents of John Grimsley for an effective set, director Jomo Kenyatta-Bean has gathered a strong and experienced cast.

The Piano Lesson begins like a intimist drama centered on the conflict between a brother and sister but culminates in a full-scale exorcism of horror-movie proportions.

Set in Pittsburgh in the 1930s, the play follows Boy Willie Charles (Anthony Bean), who has driven up from a county in the rural South (which everyone in the play calls "down home") in an old truck loaded with watermelons. He and his friend Lyman (Lloyd Martin) plan to sell the watermelons. Lyman, who is on the lam from his own petty crimes and Jim Crow justice, wants to try life in the urban North.

Boy Willie, however, is determined to raise enough money to buy 100 acres of land down home that belonged to a white man named Sutton. His obsession with this piece of land is bound up in the complicated ties between the formerly slave-owning Sutton family and the formerly enslaved Charles family.

This historical antagonism is a bit complex to relate, but suffice it to say that the past has come to reside symbolically for Boy Willie in that parcel of land. His sister, Berniece (Gwendolyn Foxworth), has her own symbol, an intricately carved piano that she inherited from her mother. She brought the piano with her to the house of a railroad worker named Doaker (Oneal A. Issac) where she is trying to raise her 11-year-old daughter, Maretha (Tiara Lewis). The carvings in this piano represent the Charles ancestors. Boy Willie and Berniece's father stole the piano from the Sutton family and, while trying to escape, was burned alive by vigilantes in a boxcar on the railroad line known as the Yellow Dog.

This is where the ghosts come in. A number of white men down home have mysteriously fallen into their wells, and their deaths have been blamed on the "Yellow Dog ghosts." Is this actually Boy Willie taking revenge for his father? We never learn for sure, although hints are made. In any case, the last victim was the land-owning scion of the Sutton family. Boy Willie has been given two weeks by the Sutton heirs to raise the money to buy the parcel. He will have sufficient funds if he sells the watermelons -- and the piano.

Now, however, a second and more clearly ectoplasmic apparition enters the scene. The ghost of the slain Mr. Sutton starts appearing to everyone in the house.

Most of the action of the play involves the escalating battle of wills between Berniece and Boy Willie over his declared aim of selling the piano. But ultimately, it is Sutter's ghost -- representing, I suppose, the fatal hold of the past on the lives of both Berniece and Boy Willie -- that takes center stage. At last, Berniece begs Avery (Harold Evans), an aspiring minister who wants to marry her, to bless the house and drive off the ghost. He does this in the final scene amid flashing lights, howling winds, keening women and an offstage 10-rounder between Boy Willie and the specter.

While the plot is somewhat heavily freighted and chaotic, the actual scenes (at least up to the apocalyptic finale) often have a good deal of charm. This is due largely to the dialogue and the subplots; for instance, Lyman's attempt to adjust to big city life with the dubious assistance of Wining Boy (Joshua Walker), a blues man and sometime recording artist.

But much of the credit goes to the inventive naturalness of the cast, which keeps the scenes honest and lively. And then, there are haunting moments that seem to come from nowhere, like the men -- all of whom have done time -- singing a prison song together.

If The Piano Lesson does not entirely satisfy as a script, this 25th anniversary production shows off Ethiopian Theater to good advantage and augers well for the future.

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