Light Lesson

Of the talents August Wilson brings to playwrighting, brevity surely isn't one of them. Steeped in folk language and vernacular wisdom, Wilson dwells in words. From Joe Turner's Come and Gone to the Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences, Wilson's characters go round and round personal, societal and historical issues dear to them, and go round and round each other, changing up rhythms to break into song, stopping in mid-thought to tell stories or shoot the breeze or reminisce. Wilson adds details and complications until everything becomes part of a vast lyrical piece, much like another writer concerned with race, but one whom we don't readily associate with Wilson -- William Faulkner. But while Faulkner had the luxury of print, and an audience that could pick him up and put him down as they wished, Wilson deals with live language, and a captive audience prone to fidget. And our foremost African-American playwright does go on. And on.

To speed things up, a recent television adaptation of The Piano Lesson -- the struggle, set in Pittsburgh, 1936, over an ancient upright piano between Boy Willie, who wants to sell it to buy the Mississippi land his family had worked as slaves, and his sister Berniece, who cherishes the instrument as a reminder of their family legacy -- cut the text to emphasize plot. But while the story seemed more direct this way, it lost some of its soul. As in all Wilson plays, it's the substance of life, not the bare bones of narrative, that gives Piano its rich measure.

In The Ensemble Theatre's production of The Piano Lesson, director Claude Purdy leaves every Wilson word intact. What Purdy does to move things along is emphasize the play's humor. Too often Wilson is handled with the deference due an "important" author. Staged oh so reverently, these productions become museum pieces; the hushed sentiment is that Wilson is significant. And he is. But he's also an entertainer. And Purdy knows this. The Ensemble's Lesson may take three hours to unfold, but they're hours that go by breezily.

When Doaker, Berniece and Boy Willie's uncle, brandishes a gun and then fires a warning shot to quell a crazed moment, Boy Willie flashes a broad grin while his best friend, the smooth Lymon, moseys himself on out of there. When Boy Willie gets Berniece riled up, her 11-year-old daughter, on whose head she's using a curling iron, becomes her throw-about rag doll. Boy Willie's threat to cut the piano in half if Berniece won't sell is more idle than looming; when he remarks, "I'm selling my half. I can't help it if her half got to go along with it," the scene is straight out of Amos and Andy. Stories are told for punch lines, not worry lines.

But at times there's too much levity. Having Berniece go after Boy Willie with a kitchen pot denigrates the tension between them. And there is tension, a tension both immediate and profound. Boy Willie and Berniece each has an indefatigable point: the piano is nothing more than a piece of wood to be cashed in and it is nothing less than a priceless symbol of heritage. Is selling the piano a denial of the past? Is keeping it necessary to affirm that past? How much is our identity tied to ancestry? How much should it be? The siblings' stalemate, for all the comic waves, spans a deep, turbulent sea, yet Purdy stays in the shallows. I'm grateful he doesn't make the evening seem endless, but by the same token he needs to slow down and ponder the huge problem his characters face. In some ways the evening should seem endless.

When, by the climax, it's revealed that the piano is inhabited by a slave-era ghost, the underlying effect calls for something otherworldly, serious and terrible. Purdy, however, goes for chintzy special effects (blinking lights, howling winds) and makes the exorcism an exercise in slapstick. Purdy creates a sense of Halloween rather than meaningful possession.

The cast, though, sure can jaw, which serves the play well. Alex Allen Morris is a charismatic pack of trouble as Boy Willie; he struts, schemes and high steps in glee, is full of large gestures and sprawls himself out on a sofa as if all he ever had going for him was talk. But Morris doesn't quite make Boy Willie into the dynamo he should be. As written, Boy Willie is powerfully likable, but he's also volcanic, always ready to explode because of the force of his convictions. Morris, emphasizing the amusing side of bravado, comes across simply as a scamp, and by so doing undercuts Wilson's intentions. One result is that we end up paying more attention to E.J. Morris as Berniece, whose emphatically no-nonsense good woman has seen her share of loneliness. E.J. Morris, wife of Alex Allen, grounds her character in realities and implications in a way her husband doesn't.

The supporting cast exudes a comfortableness that befits characters who are one big extended family. Though some are better attuned than others to their roles, the net result is convincing. What's not convincing is the ramshackle set in Texas Southern University's Hannah Hall. The Ensemble is temporarily using the TSU site while its own theater undergoes renovations. But while it's nice for The Ensemble to have a temporary home, the company is more intimate than the space it's biding time in. Perhaps this is why Purdy has his cast play to the rafters a little too much for their own good -- and Wilson's. Piano lessons, after all, aren't designed to be quite this much fun.

The Piano Lesson, presented by The Ensemble Theatre, plays through July 2 at Hannah Hall Auditorium on the campus of Texas Southern University, 520-0063.

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Peter Szatmary