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Focus : 'Piano's' Passage : PLAYWRIGHT WILSON ADAPTS HIS 1990 PRIZE 'LESSON' FOR ITS TV PREMIERE

February 05, 1995|RAY LOYND | Ray Loynd is a frequent contributor to Calendar

When playwright August Wilson told actor Charles Dutton he had written a play for him about an African Amerian named Boy Willie who sells watermelons out of his truck so he can buy some land, Dutton thought the playwright had lost his mind.

"My reaction was, 'C'mon August, you're not going to put a black man on stage selling watermelons, are you?' "

But Dutton was totally blown away by "The Piano Lesson."

"On just that little premise of a man selling watermelons," says Dutton, "August encompassed the entire African American experience and managed to dramatize the same universal legacy that 'Roots' did."

The Pulitzer Prize-winning play comes to CBS Sunday, with the full involvement of the three principals who brought it to Broadway: playwright Wilson, director Lloyd Richards and star Dutton, who received a Tony nomination for his portrayal of the boisterous Boy Willie.

Five of the original Broadway cast of eight are also in the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie, which was shot in Pittsburgh last September and October. Other members of the original cast in this production are Carl Gordon, Lou Myers, Tomy Hollis and Rosalyn Coleman.

Those new to the production are Alfre Woodard, in the crucial role of Dutton's no-nonsense sister Berniece, Courtney B. Vance and Zelda Harris.

The 1990 play has been opened up by Wilson and Richards, the playwright's Yale Repertory Theatre mentor and longtime stage director.

"You have to respect the differences between stage and film," says Wilson, reached in Chicago where his latest play, "Seven Guitars," about a '40s blues singer, recently opened to generally positive reviews. "You need more time to tell the story on the stage, where you tell the story with the ear; the other (film) way is telling the story with the eye."

This the first of Wilson's plays to unfold--"with the eye"--on television.

For the playwright, the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation is part of an ever-widening canvas on which Wilson is chronicling 20th-Century African American life, told through different plays decade by decade. He hopes that viewers will be provoked to "examine their own heritage."

"For me, writing is largely a mystical process," Wilson says. "I trust all my instincts. And that went for tackling the screenplay. I actually enjoyed the experience. When I write I'm only a medium for the characters, speaking through them. I don't stop and think."

The playwright quit high school in the ninth grade when a teacher questioned the authorship of a paper he had written on Napoleon. "I was so offended, I tore the paper up in front of the teacher and threw it in the wastebasket," Wilson recalls. "And I never looked back."

Every school day after that, and without telling his mother what had happened, Wilson went to the high school library and read all the books he could. He later helped support himself by working as a short-order cook. And he began writing short plays.

Richards, reached at his home in New York where he is recovering from recent arterial neck surgery, says, "It hurt to lose bits of dialogue from the play, but the honing was necessary to get it down to television time."

In "The Piano Lesson," which played at the Doolittle Theatre here in 1990, the character Boy Willie is bristling with his own agenda.

Central to the story is the tumultuous battle between him and his sister Berniece over the disposition of their ornately carved, majestic family piano, steeped with the history--and blood--of their family.

Boy Willie drives a melon truck to his sister's house in 1936 Pittsburgh to cajole his hostile sibling into selling the family piano. The exuberant Boy Willie wants to use the proceeds to buy land in Mississippi on which his ancestors worked as slaves.

Berniece, tied to a past that is symbolized by the piano and haunted by a family ghost in the upstairs bedroom, adamantly refuses to sell the upright, which has been in the family 130 years.

In post-performance discussions, audiences generally have split along gender lines, women favoring Berniece, who wants to keep the piano, and men supporting Boy Willie, who wants to sell it.

The playwright personally leans toward Boy Willie. "If you carry your history with you in every heartbeat--which is what Boy Willie does--then you don't need physical reminders," says Wilson. "So I personally would side with Boy Willie. To me, trading the piano for the self-independence that owning land gives you--that's a sensible and worthwhile trade-off."

But, dramatically, Wilson makes a convincing case for both sides.

Says Dutton: "I believe the characters and themes are just made for the screen, and television will be richer thanks to it."

"This is a story that makes me feel what my mother and father might have been like before I met them."

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