Any critic who talks about a play's "authenticity" is riding for a fall. A middle-aged white guy from New Jersey may be the ideal arbiter for "Jersey Boys" but can't judge the historical dramas of August Wilson with the same confidence.
Yet "authentic" was the word that came to mind as I walked to the parking lot outside Pease Auditorium Friday night.
Though I was separated by age, race and income from the Pittsburgh family that exorcised its demons in "The Piano Lesson," I did believe in them.
That's partly due to the naturalness of the writing: Except for "Fences," this could be the most easily understood play in Wilson's 10-drama canon about African-Americans spanning the 20th century. That's also partly due to Corlis Hayes' intelligent direction.
I suspect it's mainly due to the work her first-rate, eight-member CPCC Theatre cast did to get under the skins of these characters, who are mostly Southern transplants to the industrial North during the Depression. Their minds are crucibles of optimism, superstition, anger and faith, all of which struggle for supremacy.
Authenticity comes with one big price for some of us: Audiences unused to the rapid rhythms of black speech will be at sea from time to time, when the fast-talking characters rev up. Listening to them is like listening to Shakespearean dialogue or a Cockney accent: The truer it is, the tougher it may be to follow on first try. But I would rather struggle to keep up than ask actors to slow down for me, because the play demands exactly that energy.
When would-be farmer Boy Willie (Jonavan Adams) roars onto the stage in the first act, blustering and boasting, he must roar. When footloose musician Wining Boy (Gerard Hazelton) makes a pitch for money, it has to be a fast pitch. So it goes.
Wilson has put "Boy" in both names for a reason: Neither, for all the bravado, has grown up. Willie hasn't reconciled with responsible sister Berniece (Karen Abercrombie). Wining bums money from Doaker (John W. Price), Berniece and Willie's uncle, and keeps frittering it away.
The playwright, who died five years ago at 59, didn't write directly about racial uplift. But it's clear in this play - which is called "Lesson," after all - that Willie and Wining's desire to return to the Deep South won't get them anywhere valuable.
Hope of progress rests with Berniece and Doaker, who work diligently at the kinds of jobs available to African-Americans in 1936.
Though Willie mocks Avery (Sidney Horton), a former laborer who wants to open a storefront church, Wilson asks us to respect the preacher. Even carefree Lymon (Robert N. Isaac), who plans to stay in Pittsburgh after he and Willie sell a truckload of watermelons, has a shot at a better life in the North.
The piano of the title is an engraved beauty Willie wants to sell, so he can buy the land on which his ancestors toiled as slaves. Berniece refuses, because a white man traded that piano for her great-grandmother and grandfather, and because her great-grandfather carved the family's history into the wood like deep scars.
Wilson links this quarrel to a ghost story, one that involves generations of murder and violent revenge. Peace will be impossible for Willie's family until the members find a way to honor the pain of their past and love each other anyway.
But Wilson's really talking about all Americans, who'll have to do the same thing to live in a different kind of harmony.