The producers and creative team are donating the piano — constructed out of wood and plastic and not actually playable — to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. After the paperwork is finalized and the Broadway run starring Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks and John David Washington ends on Jan. 29, the piano will be sent to the museum, whose collection also features artifacts from such varied Black theatrical milestones as “Porgy and Bess” and “The Wiz.”
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How fitting for this honor to be bestowed on the pivotal object, physically and symbolically, in the play for which Wilson won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for drama.
“It is always going to be part of the conversation,” said Latanya Richardson Jackson, who directed the well-received revival, set in 1936 Pittsburgh, about the fight over a family musical heirloom. “For this to be part of August Wilson’s history — it’s about our community and our people.”
The idea for the donation began with Richardson Jackson and her husband, Samuel L. — they are major donors to the African American Museum and Richardson Jackson sits on its Museum Council — and Brian Moreland, one of the show’s lead producers.
“When this came up and there was interest from the museum? Oh, my God, something I worked on could be part of the legacy for someone else to see and experience? That moved me beyond belief,” Moreland said. “It feels full circle, it feels needed, it feels right and I feel very fortunate being the person [involved in] it.”
Kenneth Irvine Chenault, chairman of the Museum Council, hailed the donation. “The prospect of receiving this magnificent piece of theater history into the collection of the Smithsonian African American Museum is exciting,” he said in a statement. “It’s an important reminder of the significance of the Black voice in theater, and due recognition of the brilliance of August Wilson.”
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In the play, Washington and Brooks play brother and sister Boy Willy and Berniece, who have inherited a piano engraved with their ancestors’ images, going back through generations of enslavement. Boy Willy’s desperate efforts to sell it and Berniece’s fierce determination to keep it define their struggle over survival, identity and family pride.
“This piano has a lot of love in it,” Moreland said. And for the production’s purposes, it had to be a singular instrument.
That’s where set designer Beowulf Boritt came in with his design and construction teams. It would eventually take nine months and upward of 25 people to sketch, fabricate, decorate and light the prop — a process that included digital sculpture painted to look like ebony. Boritt said Richardson Jackson invited him to examine the Makonde sculpture she and her husband own to give him a sense of what she envisioned.
“The sculptures are essentially family trees carved out of a log, representing the family or the village or the area,” Boritt said. (The Makonde are an ethnic group from central East Africa.) The notion was developed of a piano that itself was sculptural and that at the end of the show would “come alive” with sound, smoke and lighting effects. Boritt gave assistant set designer Romello Huins the task of digging deeper into the research. “What I wanted him to do,” Boritt explained, “was to understand the heritages of the piece.”
A prop-building shop was contracted to create the piano’s panels. For the 100 or so figures and scenes, models were sculpted out of plastic foam: images of the play’s characters and their ancestors. They were then sent to a company in California that cast plastic versions on a 3D printer.
“It’s the one hyper-detailed element of the set,” Boritt said. “Intertwined were other figures, based on Sam and Latanya’s sculpture, it gave you the story of the characters’ ancestors going back hundreds of years. When Berniece is able to connect to her ancestors, she becomes connected to the piano.”
Somehow, the emotional bond the sister forges with the keepsake was transferred to Richardson Jackson. “The Piano Lesson” was her first directorial effort, and ordinarily, once a run ends, set pieces go into storage or even recycling bins. But Richardson Jackson was having none of that.
“I kept saying, ‘I want this piano and we’re not going to let this go!’” she said with a laugh. So soon, Moreland said, museum workers will arrive at Broadway’s Ethel Barrymore Theatre, measure and build a shipping box for the piano. He expects that the day after the curtain comes down for the last time, the prop will begin the journey to its new showplace.