At the center of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson stands a piano, a family heirloom wedged between two siblings who bicker over their shared inheritance. Berniece wants to keep the piano, carved by their great-grandfather with the likenesses of his wife and son—the enslaved persons who had been traded for the piano. It is a connection to their past. Boy Willie, a sharecropper, wants to sell the piano to buy the Mississippi farmland where their ancestors labored. It is the promise of a future.
Tony-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt was tasked with creating the pivotal prop, which needed to exist not only as a work of art as detailed in the script, but also as a functioning piano.
Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson suggested taking inspiration from a Makonde Tree of Life sculpture she and husband Samuel L. Jackson (who plays the siblings’ Uncle Doaker in the production) have in their home. The Makonde people are indigenous to southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique, and Kenya. Traditionally carved from a single ebony log, the Tree of Life is composed of several intertwined figures representing community and family.
“To be perfectly honest, I felt slightly awkward as a white designer designing this object—something that was to have been created by an enslaved Black person,” Boritt admits. He turned the project over to one of his assistants, Romello Huins, a young Black designer. Using the play’s dialogue, a mountain of Makonde research, and several photos of the Jacksons’ sculpture, Huins created blueprints and the visual layout for the piano.
The designs were then taken to BBProps for construction. The piano was constructed to look like a mid-19th century upright but housed a digital keyboard so it could be played on stage. Artist Bill Mancuso of Four Horsemen Studios (primarily toy and action figure sculptors) did the digital sculpting of Huins’ renderings. They were then 3D-printed using ABSphotopolymer resin, attached to the piano casing, and painted to resemble ebony wood.
The digital technology and 3D printing of the object allowed for a level of detail that would not have been attainable previously. “We’d never be able to hire somebody to actually carve all this out of wood. In the old days, it would have been carved out of Styrofoam, and you can’t get quite this level of intricacy,” says Boritt.
In addition to the digital keyboard, the prop piano also houses a lighting and fog effect inside— representing the ghosts of the ancestors. There’s also a complicated electrical system for all the components. “It very much was a ‘takes a village’ group effort to create it,” says Boritt.
Like the family that the carvings represent in The Piano Lesson, the prop’s construction mirrors that sense of community in the world of the play. Says Boritt: “That’s the magic of theatrical collaboration—everybody is adding a piece of themselves to it, and you can feel it in something like this piano.”