A Very Special Piano for “The Piano Lesson”

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The Piano Lesson is a hit Broadway play by Pulitzer Prize Winning playwright August Wilson. It was first staged back in 1987 and has been revived in 2022. The current show stars Samuel L. Jackson, John David Washington and Danielle Brooks.

photograph of the piano being played on stage
Michael Potts at the piano. Photo: Natasha Sebaka

The story, set in 1936 Pittsburgh just after the Great Depression, centres around a precious family heirloom – the family piano. The play chronicles the battle between brother and sister who have opposing ideas as to what to do with the piano.

This is no ordinary piano, but an upright, meticulously carved by their enslaved great grandfather.

front view of the piano
Photo: Rowena Husbands

Years previous the family has all been slaves, and their owner had sold the mother and son to pay for a piano he wanted to give to his wife as an anniversary present. The slave owner’s wife however missed having these two slaves and got the father, a carpenter, to carve their images onto the piano. He not only carved their likenesses, but also his life history, onto the piano’s casework.

From Design to Completion

Award-winning designer Beowulf Boritt was bought in by director LaTanya Richardson Jackson to create a working piano that fit the brief. Jackson suggested that the designs should be based on the Makonde “Tree of Life” sculptures. The Makonde are an ethnic group living in southeast Tanzania, northern Mozambique and parts of Kenya. Their “Tree of Life” sculptures depict interlocking human figures carved from a single piece of African Blackwood.

Spotlit photo of the piano
Photo: Rowena Husbands

Boritt designed the piano to look like a mid-19th century upright, but a little larger than a standard instrument. He scoped the style of the piano and where the carved panels should be positioned. Seven of these elements cover the instrument: 3 large flat panels, 2 legs, and 2 pilasters (columns, located here on either side of the upper panel).

Borrit was assisted by Romello Huins who researched the Makonde’s craftwork and provided the technical drawings for the prop. These were then used by digital artist Bill Mancuso to digitally sculpt the carvings.

The seven sections were 3D printed using an ABS photopolymer resin, and applied to the specially constructed piano shell. The casework was then painted to give it the appearance of ebony. For practical reasons, a digital piano (an 88-note Nord Piano 5 Stage Piano) was installed to make this a working prop.

Pyrotechnics also feature in the piano’s design. The instrument can play itself, self-immolate and produce clouds of smoke for the more dramatic moments!

A scene from "The Piano Lesson" showing five members of the cast and the piano
Photo: Natasha Sebaka

The Piano Lesson is currently running at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, New York.


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