The producers and creative team are donating the piano — constructed of wood and plastic and not actually playable — to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. Once the paperwork is finalized and the Broadway run starring Samuel L. Jackson, Danielle Brooks and John David Washington ends Jan. 29, the piano will be sent to the museum, whose collection also includes artifacts from equally varied black theatrical milestones. as “Porgy and Bess” and “The Wiz”.
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How fitting that honor should be given to the central object, physically and symbolically, in the play for which Wilson won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1990.
“It will always be part of the conversation,” Latanya Richardson Jackson, who led the well-received revival, set in 1936 Pittsburgh, said of the fight for a family musical legacy. “For this to be part of the August Wilson story, 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 board – and Brian Moreland, one of the main producers of the show.
“When did this happen and there was interest from the museum? Oh my God, could something I’ve been working on be part of the legacy for someone else to see and experience? It moved me beyond belief,” Moreland said. “It’s come full circle, she’s needed, she feels good and I feel very lucky to be the person [involved in] he.”
Kenneth Irvine Chenault, chairman of the museum’s board, welcomed 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 importance of the black voice in theater and an acknowledgment of August Wilson’s brilliance.”
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In the play, Washington and Brooks play brother and sister Boy Willy and Berniece, who inherited a piano engraved with the likeness of their ancestors, dating back through generations of slavery. Boy Willy’s desperate efforts to sell it and Berniece’s fierce determination to keep it define their struggle for survival, identity and family pride.
“There’s a lot of love in there,” Moreland said. And for production purposes, it had to be a unique instrument.
This is where scenographer Beowulf Boritt stepped in with his design and construction teams. It would ultimately take nine months and more than 25 people to sketch, fabricate, decorate and light the prop – a process that included a digital sculpture painted to look like ebony. Boritt said Richardson Jackson invited him to look at the sculpture of Makonde that she and her husband own to give her an idea of what she envisioned.
“The carvings are basically family trees carved out of a log, representing the family, village or region,” Boritt said. (The Makonde are an ethnic group from central East Africa.) The idea was developed of a piano which was itself sculptural and which, at the end of the performance, would “come to life” with sound, smoke and lighting effects. Boritt entrusted assistant scenographer Romello Huins with the task of further research. “What I wanted him to do,” Boritt explained, “was to understand the legacies of the play.”
A prop building shop was hired to create the panels for the piano. For the hundred characters and scenes, models were sculpted in plastic foam: images of the characters in the play and their ancestors. They were then sent to a California company that cast plastic versions on a 3D printer.
“It’s the only hyper-detailed piece of the set,” Boritt said. “Other characters were intertwined, based on the sculpture of Sam and Latanya, it gave you the history 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 connection the sister forges with the memory was transferred to Richardson Jackson. “The Piano Lesson” was his first directing effort, and usually, once a run ends, the sets are stored or even in recycling bins. But Richardson Jackson had none of that.
“I kept saying, ‘I want this piano and we’re not going to drop this! “” she said, laughing. Very soon, Moreland said, museum workers will arrive at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on Broadway, measure and build a shipping box for the piano. He expects that the day after the last fall of the curtain, the accessory will begin the journey to its new showcase.