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Making the Piano of The Piano Lesson

When the house lights cut to black and dim sunlight reveals the skeleton of a house onstage at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, your eyes can’t help but wander to the upright piano resting downstage right. At this point, it’s merely decoration, but over the course of The Piano Lesson, the heirloom becomes a full character in the current Broadway revival of August Wilson’s drama.

That piano is so central to this story that Wilson’s script dedicates half of its mandate for the play’s setting to a description of the instrument: “Dominating the parlor is an old upright piano. On the legs of the piano, carved in the manner of African sculpture, are mask-like figures resembling totems. The carvings are rendered with a grace and power of invention that lifts them out of the realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.” 

With such detailed instructions, the resulting piece that audiences see onstage would seem preordained. But the truth is that the seemingly obvious artistry of the piano speaks to intense research, precise dramaturgy and the arduous labor that brought its design to fruition.

In reading the script’s passage, scenic designer Beowulf Boritt knew he needed a standout concept. “It’s always a little nerve-racking ’cause you are trying to put literary weight into a physical object and that’s tricky,” Boritt confided. He’d initially suggested bringing on visual artist Kara Walker, famous for her silhouette style. Director LaTanya Richardson Jackson responded with her own proposition: use a Tree of Life sculpture in her home...READ MORE

Author: Ruthie Fierberg


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