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INSTRUMENT OF CHANGE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It's no ordinary piano.

You notice that right away. A mahogany upright, its legs are fluted Greek revival pillars. Nothing too unusual there. But the panels above the keyboard and on the sides are covered with African-style carvings.

The front panels contain two faces carved in relief -- a woman and a child. A temple-like design fills the space between them. On the far right and left are two African statuettes, one male and the other female.

The sides of the piano display scenes celebrating life and seasonal cycles -- marriage, birth, the harvest, as well as a scene depicting some sort of shady deal that seems to suggest the slave trade.

The piano case is polished to such a high sheen, the carvings take on an unearthly glow. Just how unearthly will be apparent to anyone who attends Center Stage's production of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, "The Piano Lesson."

This piano is haunted. It plays music by itself.

The instrument "is really a character," explains Reggie Montgomery, director of this 1930s installment of Wilson's decade-by-decade chronicle of 20th century African-American life. "It's not supposed to speak, but within the story, it has such life."

For production dramaturg Charlotte Stoudt, the piano "is the physical symbol that looms the largest probably in any of [Wilson's] plays. The piano is an incredibly rich and effective device for externalizing not only the conflicts in the play, but the themes, too."

These conflicts involve the piano's owners, a grown brother and sister named Boy Willie and Berniece. The history of their family is carved on the instrument, which originally belonged to the owners of the plantation where Boy Willie and Berniece's family were slaves.

On stage, the piano occupies a prominent place in the parlor of the Pittsburgh home Berniece shares with her uncle and young daughter. When the play begins, Boy Willie has arrived unexpectedly from Mississippi, planning to sell the piano and buy the land where his family was enslaved.

For Wilson, the piano raises the question: What is the proper use of a legacy? Or, as Montgomery puts it, do we "discard our history for a mere buck, or do we allow ourselves to embrace it as a tool that has helped bring us where we are? Thereby, you have a very rich conflict."

This is a lot of freight for a single prop to bear. Although set designer Donald Eastman was responsible for the overall look of the instrument, the daunting job of crafting it fell primarily to two women in Center Stage's prop department, Jennifer C. Stearns, who devoted two months to the carvings, and Cheryl M. Eatman, who worked off and on during that time creating the inner workings that make the piano appear haunted.

Fortunately, Stearns and Eatman did not have to build the instrument from scratch. Instead, they started with a late 19th century piano purchased for $134.99 from AAA Antiques Mall in Hanover, Md. Moving the piano to the theater cost another $192. The choice of the instrument was approved by designer Eastman, who was so pleased with the Greek revival legs, he designed a kitchen table for the set with the same style legs.

Bringing a ghost to life

On a recent afternoon, Eatman (who is in her fourth season as a props artisan at the theater) kneeled behind the gutted piano in one of Center Stage's large, sun-drenched workshops. Earlier, she had removed the back of the piano. "We ripped out almost everything," she said. Out went the steel harp, the hammers and the strings.

In their place, she installed a motorized pulley system that turns a cylinder-shaped drum. The drum is striped with red horizontal lines about an inch apart (each representing a quarter note) and dotted with felt-tipped, wood pegs. Unlike a player piano, in which puffs of air produce notes by blowing through holes in a piano roll, in Center Stage's piano, a motor turns the drum, causing the pegs to lift the backs of the keys.

The music the piano plays during the haunting scenes is titled "Piano Lesson Blues" and was composed by the production's sound designer, David Budries, and music director, David Allen Bunn. When Eatman was positioning the pegs, she kept the sheet music thumb-tacked to the piano.

"I took piano lessons when I was in elementary school, so I can kind of figure it out," she said. Even if her calculations are a fraction off, they won't affect the sound; the music will be broadcast from a speaker hidden behind a screen just above the pedals.

Meanwhile, across the room, Stearns -- a former intern who has been back full-time since January -- sat at a workbench, carving with tools that sounded ominously like dentists' drills. Her work started with art history research compiled by the set designer.

The script contains "no references to where these ancestors came from," Eastman explained. "Because of that I was able to pull the best of African art." He focused on the West Coast of Africa, where most of the slave trade was based.

Relying on books, blueprints, reproductions and faxes supplied by Eastman, Stearns used dremel tools, palm sanders and an electric grinder with a chain saw blade to sculpt the reliefs and statuettes out of basswood, which is soft. "We don't have time to do whittling," she said. "Whatever rips through it the fastest is what we use."

The set designer, who allowed Stearns a certain amount of artistic latitude, said he never expected her to fabricate the pair of statuettes. He thought she would merely cut down a larger pair that had been purchased at an antiques store in Frederick. But Stearns thought that would look awkward, so she replicated the figures, scaled down by 2 1/2 - to 3-inches apiece.

Eastman, who designed a previous production of "The Piano Lesson" in Syracuse a decade ago, was impressed. "There's amazing talent in the majority of regional theaters, and this is up there with all the best," he said.

Different approaches

"The Piano Lesson" has been widely produced, and there are probably as many different ways of designing the piano as there are interpretations of the characters. "We've looked at other pianos and they looked beautiful, but they looked more like Ghiberti's doors," Stearns said, referring to the 15th century gilt bronze "Gates of Paradise" in Florence. The piano, she said, must be "immediately identifiable as African folk art."

Technical solutions can differ, too. For a production earlier this year at Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, R.I., a piano was fitted out with high-tech computerized innards, and the exterior reliefs were fashioned from plastic resin. Not only would the computerized approach have been too costly, Stearns said, casting plastic reliefs would not "have the grain and the depth that wood has."

Then there are those legs. In the published script, Wilson writes, "On the legs of the piano, carved in the manner of African sculpture, are mask-like figures resembling totems." That description applied to both the 1988 Broadway production and the subsequent television broadcast.

Eastman departed from it because he thought juxtaposing the piano's own Greek revival legs with the African carvings on the rest of the instrument would encapsulate the play's key arguments.

Dramaturg Stoudt agrees, saying: "The piano is an object charged with tension, and the tension is European vs. African. It's Christian vs. Yoruba [a West African tribe]. It's mourning vs. legacy. It's slavery vs. personhood. It should be as conflicted and charged in every way to keep up with the level of struggle in the play."

'The Piano Lesson'

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays. Through June 24

Tickets: $10-$50

Call: 410-332-0033

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