Directed by Ron OJ Parson
At Court Theatre, Chicago
Wilson’s lyrical dialogue sprinkled with blues music laments lost hopes, injustice in the search for personal identity.
Seven Guitars is that part of August Wilson’s ten play “Pittsburgh Cycle” that chronicles African-American life in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in the post-World War I940’s. It is 1948 and we meet a group of six characters gathered to mourn the missing seventh – Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton – a blues guitarist who had a hit record and near fame. Director Ron OJ Parsons has a genius feel for Wilson’s work and it shows here as he subtly moves us ito the world of the 40’s Pittsburgh.
Seven Guitars unfolds in the backyard of Louise’s (Felicic Fields) tenement boarding house (set design by Regina Garcia). With vibrant swatches of American blues lyrics harmonized by the players with a distinct mixture of Delta blues with jazz overtones, the motif of the blues becomes a framing device for the struggles of African-Americans during the Second Great Migration from the American South to the North as the blacks search for their slice of the American Dream.
Utilizing an extended flashback, Wilson’s look into the rising expectations in the black community post WWII is seen through the eyes of the charismatic blues guitar man – Floyd Barton who has returned from Chicago with a hit blues record yet little money. We see through Floyd, with asides from his six friends, the hopes, dreams and disappointments sometimes expressed best with the dissonant harmonies of blues music.
The early flashback scenes depict each character’s outlook on life. From the older female wise lady, Louise, we learn that she both understands and warns her younger lady friend Vera (Ebony Wimbs) about the unfaithfulness of most men. Vera debates taking Floyd back after he left her to go to Chicago with another woman. Does she give him a second chance?
There is an older man who is constantly cooking and preparing live stock around the backyard. Hedley (Allen Gilmore sporting a rich Haitian accent) is a psychological troubled soul who fantasizes about being an African king and a liberator of oppressed blacks. He is obviously mentally challenged. The others in the group respect and fear this shaman-like figure. He seems to be a link to the past slave-witchdoctor characters from the deep South.
Among Floyd’s pals are members of his band. Red Carter (Ronald Conner) is the drummer and Canewell (Jerod Haynes) -both have fits of reciting blues lyrics as well as telling stories about Southern roosters, the nature of male-females relationships as well as lamenting how the black man gets arrested in Chicago and Pittsburgh by the police for just being on the street. We also see how much hand guns are a vital part of a man’s protection and a symbol of his identity. Everyone man seems to own one except Canewell who is a wizard with a switch-blade.
The arrival of Ruby (Erynn Mackenzie) from the South ignites the men as the young flirtatious and beautiful girl is determined to live nicely in Pittsburgh. She has an agenda that maybe old Hedley can help?
Filled with Wilson’s rich lyrical dialogue that contains vivid references to the plight of the black man as he emerges into modern Northern city life, we hear fascinating references to the black experience in the South even some slave references. We see how Christian faith mingles with African superstition and how, despite being city folks, these folks still have many rural southern beliefs.
We experience the frustration Floyd and his mate have as they try to raise above their conditions and get to Chicago to record another blues record as Floyd and his band mates strive for their share of success. We see how one setback after another, gets them to resort to violence as their frustration mounts. Wilson depicts Floyd’s actions as both from desperation and from a sense of entitlement and ego as Floyd’s anger lashes out into crime.
What makes Seven Guitars a master work of drama is Wilson’s knack for writing fully developed characters that are human, faults an all. They are empathetic yet responsible; vulnerable yet self-destructive. But they are honest to their culture and their beliefs making them human, warts an all. The injustice, the poverty and the stiffed lack of opportunity leads to angry lashing out that makes tragedy occur too often.
Stay with Seven Guitars as it slowly propels us into the world of the Hill District and, in the course of the 3+ hours becomes a colorful (and often funny) glimpse into the world of African-Americans as they emerge into city folk determined to get their part of the American Dream. The payoff here is a rich theatrical experience. The ensemble acting is terrific. Kelvi Roston, Jr (as Floyd)anchors the cast with fine turns form Ronald Conner and Jerod Haynes. If you have never seen an August Wilson play-then get to Court Theatre to see Seven Guitars so you can experience one of the greatest American playwrights ever.
Talk Theatre in Chicago podcast
Date Reviewed: January 19, 2014
For more info checkout the Seven Guitars page at theatreinchicago.com
At Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis, Chicago, IL, call 773-753-4472, www.courttheatre.org, tickets $45 – $65, Wed & thur at 7:30 pm, Fri at 8 pm, Sat at 3 & 8 pm, Sund at 2;30 & 7;30, running time is 3 hour 10 minutes with intermission, through February 16, 2014