Sharon Washington, Bowman Wright, Joneice Abbot-Pratt & Forrest McClendon in Seven Guitars.
By August Wilson
Directed by Colman Domingo
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2015 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved
I am always excited by the opportunity to see an August Wilson play. Only Actors Theatre has managed to deliver them to Louisville audiences, the most recent having been an outstanding production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom in 2010. Now we have Seven Guitars to feast upon.
Seven Guitars is a 1995 play set in the year 1948, making it the1940s entry in Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle”, a decade-by-decade anthology of African-American life in Pittsburgh, PA during the twentieth century. It won both the Pulitzer Prize and the Tony Award for Best Play and this production shows us why.
The play takes place in a Pittsburgh backyard, vividly realized in William Boles’ expressionistic set design. It opens on an upbeat, celebratory note as blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (J. Alphonse Nicholson) finds himself with a hit record. He is intent on returning to Chicago to record again with his friends Canewell (Forrest McClendon) and Red Carter (Bowman Wright) but also with his girl, Vera (Joneice Abbott-Pratt). Vera is not at all certain she wants to go anywhere with Floyd, whose previous time in Chicago was spent in the company of another woman.
Act One is a long, slow burn; ninety minutes of richly detailed character introduction and subtle exposition wherein Wilson determinedly avoids traditional narrative momentum. It’s bold and risky but Wilson is playwright enough to pull it off. The audience is pulled fully into the lives of these seven characters, including neighbor Louise (Sharon Washington), the sexually provocative Ruby (Joaquina Kalukango), and the aging Hedley (Harold Surratt). Although simply listed as “Hedley”, the character speaks powerfully about the personal and cultural connotations of his first name, King, and we know that one of the other plays in this cycle is King Hedley II, lending him a mythic aspect that singles him out from the rest. Mr. Surratt takes the full measure of Hedley in a volcanic performance
Otherwise Wilson cherishes each of his characters and allows each generous time to have individual impact, so that the exemplary ensemble cast is not easily singled out for acknowledgement. They all deliver beautiful, nuanced work. They are also a group that knows how to enter the scene with insight, important in a play that uses such entrances strategically.
Wilson’s importance as an African-American writer is obvious, yet it is not just the examination of Black History in America that merits his position as the pre-eminent playwright of color in contemporary theatre. Seven Guitars is an intimate epic, a close study of a small group of characters that taps into grandiloquent themes of identity for African-Americans in general and men in particular. King Hedley’s dialogue about the respect his name demands encapsulates a powerful sense of pride, dignity and self-respect that strikes at the heart of the emasculation of a race within American society without becoming preachy. Hedley is so complex and original a creation one could write volumes deconstructing this one, singular character.
Costumes from Kara Harmon were perfect period recreations and potent reinforcement of characterization, while Kathy A. Perkins’ lighting and Christian Frederickson’s sound design solidified the tragic beauty of the design work. We have come, over the years, to expect such a high level of quality in design work at Actors Theatre, but this production forcefully reminds us again.
Seven Guitars delivers everything one could want to find in a theatre today: thoughtful and provocative writing staged and played in nearly flawless fashion. It is a strong, challenging opening salvo for the new season.
September 1 – 20, 2015
Actors Theatre of Louisville
316 West Main Street
Louisville, Kentucky 40202
[box_light]Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being one of the hosts of PUBLIC on ARTxFM, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.[/box_light]