Monday, August 8, 2016

August in August - "Seven Guitars" - A Memorable Marathon at a Monumental Site

A scene from "Seven Guitars" CreditL Gail Manker

Given Pittsburghers’ fanatic loyalty to its sports teams, it’s no wonder that its arts-loving community has a similar fidelity to its playwrights, dancers, musicians and visual artists.

With bragging rights to names like Gertrude Stein, George Kaufman, Andy Warhol, Gene Kelly and Martha Graham on the list of famous Pittsburgh celebrity virtuosi, Pittsburgh culture vultures also have a heart-felt affinity for the most recent luminary to make the creative A-list - playwright August Wilson, considered by those in the know as one of the 20th Century’s most influential dramatists. Pittsburgh has even gone so far as build a magnificent culture center downtown that bears his name.

Without bragging, I’m proud to say that I got to sit through productions of Wilson’s "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone," "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," "Fences," and the world premier of "King Hedley II," staged at the Pittsburgh Public Theater back in 1999. Somewhere along the line, I even managed to get Wilson’s autograph when he was in town for one of his Pittsburgh productions. (It’s one of my most cherished signatures, by the way).

I’ll bet you can guess my reaction when I discovered that Wilson’s "Seven Guitars," his fifth play and one I hadn’t yet seen, was not only going to close out Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company’s current season, but was also going to be staged outdoors in the back yard of Wilson’s boyhood home in the Hill District. What a feather in my cap to be able to tell theater-going friends and relatives across the country that I got to experience this rare treat, this theatrical plum, if you will.

Those planning to catch a production in the run that ends on August 28, should take care to step lively to the rear end of the building where the dirt and gravel back yard serves as the stage. The building is undergoing a renovation to serve as the home of Daisy Wilson Artist Community, an organization devoted to educational and artistic programming "that promotes personal development in the spirit of August Wilson." The walkway, while safe for passage, is a little rough going in spots.

For the Pittsburgh Playwrights production of "Seven Guitars," three sections of seats embrace the staging arena in close proximity to the actors, which gives the theatrical experience an uncommon but welcome intimacy.

For those who may not know, Wilson penned ten plays, each set in a different decade of the 20th Century, nine of which are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Known collectively as both the Pittsburgh Cycle and the Century Cycle for obvious reasons, the plays focus on the African-American experience during the 1900s.

"Seven Guitars" is set in 1948, just after several of the characters return home from the war, only to find the same racial discrimination and prejudice waiting on their doorstep that they left behind on their way to help fight for their country overseas.

Jonathan Berry stars in "Seven Guitars"
At the outset, many of the characters are shown gathered back at a boarding house just after the funeral of rising star blues musician, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, murdered before he could get a stab at stardom. The story then unfolds in flashback at the time Barton arrives back home in Pittsburgh after spending 90 days in a Chicago jail for vagrancy, an unjust arrest in his opinion. But with a hit recording and incipient pop culture celebrity beginning to foment, he’s back in town to rekindle his romance with Vera (Ty Barrow) and encourage his fellow musicians to make a return to their Chicago studio for a recording follow up.

More on the quiet, introspective side, Vera resists his efforts at rapprochement, memories of his most recent affair with another woman still percolating in her mind. But Barton’s charisma and persistence are hard to resist, and Vera struggles with hurt feelings from the past as a hindrance to future intimacies.

Teri Bridgett as Louise in "Seven Guitars"

All of the six supporting actors are exceptionally talented and, considering the play’s run time of three and a half hours, also have incredible stamina and staying power. Teri Bridgett, who reminded me of a Black Betty Davis, is a charismatic actress with a well-honed sense of comedy, and, as Louise, the boardinghouse owner, a certain affable but strong-handed dominance.

Barton’s two musical henchmen, Canewell (Kevin Brown) and Red Carter (Leslie "Ezra" Smith, are both formidable actors who show a wide range of sensibilities and moods going from affability and jocose to belligerent and bellicose when provoked.

As Hedley, the eccentric and perhaps schizophrenic mystic, Wali Jamal mesmerizes as the outsider from the Caribbean with dark inclinations and demons lurking just over his psychological horizon. For sheer knock out feminine allure, Louise’s niece, Ruby, (Jamila Chanie) arrives late on the scene but rouses the erotic sensibilities in the male characters. A formidable sexpot, Ruby instinctively  knows how to dress, move and shake to get everyone’s attention, and the men are soon snared by her sensuality.

In spite of some heady support from his fellow Thespians, Jonathan Berry is the play’s real standout. Handsome, dashing and energetic, his performance is nothing short of electric. He’s just as capable of showing a softer side when pleading with Vera to give his a second chance as he is by becoming inflamed by his sidekicks when they get contentious and competitive. His combination of boyish qualities and manly machismo make for a winning balance, one that got the audience up standing on their feet to give him a rousing round of applause at curtain.

Wali Jamal at Hedley in "Seven Guitars"


Deirector Mark Clayton Southers manages to accentuate the ensemble nature of the play, allowing each character to interface on an equal playing field, each bringing his or her own nuanced personality to the mix. To me, the play’s seven characters reference its title, each bringing with them their own life story, their own take on their experience in a society where much of the deck has been stacked against them.

In much of the dialogue, imbued with Wilson’s rich, poetic way with words, plot is not as important as the exposition of daily life, told with wit, humor, insight and, at times, serious-mindedness and sobriety. The conversations are eclectic and roam over seemingly trivial as well as more momentous topics like how best to cook collard greens, favorite risqué limericks, even how to differentiate chickens in various Southern states as well as unfortunate encounters with the police. But taken together, they provide the flavor of quotidian, everyday occurrences that make up the lives of a unique community in a defined moment in time.

While the person responsible for Barton’s death isn’t revealed until the near end of the play, it reminds us of the specter of danger that hovers over all of members of  a community that has suffered the indignities of poverty, neglect and suppression for generations. In the hands of story teller, August Wilson, the tale is as entertaining as it is enlightening.

"Seven Guitars," a production of the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, is at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District through August 28. Parking is available a few blocks away at the Energy and Innovation Center, 1435 Bedford Avenue A complimentary shuttle provides transport between the parking lot and theater. For tickets, log on to www.pghplaywrights.com/sevenguitars.

Cast of "Seven Guitars" Credit:Gail Manker

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