First things first. Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson’s Seven Guitars matters now. So, get a ticket, go up to the house where his family lived on The Hill. Sit in the yard and hear the voices of mid-20th century America echoing our 21st century America. Listen for the dissonance and harmony in this powerfully poetic and wise play, set perfectly for a breezy summer night in Pittsburgh.
Seven Guitars, one of 10 play in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, received Tony and Pulitzer nominations for its Broadway run in 1995 and Mark Southers’ Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company previously staged it here. Now, it’s the first Wilson play to be produced in the backyard of the playwright’s childhood home in the Hill District where the future Daisy Wilson Artist Community, a center for interdisciplinary creativity, will be created (see the program book for some great background on the project and Wilson’s work).
Inspired by people who lived right here, Seven Guitars conjures a strong and meaningful vibe. Wilson is a master at spinning the candor and simplicity in his settings and characters into epic stories. Southers brings the humanity of Seven Guitars forward through thoughtful, simple staging, allowing the place to work its charm and the story to resonate over many decades.
Southers’ ensemble creates many memorable moments of laughter and tears with the truths in Wilson words. Four men (whose collective Wilson and acting chops shine through) and three women comprise the titular seven voices: Ty Barrow; Jonathan Berry; Teri Bridgett; Kevin Brown; Jamilla Chanie; Wali Jamal; and Leslie Ezra Smith.
For a play set in 1948 and premiered in 1996, Seven Guitars often sounds remarkably and regrettably like 2016, answered by the audible acknowledgement from the opening night audience. Even the neighborhood distress over a cagey rooster seems ripped from recent Pittsburgh headlines. Do some things never change, we ask?
Personifying “the Blues”, Seven Guitars sings realistically about being Black in America. At the play’s center is Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, recently incarcerated after being arrested for “doing nothing”. The blues musician returns home to the typical challenges: no job, no money, and his possessions in pawn (and no money to get them back). When reuniting with his lady Vera (Ty Barrow), she confronts him about his affair. A record deal for “It’s All Right” , his song song that became a hit and continues with lots of airplay. Floyd tries to convince smooth-talking harmonica-player Canewell (Kevin Brown) and his drummer friend Red (Leslie “Ezra” Smith) to come back to Chicago him. And he wants Vera to come, too. After all, he’s promised 30 cents for each day he was in “the workhouse”–well, if he can find that letter the system sent him–and he’s got an electric guitar to get out of the pawn shop.
Perched in the backyard of the playwright’s house, it felt like eavesdropping on the neighbors. Jonathan Berry as Floyd crafts the affable blues singer’s journey while revealing his emotions, hopes, and fears. In his unexpected soliloquy, Berry quietly sings “The Lord’s Prayer” to the familiar Malotte melody over a chorus of cicadas. This “show stopper” was met with rare audience silence before the applause for the profound subtext of Floyd’s prayer for American neighbors who lived then and now.
On Bedford Street, neighbor King Hedley (Wali Jamal) “preaches”. You may like but not trust Jamal’s Hedley, as the experienced Wilson actor captures Hedley’s likeable and impetuous nature. Drawing Hedley expertly, Jamal revels in his sometimes profound and often incoherent ramblings about having a plantation one day and Biblical legends like Lazarus. Chased by the demons of history and persecution, Hedley calls on musical spirits and procreation to save him from possible madness as he sets the tragic fuse.
As Floyd’s closest friends, Brown and Carter celebrate their characters’ city smarts and country know-how through delightful monologues on topics ranging from the attributes of roosters who hail from various states (Red) and why a knife is a preferred street weapon (Canewell), and much more. As Canewell, Kevin Brown provides a fulcrum for the unpredictable action, playing it safe as needed. Another PPTCO vet, Brown adeptly creates another deep characterization full of nuance.
Poet and actor Leslie “Ezra” Smith brings edgy energy to drummer Red Carter, the guy who’s thinking about women even as he passes out cigars upon his son’s birth. Red also has a great time teaching Vera dance steps from choreographer Francis W.Y. Soane, Jr. for a fun bit with Ty Barrow.
Barrow’s apprehensive yet resilient Vera wants to trust Floyd. Barrow captures the excitement, disappointment, and sadness Vera weathers. It’s easy to assume all three women–more rooted in home and church than the street–will outlive all these the men, as implied by Wilson’s framing device for Floyd’s story.
Terri Bridgett, reprising the role of Louise with PPTCO, has gained strength from her own disappointments in love and life. Bridgett’s clear intentions and engagement support the emotional and practical action. When her niece Ruby shows up on short notice, Louise calls her on it but kindly lets her stay. Jamilah Chanie’s lovely Ruby might first be mistaken as fragile or wounded, but she turns out to be more manipulative survivor than the other two.
As Southers shared at the final curtain that the audience along with the actors were the first to experience the full run of the show, some sound, props, and costume blips will be addressed for the run by his team, including stellar designers Xavier Pierce (lighting), Cheryl El Walker (costumes), and Mark Whitehead (sound) were finessing details as the show opening in a crunch of preparing the space for both actors and audience. Appropriately, the comings and goings of people at the house and on the street weren’t masked from view as Seven Guitars invites you to stop by and be part of some Hill history being made before our eyes. Would that we could stay longer to hear Floyd’s song.
Seven Guitars is staged at the August Wilson House, 1727 Bedford Ave. on The Hill, Pittsburgh (15219). Free secured parking is available at the Energy and Innovation Center at 1435 Bedford Avenue, a few blocks away, with shuttle service provided. Street parking is also available. General seating tickets are selling fast for the 150-seat space, with the remaining weekends, Fridays through Sundays through August 28. We thank PPTCO for opening night press tickets for this historical theater event.
Support for Seven Guitars is provided by The Pittsburgh Foundation, The Heinz Endowments Small Arts Initiative, Regional Asset District, Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, Richard King Mellon Foundation and Advancing Black Arts in Pittsburgh Fund.
Photos courtesy of Gail Manker