August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” finds its beat through rhythm and blues. In an electrically-charged production from the Black Rep, a vigorous cast strikes a chord that’s haunting and unforgettable.
Set in 1948 in a backyard of a boarding house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, friends and neighbors depict their struggles through dramatic conflict and natural humor. The urban poverty is crushing, despite post-war prosperity elsewhere, and they hope for better lives.
“Seven Guitars” is part of Wilson’s renowned American Century Cycle, a series of plays capturing African-American heritage and experience decade-by-decade. Written in 1995 between Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Piano Lesson” (’30s) and “Fences” (’50s), its prose is profound and poetic.
Wilson’s richly textured work includes vivid and powerful characters, and the strong ensemble constructs their own colorful interpretations.
You could pull up a lawn chair and just listen as everyone regales with stories of past and present days. You’d want the sassy landlord Louise (a wonderfully droll Cathy Simpson), who knows everything about everybody, to fill you in on the gossip.
The center of the action is charismatic musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, out of jail and ready for the limelight. A record he made months before is an unexpected hit, and he wants to capitalize on that success. His goal is to move to Chicago, sweet home of the blues, for more opportunities.
But just as fame has been elusive, so has fortune. Floyd’s tired of being a “have-not,” and bitter about bad breaks.
He’s also back in the good graces of Vera, a former flame he wronged, but sweet talk doesn’t entirely forgive his previous shabby behavior.
Kingsley Leggs projects star power as Floyd. Part of the original casts of “Sister Act” and “The Color Purple” on Broadway, Leggs started at the Black Rep 30 years ago.
Leggs brings out Floyd’s complexities, and commands the stage with urgency and an undercurrent of rage. He’s riveting as he maneuvers fleeting highs and hard lows. On a triumphant night, he earns his joy, and we feel hope emerge.
As kindly Vera, Linda Kennedy is no pushover. She displays an inner strength that won’t allow setbacks to consume her. The three single women are all distinct characters, but they share an unmistakable toughness.
The show’s biggest surprise is how subtle Ron Himes begins as King Hedley II, a defiant and furious old man who has tuberculosis but refuses to move into a sanitarium. At first his rants seem harmless, but oh how the fury builds, with alarming consequences.
Himes, founder and artistic director, is ferocious in this role, dominating like a cunning tiger, waiting to pounce. You can’t take your eyes off his mesmerizing performance.
As the saucy Ruby, Lakesha Glover sashays in tight-fitting dresses and draws inevitable attention from the men folk. She brightly exaggerates her curves for comical effect.
As Barton’s musician pals, Reginald Pierre and Phillip Dixon are smooth as sharp-dressed drummer Red Carter and busybody harmonica-player Canewell.
Ed Smith seamlessly directed the piece like a blues solo, soaring and diving, exalting and wailing, riffing on the trials and tribulations of life, and hitting the notes just right.
The production features an impeccable set design by Tim Case, which plops us into a place we recognize instantly, a comfortable refuge from the cold, cruel world.
Costume designer Michael Allen Stein emphasizes each character’s personalities with their period outfits, and adds an exclamation point to the ladies with sublime vintage attire.
The sound by Maril Whitehead and lighting by Jim Burwinkel enhances the storytelling. Props, by Kate Slovinski, resident properties designer and manager at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, flavor the neighborhood milieu well.
The overall desire for self-acceptance and understanding is a running theme in Wilson’s works, and as the characters hold on to their dignity and pride, this fight resonates in any decade.
In its 40th anniversary season, the Black Rep’s piercing, penetrating production brings out the community aspect that people who are not related create out of necessity, and shows us how our humanity can be shared in live theater.
This beat goes on.