Court Theatre’s ‘Seven Guitars’ is an engaging, hypnotic experience
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic January 20, 2014 2:52PM
Ebony Wimbs, Kelvin Roston Jr., Ronald Connor, Felicia P. Fields, Jerod Haynes and Allen Gilmore star in Court Theatre's production of August Wilson's "Seven Guitars." | Michael Brosilow photo
When: Through Feb. 9
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis
Info: (773) 753-4472; CourtTheatre.org
Run time: 3 hours with one intermission
Updated: January 21, 2014 6:44PM
From the very start, August Wilson said that the blues were the primary source for all 10 of the plays in his Century Cycle, his masterful opus evoking African-American life in the 20th century. The playwright found something in that musical form — with its straightforward storytelling and suggestive wordplay, its sound rooted in an amalgam of spirituals, work songs, field hollers and chants, and its chord progressions that could be shaped to conjure every mood, that embodied the very essence of theater. And he drew on it to spin dramas whose words were almost interchangeable with notes.
“Seven Guitars,” now receiving one of those transcendent productions that have become a hallmark of Court Theatre’s homage to Wilson in recent years, may well be the play most deeply rooted in the blues, though at the same time it is operatic in its themes and its overall ambition. And director Ron OJ Parson (currently enjoying a uniquely golden period in his career), has gathered a supremely talented cast capable of making each scene intensely personal yet so much larger-than-life that you easily watch and listen intently for three hypnotic hours.
Set in 1948, “Seven Guitars” begins as a group of friends in Pittsburgh’s Hill District gather to mourn the death of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kelvin Roston Jr.). We are then taken back to the events that led to his murder.
Floyd, a gifted musician, went to Chicago, recorded what became a hit record, but failed to get proper payment. He subsequently returned home (after serving months in prison on a trumped-up charge), and tried to win back the love of Vera (Ebony Wimbs), whom he had betrayed. He also needed enough money to liberate his guitar from a pawn shop before heading back to Chicago for another session, ideally with Vera by his side, and in the company of fellow musicians Red Carter (Ronald Conner), a drummer, and Canewell (Jerod Haynes), a harmonica player.
Also part of the group gathered here are Louise (Felicia Fields), the landlady who has had more than her fill of men; her niece, the impossibly sexy Ruby (Erynn Mackenzie), who has just fled an explosive romantic triangle in Alabama, and Louise’s volcanic, mystical tenant, Hedley (Allen Gilmore), a 58-year-old man of Haitian heritage who raises chickens.
Racial disrimination, particularly its impact on black men, is at the crux of the story. But in the process, the entire range of human experience is in play — sex, love, marriage, betrayal, children, money, music, violence, corruption, the injustice of the justice system. And hovering over it all is a fevered consideration of God and the devil, and the tension between dignity in this life and salvation in the next.
Each of the seven bravura actors luxuriates in the passion of Wilson’s vision, and in the glorious music of his language, periodically breaking into real blues riffs or listening to Hedley draw a truly otherworldly sound from his one-stringed instrument.
Regina Garcia’s remarkable set, with its grimy brick buildings and overhead electrical lines, looks as if it had been lifted whole from some untouched corner of Pittsburgh. And it is wonderfully animated by the sight of Louise clumping down a steep wooden staircase singing “Anybody here wanna try my cabbage?,” by Ruby sashaying up the stairs as every male gaze follows her, by Vera reluctantly dirty dancing with Floyd before pulling away to let him know how he has broken her heart, and much more. This is the blues, plucked to the nth power.
NOTE: Tony Award winner Felicia Fields, backed by a four-piece band, will perform a program of blues on the Court stage at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 3. Congo Square Theatre will present “King Hedley II,” the 1980s story in Wilson’s cycle, March 7-April 6 at the Athenaeum Theatre; congosquaretheatre.org.