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Court Theatre stages August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’

Ebony Wimbs KelvRostJr. star “Seven Guitars” Court Theatre. | PHOTO BY JOE MAZZA

Ebony Wimbs and Kelvin Roston Jr. star in “Seven Guitars” at Court Theatre. | PHOTO BY JOE MAZZA

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‘Seven Guitars,’ to Feb. 9, Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis. $45-$65. (773) 753-4472;

Updated: January 10, 2014 7:27AM

In the last decades of his life, playwright August Wilson came to know Chicago as a second home. The Goodman Theatre embraced the playwright becoming the first to stage all ten of the plays in the playwright’s American Century Cycle. The then up-and-coming ensemble at Congo Square Theatre considered him a mentor and staged a critically acclaimed version of “The Piano Lesson.” And in recent years, Court Theatre has kept Wilson’s legacy alive in Chicago with productions of “Fences,” “Jitney,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

Court now continues its look at the Cycle plays with the haunting “Seven Guitars,” Wilson’s play about fate, justice and the blues. Court resident artist Ron OJParson, who directed the previous four plays, returns to helm the production.

Parson, who knew Wilson, has been involved in more than 20 productions of the Cycle plays as either an actor or director at various theaters around the country. Including “Seven Guitars,” he has directed nine of the plays leaving only “King Hedley II” to fill out the list.

Court artistic director Charles Newell has observed Parson’s work on the plays and feels there is “a special bond” here.

“Ron talks about how all of August’s work is spoken jazz,” Newell says. “I think he really understands how to help actors read an August Wilson score which is the text.”

The 10-play cycle about African-American life with one set in each decade of the 20th century is Wilson’s enduring legacy. They are unlike anything else on the contemporary American stage. Wilson’s sublime sense of storytelling is on display in each of the plays that are infused with a double-edged humor and bitterness of men and women struggling for survival.

Parson feels there is a love of life and culture at the core of Wilson’s plays. “Seven Guitars” in particular “is a story about dreams, an intermingling of seven lives all struggling to get by,” Parson says. “And at the same time struggling to break through against all odds.”

The beginning and end of “Seven Guitars” is set at the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a Pittsburgh blues musician who has cut a hit record and a bad financial deal. In flashbacks, we learn of his desire to return to Chicago to grab hold of the success he knows he deserves. But his quest spirals into a dizzying downward turn that leaves his dreams in the dust.

Barton is only one of the play’s pivotal characters. Red Carter (Ronald Conner) is a drummer and womanizer; Canewell (Jerod Haynes) is a harmonica player/singer whose troubles leave him yearning for a peaceful life with a rural zip code and Hedley (Allen Gilmore) is a prophet and madman. The women revolving around these men are strict Vera (Ebony Wimbs), earth mother Louise (Felicia P. Fields) and sexy Ruby (Erynn Mackenzie), who also has big city dreams.

Every time he encounters a Wilson play, Parson says he discovers new things about himself and about Wilson: “It’s a unique journey each time.” Parson believes each of the plays is “lyrical, musical and poetic” and “filled with rich characters.” He feels any culture can find a connection to Wilson’s stories.

“Even through they are fictitious stories, they are based in historical events of a culture,” Parson notes. “There is a spiritual connection and kinship here. And that’s a real achievement to create 10 plays that all accomplish that goal.”

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