Story: Friends and neighbors of blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton gather in the yard of the tenement building in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where he lived, circa 1948, following his funeral. In flashbacks it’s revealed how Floyd returned home from jail to the news that one of his tunes has unexpectedly become a hit song.
This impresses a recording company in Chicago, which wants Floyd to travel there to sign a contract for more of his songs. He wrangles with a couple of his musician pals, Canewell and Red Carter, to join him on an excursion to what he believes will be fame and success.
Floyd also wants his girlfriend Vera to accompany him, but she isn’t so sure. That’s because Floyd had left her for another woman a while back. Now, he’s come back home and is asking Vera for a second chance, something looked upon skeptically by their landlady, Louise.
Floyd scrambles to get his guitar out of hock at a local pawn shop, all the while begging Vera to forgive him. All of them put up with the eccentricities of 'King' Hedley, an older resident who often refers to his African 'royalty,' and raises chickens and roosters while behaving in a manner that leads Vera to observe that “he’s not right” in the head.
When Louise’s niece Ruby arrives from the South after a mishap back home, she riles interest in some of the men even as Floyd decides to take drastic measures to ensure that he has the instruments and the money to make that lucrative trip to Chicago and certain fortune. Or so he thinks.
Highlights: The Black Rep, which previously has produced all 10 of August Wilson’s masterful Pittsburgh Cycle of plays set in each decade of the 20th century, offers an absorbing and richly satisfying rendition of Seven Guitars, the 1940s contribution by Wilson to his impressive canon of dramas. This version features a number of stellar performances under Ed Smith’s insightful direction.
Other Info: Wilson is among the greatest American playwrights of the 20th century. His long, slowly developed scripts carefully and richly develop three-dimensional characters. Patience is a virtue required to appreciate many of his works, such as this three-hour, two-act story that pays handsome dividends when performed as shrewdly as the Black Rep's presentation.
Scenic designer Tim Case sets the foundation for this effort with an impressive set which fills the Emerson Performance Center stage. It’s a two-tiered construction that represents a three-story tenement building which isn’t seedy but clearly has seen better days, judging from the aging paint on the abode as well as the debris and chicken feathers scattered liberally about Hedley’s work area at stage left. Scenic artist Christie Johnston puts some fine touches on Case’s well-etched structure.
Lighting designer Jim Burwinkel bathes the set in shades of lighting to represent various times of day and properties designer Kate Slovinski furnishes a mean machete as well as Hedley’s cooking utensils and a number of vintage guitars. It’s all embellished with Maril Whitehead’s evocative sound design which captures the spirit of Floyd’s inspired playing.
Add Michael Alan Stein’s pinpoint costumes, especially the stylish suits favored by Floyd, Red Carter and Canewell, and the period wigs furnished by Aja Mixon and the production is steeped in ‘40s flavor for African-Americans in the Rust Belt city of Pittsburgh.
Smith allows his performers plenty of time to shape their deliveries, although opening night was marred by too many missed lines that caused the production to falter now and then. With Wilson’s hefty dialogue, though, Seven Guitars is the kind of play that accomplished actors can shape into a resonating work of art, as they do here.
Kingsley Leggs, who started his storied career at The Black Rep 30 years ago before moving on to Broadway and beyond, anchors the presentation in the pivotal role of Floyd. He even gets a chance to show off his accomplished voice on an a cappella version of The Lord’s Prayer.
His sturdy performance is accentuated with a well-wrought and realized interpretation of Floyd, a man who chafes at the elusive dream of success that is tougher to realize for someone who is black even in the less overtly racist environment of Pittsburgh. Wilson inserts the periodic crow of a rooster throughout as a clarion call to action that may not be heard by everyone.
Ron Himes is deliciously off-kilter as the wily Hedley, a man whose addled conversations and oblique logic are accepted by neighbors who endure his dialogues with mystical sorts while he goes about his business of making chicken sandwiches. Himes is expert as well at conveying the menacing aspects of Hedley which erupt at unexpected times in frightening fashion.
There’s accomplished supporting work by Linda Kennedy as the good-hearted Vera, who loves Floyd but really doesn’t trust his wayward ways. Cathy Simpson makes the most of the show’s share of comedy as the wise-cracking Louise, always a step ahead mentally of her roustabout tenants and a sage counselor to the long-suffering Vera.
Phillip Dixon and Reginald Pierre offer well-honed portrayals of Floyd’s pals Canewell and Red Carter, the former a rather serious sort and the latter a Beau Brummell-type who knows the latest dance moves and flashes an ever mischievous smile. Lakesha Glover adds to the wealth of the seven characters -- the ‘seven guitars’ – as Ruby, the Southern girl looking for a fresh start.
Smith situates his players judiciously throughout this compelling and thoughtful rendition, making Seven Guitars resonate with dramatic power. It’s one of Wilson’s greatest hits.