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.
This wonderful walk through history shows us there is hope, always, for a brighter day.
Photo: Phillip Hamer
The Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was the perfect time to join the ensemble at The Black Rep for Crossin’ Over, but I’m not sure there could ever be a wrong time to see this remarkable show. I laughed, I cried, I danced in my seat, and if I weren’t so damn white, I’d have waved my hands, stomped my feet and fully participated in the call and response. I felt like Jake at the church in The Blues Brothers who got woke by the preacher (James Brown) and cartwheeled down the aisle in a blaze of sunshine. I was that moved, and this show is a visceral experience you won’t soon forget.
Conceived and directed by Ron Himes in 2005, the show returns this year with some of the original cast reprising their roles (Jerome Davis, Kelvin Roston, Jr., Leah Stewart, and Herman Gordon) to close the company’s 40th season. Michael Lowe, Amber Rose, Maureen L. Williams, and Venezia Manuel round out the group. Now, as then, Charles Creath acts as music director, and keyboardist, and the music is transporting. Himes writes in his director’s note that he compiled the sung-through show to commemorate his mother, and it was the final show she saw at her son’s company. Opening night of this presentation marked the anniversary of her own “crossin’ over,” and I can’t imagine a better tribute to a mom from a devoted and wildly creative child.
The Emerson Performance at Harris-Stowe Center at Harris-Stowe State University in Midtown isn’t large, but the singers and musicians are mic-ed. Normally I might object to that, but not here because the sheer volume and power of the instruments (keyboards, bass and various drums) and voices create a roof-raising, immersive experience that grabs the audience, gives it a good shake, and does not let go until the last note of “Clap Your Hands” comes 2 ½ hours later, and the time passes like just a moment.
The piece, more like an opera than a musical really, though its subtitle is “A Musical with a Measure of Silent Rebellion,” tells the story of the African-American experience from its roots in African villages from where people were stolen and enslaved for profit to the present day. Beginning with a chilling drum call that matches the rhythm of the heart as it speeds up in excitement, the ensemble in hooded robes echoes the instrument from the house aisles and culminates in the infectious “We Are the Drum” before they take the stage. A series of five “suites” ensue, depicting life in Africa, captivity (slave ships, the auction block, and the cotton fields, the secular and religious music of the great Thomas Dorsey, the civil rights movement, and finally, contemporary life for the black Americans depicting the full range of human experience.
The African Suite depicts lavishly costumed villagers (Daryl Harris gets the credit for these and the rest of the outfits the cast wears throughout, all outstanding) going about daily life until the unthinkable happens, and the Captivity Suite takes us through the indescribable horror of the institution of slavery. We “see” a man lashed, a woman raped, and these are real to us, even though they are only suggested by the actors’ movements. “No More Auction Block for Me” represents the transition to freedom, or the appearance thereof anyway, and the Christian faith that has always been the backbone of black life in America continues to be expressed through song. No other belief system is mentioned, but during the 19th century, slaves were taught about Jesus, so that’s where the focus stays. It is a logical spiritual center for the story.
After intermission, the Thomas Dorsey Suite starts with a Blues medley but also contains a lovely rendition of “Precious Lord” and several other of Dorsey’s well-known hymns. Each individual performer has a unique sound, but Creath has managed to meld them beautifully. The Civil Right Suite is, to me, the most powerful of the individual segments, as the group kicks off with “Give Me That Old Time Religion,” works its way through a representative group of spirituals, then shifts to the purpose of this part with an energetic rendition of “If You Miss Me on the Back of the Bus.” The show stopper here is “Strange Fruit,” which the singers perform with eerie reverence. There can be no doubt as to why the people were so devoted to achieving a society in which all people really are created equal. Clad in bright red choir robes, the cast finishes with the Contemporary Suite, beginning with “Oh Happy Day” and culminating in “Clap Your Hands,” and we do. We surely do.
Jim Burwinkel’s set and the late Mark Wilson’s lighting design create a simple yet versatile stage with banners dropped throughout to represent the various eras being depicted. The lights coupled with Reggie Davis’s sound are more noticeable and significant in this show than these elements often are, directing us to imagine not only the horrors of captivity, but also hearing sirens, gun shots, tear gas, police dogs, and more, seeing flashing lights; all of the effects directed toward letting us know this battle is far from over. All these stories are further illuminated by the actors’ pantomime of the action in each segment, so we experience this journey with them.
This group also dances in various styles to suit the moods of the music, which is stellar throughout. Movement was choreographed by Mama Lisa Gage and Venezia Manuel, the lead dancer in the show, who is found on a platform center stage for the first and last parts of the show, mirroring and interpreting that which takes place below her. She is a kind of griot, traditionally African at first, then in the end, using a contemporary Martha Graham-flavored style. The same platform adds another visual element as a versatile playing space for all the performers. I wouldn’t even try to choose the “best” singer/dancer because they are all terrific.
Himes also notes that “crossin’ over” conveys several meanings—the big crossing when the forced migration occurred; the crossover of music genres and purposes from the sacred to the streets; from the radio and to the stage; and, of course, the passage from life to death. He quotes W.E.B. DuBois: “Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes faith in death sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. . . . [But] sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” We’re not there yet, but this wonderful walk through history shows us there is hope, always, for a brighter day. | Andrea Braun
Crossin’ Over is by The Black Rep performing in the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University through June 18, 2017. For more information, you may visit www.theblackrep.org or call 314-534-3807.
Black Rep celebrates 40 years with mural and musical that say ‘I’m not going’
In the mid-1970s, Ron Himes started a St. Louis theater company to tell the stories of African-Americans.
This week, Himes and the Black Rep are marking a milestone — the company’s 40th anniversary — with a fundraising concert, and the launch of a mural project. Both are designed to draw attention to the company, which is emerging from years of turmoil.
This choice of "Dreamgirls in Concert" for Saturday night's gala is designed to help the Black Rep draw a wider, younger audience, and help regain financial stability. The "Dreamgirls" story is loosely based on the drama-filled rise of The Supremes and Diana Ross.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Nancy Fowler watches as the mural unfolds on the Black Rep building and talks with founder Ron Himes about his four decades of theater production.
Here's a closeup look at playwright August Wilson from the new mural on the Black Rep's office building.
CREDIT NANCY FOWLER | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO
Wilson's cycle begins with “Gem of the Ocean,” chronicling the early 1900s, and end with “Radio Golf,” a look at the 1990s. In spring 2017, the Black Rep will reprise “Seven Guitars,” Wilson’s play about a 1940s-era blues musician.
Himes called Wilson “perhaps the most prolific playwright of the 20th century.”
“He’s created a body of work; he’s created a cast of characters,” Himes said. “He’s basically given us a view of the African-American experience through the century.”
‘Still moving forward’
To create the mural on the exterior walls of the Black Rep’s offices, St. Louis artist William Burton Jr. studied portraits of Wilson. The work includes two images of the playwright, as well as those of characters from his plays.
Burton and Himes hope the project will eventually cover much of the building. Future faces may include playwright Ntozake Shange and St. Louis’ own Linda Kennedy. Shange, who was born in Trenton, N.J, also lived in St. Louis as a child.
Artist William Burton Jr. looks around in his former gallery in North City's Crown Square.
CREDIT FILE PHOTO / STEPHANIE ZIMMERMAN / ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO
Burton hopes the mural will turn new eyes toward the Black Rep, which has struggled to stay in business over the past several years.
“Forty years is a huge accomplishment,” Burton said. “It’s an inspiration to people that they’ve survived.”
Initially, the company grew and thrived, and moved into its own Grand Center venue. But audiences began to dwindle in the early 2000s. By 2009, the Black Rep had lost two-thirds of its 3,000 subscribers and the troupe began operating in the red. Four years later, the Black Rep lost its home of 20 years and scrambled to find a venue. Now the company is down to 400 subscribers.
“Anybody that lives to be 40 years old, you know, you have some aches, you have some pains, you have some victories you have some ups and downs,” Himes said. “We are still standing; we’re still moving forward.”
Moving forward no longer means the Black Rep is seeking its own venue. Himes is satisfied with the performance spaces offered by Washington University and Harris Stowe State University. Washington University also owns the Black Rep’s off-campus office building.
If you drive along Page Boulevard between Kingshighway and Union Boulevards, you can find Ron Himes’ face on another St. Louis building.
Ron Himes and Miles Davis appear in the Better Family Life mural project along Page Boulevard in north St. Louis.
The dozens of painted faces on blighted buildings also include those of activist Jamila Rogers and former state Sen. J.B. "Jet" Banks, who died in 2003. Himes is in good company among this esteemed group, and on the particular building on which his face is pictured.
“Right next to Miles Davis,” Himes said.
‘You’re going to love us’
Operating in the black again is a major goal as the Black Rep enters its fifth decade. That means attracting broader audiences and younger theater-goers.
Kira Van Niel goes to at least one Black Rep play every year.
CREDIT NANCY FOWLER | ST. LOUIS PUBLIC RADIO
Kira Van Niel is a young supporter of The Black Rep. The 32-year-old engineer knows other mainstream theater companies like the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis are turning more attention toward black playwrights. But she believes there will always be a need for a theater company run by African-Americans.
“It’s important to have those who live the experience, tell the story,” Van Niel said. “To give that authority to an institution that really doesn’t have that perspective could be hurtful. I mean it could put us in a situation where we are not hearing the story as authentically as we could.”
The theater company hasn't found it easy to draw in millennials like Van Niel, according to Himes. He said they have very different ideas from their parents and grandparents about their free time.
“I don’t think that there are many young people, across the board, who, when they’re sitting up thinking about a date night, that they grab the paper and say, ‘Oh what play are we going to see?’” Himes said.
Himes hopes the music of “Dreamgirls” will help lure younger audiences, hooked by the 2006 movie starring Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson. As part of that outreach, the company held an audition for a part in the production, drawing 15 contestants. St. Louisan Rachel Mitchell won the competition with an audition tape of her rendition of Adra Day’s “Rise Up.”
For The Black Rep to be successful, Himes said it must cater to theater-goers like Mitchell and Van Neil. As he envisions the years to come, he likes to think of how Effie, Hudson’s character in “Dreamgirls,” tells her man she’s not leaving and vows to renew his passion.
“We’re not going anywhere,” Himes said. “And you’re going to love us.”
Here’s Jennifer Hudson’s version of “And I Am Telling You” from the “Dreamgirls’” movie.
A top-notch ensemble makes verbal music in 'Seven Guitars'
Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Kingsley Leggs) shares his plans with Ruby (Lakesha Glover) in the Black Rep's production of "Seven Guitars." Photo by Phillip Hamer.
As producing director of the Black Rep, Ron Himes continues to head the troupe he founded. Over the years, he’s also acted in, directed, and now and then created the company’s shows. In the company’s 40th season, he’s giving the performance of his career. Playing King Hedley in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” Himes gives his audience a persuasive glimpse of the seed of determination that lies under Hedley’s lifetime accumulation of physical illness, mental delusion and injustices suffered. How he has kept it alive, we’ll never know; Hedley may not know himself. But at the end of Act 1, when he slaughters a rooster as if it were a ritual sacrifice and slams the audience with his stern gaze, Himes shows us what Hedley intends. He wants to be a “big man,” he says — a Moses or a plantation owner, a Marcus Garvey or the father of the new Messiah. But he is a big man, already — the high priest in a community of seven Pittsburgh neighbors. Manhood is a big issue for other characters as well, distinct personalities whom director Ed Smith melds into a companionable ensemble. Some of the dialogue — a list of cigarettes brands, for example, or the speech in which Linda Kennedy, as Vera, anatomizes her longing for a man who went away — feel like the blues, full of elaborated, vivid details that go off in unpredictable directions. That’s appropriate, because Vera’s man is a blues guitarist called Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton. Played by Kingsley Leggs (a Broadway star who grew up in St. Louis and got his start at the Black Rep), Floyd has returned to his old neighborhood, hoping that his life will turn around. He’s been incarcerated for months — and during that time, a blues record he made turned into a big hit. The Chicago producer wants him to return to make more records. Sharply dressed and broad-chested, Leggs’ Floyd nurtures an image of success. But with one stroke of bad luck or bad decision after another, can he build anything of substance?
Floyd and Hedley feel that the world has let them down, and as poor black men in Pittsburgh in 1948, they aren’t wrong. Floyd hopes music will be his route to better things, but he’s open to criminal alternatives; Hedley, ranting about philosophy and a dream that haunts him, is looking for some kind of magic. Although “Seven Guitars” is primarily a character study, it also draws on elements of mystery, earthly and spiritual alike. Their neighbors are more down-to-earth. Vera tries to protect herself, but she and Floyd care deeply for each other. (Just look at the way they tenderly draw together as he describes the headstone he’s chosen for his mother’s grave.) Vera confides her worries to her good friend Louise (Cathy Simpson), a no-nonsense hairdresser whose attractive niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) shakes things up when she arrives for a long, possibly permanent, visit. Two musicians who have performed with Floyd round out the company: Red (Reginald Pierre), loose-limbed and good-natured, and quiet Canewell (Phillip Dixon). Dixon gives a touching delivery of Canewell’s speech about all he gained, rather than lost, when Vera didn’t return the love that he felt for her. The whole ensemble is impressive in “Seven Guitars,” one of the 10 dramas in Wilson’s towering Century Cycle of plays. (Each explores the African-American experience in a different decade.) This one, set in the backyard of the apartments where several characters live, looks poor but kind of cozy, thanks to scenic designer Tim Case’s homey touches (a radio propped up in a window, a fence to create an outdoor common space). Costume designer Michael Alan Stein defines period and personality down to the last detail, from the men’s ties to the women’s costume jewelry. And although this probably goes without saying, no actual rooster is involved in the slaughter — just a huge handful of feathers. That’s more than enough to make Wilson’s bloody point about what the world can do to men with aspirations that society forbids.
Miss Julie, Clarissa and John’: Servitude, oppression – and sex
With “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John,” Mark Clayton Southers packs sex and scandal into the residual intergenerational traumas of slavery and oppression that endured after the Emancipation Proclamation.
The play, an adaptation of the 1888 drama by August Strindberg, opened the Black Rep’s 40th Season last weekend and continues through September 25 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre.
In the play, American slavery has been over for nearly a quarter-century, but audiences can hardly tell by the way John and Clarissa carry on to get breakfast ready for “Captain” and Miss Julie. The fervent ring of a bell tied to a string that leads to the big house means that they best hurry.
The play captures a day in the life of Clarissa and John, two former slaves who stayed on to work the Virginia plantation where they were once regarded as property, and Miss Julie – who will inherit the land when her deathly ill father finally succumbs.
Clarissa and John grew up on the plantation, and eventually came together in a long-term relationship. Miss Julie grew up alongside them, but it goes without saying that their collective experiences couldn’t have been further apart.
When the audiences meets the trio, they are all well into adulthood and seemingly heading towards middle age, based on their experiences. Miss Julie has decided that on this summer solstice she will act on her nearly lifelong infatuation with John – with or without his consent.
She is anything but shy about her intentions – even going so far as to overtly flirt with him in front of his longtime love Clarissa.
Southers covers much ground, as far as the tragic circumstances that grew out of slavery and the effects of white privilege. Let Miss Julie tell it: Black folks should count white people as their biggest blessing for “taking care of them” after all the trouble they caused for the country. Yet they are treated lower than livestock – even after slavery – and their bodies still don’t belong to themselves in any capacity.
The playwright also blends sex and suspense in a manner that manages to engage the desensitized palate of today’s audience with situations that are suited for the era reflected in the play.
With his mission to expose the ills and ironies of the day, Southers follows the model of his mentor August Wilson in a play that is thick with – at time, excessive - dialogue. The language patterns of the play sometimes resemble back and forth monologues, rather than conversations. This would have been the death of a lesser-talented trio of performers, but the masterful cast and direction by Andrea Frye make the endless exchange of complexity in the conversations feel like a thrilling tennis match.
Young actress Alicia Reve Like has once again proved herself to be a star in the making as Clarissa, the mulatto woman whom Miss Julie secretly envies for her strength and intelligence. Veteran St. Louis actors Eric J. Conners and Laurie McConnell illustrate that the caliber of local talent on the Black Rep stage could hold its own on a national level.
Between the natural chemistry and authentic portrayal of the three actors, as well as the scenic by Jim Burwinkel and lighting design by Kathy Perkins, those who attend will confront the impossible experiences people of color faced in the 19th century – many of which extend to present day.
The Black Rep’s presentation of “Miss Julie, Clarissa and John” continues through Sunday, September 25 at Washington University’s Edison Theatre, 6445 Forsyth. For more information, visit www.theblackrep.org or call (314) 534-3810.