Photo courtesy of Phillip Hamer

Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton plays the blues. He's been offered a recording contract by a company in Chicago. Floyd is in Pittsburgh, and his electric guitar is in hock. He needs his guitar and he needs money for the Greyhound Bus. But the guitars referred to in the title of the play Seven Guitars are played by the playwright, August Wilson. They're the seven characters in his play.

Wilson does, as always, make his own beautiful and terrible music with those characters. The play takes place in 1948 in the Hill District, the black neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where Wilson set almost all his Century Plays, one for each decade of the twentieth century. The characters gather in the backyard of the house where several of them live. Tim Case has created a carefully detailed setting, with lighting by Jim Burwinkel, for Wilson's tale. Wilson takes his time telling it. We get to know these seven people, and we get to listen to them. They talk about what's happened and what they want to happen, about their suffering and their joys.

The men have all spent short stays in jail, either because, as one of them says, they had too little money or too much. Floyd has just gotten out. He does get his electric guitar and the money to get to Chicago, though he has not gotten them, we suspect, in the way he'd wanted to. Things rarely work out the way you want them to when you're black and live in the Hill District. But they can tell their troubles in the rich details and rolling rhythms of Wilson's writing. And the cast at The Black Rep, under Ed Smith's direction, knows those rhythms. Occasionally I had a little trouble hearing them, perhaps because those are not the rhythms I hear every day.

In a welcome return to town and to the Rep, Kingsley Leggs makes a fine fit for Floyd. I've never seen Linda Kennedy quite like this, because with her amazing, invisible technique, she has become Vera, who loves Floyd and whom he wants. Cathy Simpson plays her sharp friend Louise, and Lakesha Glover fascinates as a visitor who starts something that will end in another play. Phillip Dixon is a young friend of Floyd's, and Reginald Pierre plays the stylish Red Carter, who wears a white suit to a funeral. Costumes are by Michael Alan Stein. The play turns on a character who has been crazed by the racism he's suffered and that has denied him his true place as Ethiopian royalty. Ron Himes doesn't bother playing King Hedley as crazy, just sure of himself.

As always with Wilson, Seven Guitars satisfies with its rich language and its deep humanity. It continues at The Black Rep through April 23.

'Crossin' Over' at The Black Rep Is an Energized, Engaging Revival: Musical Review

 

Story: From roots in Africa through the journey across the Atlantic Ocean in slave ships to slavery in the American South and from the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century to contemporary times, Crossin’ Over presents the African-American experience through the music of its culture. The two-act musical features traditional West African drumming as well as hymns, psalms and gospel standards.

Highlights: Conceived by Black Rep founder and producing director Ron Himes in 2007, a revival of this rollicking and at times soberly dramatic musical is enjoying an energized, expertrendition that closes The Black Rep’s 40th anniversary season.

Other InfoCrossin’ Over is filled with catchy, upbeat numbers that rock the house as well as soulful, mournful dirges which underscore the inhumanity of the plight of African natives kidnapped from their native lands and sold into a lifetime of slavery in America. Himes has updated his original piece here and there, and it seems more dramatic particularly in the first of its two acts than memory serves for the previous incarnation.

 

What’s certain is that Crossin’ Over features more than 60 tunes which showcase an impressive range of genres including gospel, blues, hymns and percussive riffs that make the Emerson Performance Center at Harris-Stowe State University a lively, hand-clapping, foot-stomping revival in more ways than one.

Himes has brought back four members of the original ensemble for this two-act extravaganza, including J. Samuel Davis, Herman Gordon, Kelvin Roston Jr. and Leah Stewart. Joining them on stage are revue newcomers Micheal Lowe, Amber Rose, Maureen L. Williams and Venezia Manuel, the latter who serves as the group’s primary dancer on numerous numbers.

All of them contribute substantially to the show, which under Himes’ direction maintains a fluid, steady pace through its two hours and 45 minutes of performance time. The players perform primarily in front of a wooden trapezoid set designed by Jim Burwinkel, with dancer Manuel often showcasing various moves on the top tier above the singers on the main floor of the regular stage.

Behind the set are a number of posters which are dropped during the show, ranging from masks to photos to a shocking advertisement for the sale of “prime, healthy Negroes” in the South. Late lighting designer Mark Wilson masterfully illuminates various scenes to highlight dramatic moments with a palette of arresting hues. Daryl Harris creates a cornucopia of bright, festive costumes in the African numbers as well as colorful choir garb for gospel tunes and elegant threads with a nightclub appeal.

Reggie Davis’ sound design accentuates several stunningly dramatic moments, whether the slave era in Act I or the Civil Rights movement in Act II, and Kate Slovinski provides props. Supporting all of the activity on stage are off-stage musical director Charles Creath at the keyboards with William “Rainey” Rainer on bass and drummer Jeffrey Booman Burks, keeping the accompaniment at a proper level which supports but does not overwhelm the singers.

At the start of the show percussionists Donald Ray, Jackie Sharp and Atum Jones impressively beat drums to ancient West African rhythms as they set the stage for the musical depictions of high and low times that follow.

Each of the players has a chance to shine in solo efforts and they make the most of them, led by Rose, whose soaring soprano voice seems about to break any crystal or glass that might be within earshot of her spectacular range, as she demonstrates on Lord I Want to Be a Christian, Oh, Freedom and others.

Himes divides the music into three segments in each act, starting with an Opening Medley along with an African Suite and the Captivity Suite, which is sub-titled Crossing Over in Slave Ships for its first part and Auction Block/Fields for the second.

The second act begins with an eight-tune medley in the Thomas Dorsey Suite, named for the “father of black gospel music,” Thomas Andrew Dorsey, who served for more than 40 years as music director of the Pilgrim Baptist Church in Chicago in the mid-20th century. That segment is followed by the CivilRights Suite and the show concludes with a Contemporary Suite which begins with Oh Happy Day.

Gordon displays his big, booming voice on Go Down Moses, e.g., while Davis leads the troupe on the soulful Kakilambe number in the African Suite as well as a stirring version of Amazing Grace in the Captivity Suite. Roston wails the lament, Keep Me From Sinking Down, as well as belting out the stern words of This Old Hammer in the Captivity Suite.

Stewart leads the ensemble for It’s Gonna Rain/Didn’t It Rain in the Dorsey Suite while Williams showcases her vocal abilities on tunes including Hold on Just a Little While Longer, Kum Ba Ya and Precious Lord.

Manuel displays her lithe, limber body on several graceful numbers choreographed by her and Mama Lisa Gage, usually on the top of the trapezoid construction but occasionally on the main performance floor of the stage. Her movements accentuate the soulful numbers sung so eloquently by the cast.

Crossin’ Over seems much more dramatic in the first act than in the second, but the musical performances are engaging throughout. This reprise is a lively and fitting tribute to the skills and talents of this entourage as well as a tuneful testament to the African-American experience from one continent to another over the centuries.

 

MusicalCrossin’ Over

Company: The Black Rep

Venue: Emerson Performance Center, Harris-Stowe State University, 3026 Laclede Ave.

Dates: June 1-4, 8-11, 15-18

Tickets: $35-$40; contact 534-3810 or www.theblackrep.org

Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.

Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer

 

 

 

Dinner & A Show: Seven Guitars

 

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.

 

“Seven Guitars” at the Black Rep Is a Compelling Character-Driven Drama

Seven Guitars
by August Wilson
Directed by Ed Smith
The Black Rep
March 31, 2017

Reginald Pierre, Kingsley Leggs, Phillip Dixon
Photo by Phillip Hamer
The Black Rep

The Black Rep’s latest production is a compelling drama from one of America’s most celebrated playwrights, August Wilson. An installment in his cycle of plays chronicling the experience of African Americans in each decade of the 20th Century, Seven Guitars is a thoughtful, extremely well characterized play that presents the plight of various characters and their hopes and dreams in 1948 Pittsburgh. The Black Rep’s production is highlighted by thoughtful staging and a top-notch cast.

This is one of those plays that tells us its end at the very beginning. From the start, we know that one of the play’s central characters, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kingsley Leggs) has died, and various of his friends are gathered in a backyard after his funeral. What it doesn’t tell us right away, is how Floyd died and what events led up to the gathering in the first scene, and that’s the focus of the story.  Most of the play takes place before the initial scene, and we see how Floyd, recently released from prison, tries to re-establish his relationship with girlfriend Vera (Linda Kennedy), and reconnect with fellow musicians Canewell (Phillip Dixon) and Red Carter (Reginald Pierre) and journey to Chicago for a recording session at the record company for which he recorded a previous song that has become a surprise hit. He’s staying with Vera, but Vera’s not so sure she wants Floyd back, since he had previously left her for another woman. Also in the picture are Vera’s neighbors,  Louise (Cathy Simpson) and King Hedley (Ron Himes). Hedley, who makes a living selling homemade chicken sandwiches and eggs from the chickens he raises and is treated by the others as something of an eccentric, is full of dreams, regrets, and strong opinions about how black men are treated and oppressed by the white establishment.  Louise is waiting for the arrival of her niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) from out of town, and when Ruby finally arrives she carries with her some secrets of her own.

This is a long, complex play with extremely well-drawn characters and unfolding situations that build gradually and, eventually, explosively. The direction is deliberate and the cast is ideally chosen, led by Leggs in a compelling performance as the ambitious Floyd. He’s also got a great voice and performs well on the guitar during the show’s musical moments. Himes is also extremely strong as the determined, complex Hedley, as is Kennedy as the conflicted Vera. The whole cast is strong, and the musical performances featuring Leggs, Pierre, and Dixon are memorable as well. It’s a cohesive cast, bringing a lot of energy and weight to Wilson’s excellent script.

The technical aspects of the production are well-presented in Tim Case’s detailed set and Michael Alan Stein’s excellent period-specific costumes. Jim Burwinkel’s lighting adds a lot to the mood of the production, as does Maril Whitehead’s sound, particularly in the musical moments of the show.

Seven Guitars is a long play, but Wilson’s superb dialogue and story pacing, along with the excellent performances of the cast, makes every minute count. This is a gripping story that provides a great deal to think about in terms of how things used to be, as well as how they still are a lot of the time. It’s a memorable production from  the Black Rep.

Crossin’ Over | The Black Rep

 

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.