Court Theatre. By August Wilson. Dir. Ron OJ Parson. With ensemble cast. 3hrs 10mins; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
August Wilson's extraordinary collection of ten plays, often referred to as the Century Cycle or the Pittsburgh Cycle, takes place almost entirely in Pittsburgh's Hill District neighborhood, which serves as a microcosm for the African-American experience across each decade of the 20th century. Yet in Seven Guitars, the 1940s entry in that cycle, Chicago looms large as a beacon of hope and opportunity—particularly for the play's central figure, aspirant blues musician Floyd "Schoolboy" Benton (Kelvin Roston Jr.), a World War II vet whose record was released and became a hit while he was serving 90 days in jail on trumped-up charges.
Floyd is the core around which each of Wilson's characters momentarily orbits, but you wouldn't exactly call him the play's protagonist; he doesn't appear in the first or last scenes, both of which take place after his funeral. The bulk of the play flashes back to the days or weeks before Floyd's death, as he tries to win back his erstwhile girl, the bruised and resistant Vera (Ebony Wimbs) and win over his backup players Canewell (Jerod Haynes) and Red (Ronald L. Conner) to return to Chicago to cut some more tracks. Vera's sassily practical neighbor Louise (Felicia P. Fields), Louise's visiting girl-in-trouble niece Ruby (Erynn Mackenzie) and the possibly oracular odd man out Hedley (Allen Gilmore) are all along for the ride, searching for their own elusive chance at contentment and—the unthinkable prize—a stabler station in life.
As Wilson suggested before his death, this play's title refers to each of its seven characters serving as a musical instrument, each singing their own blues tune and marking the various ways the African-American population of the United States was held in check and in stasis at this post-war, pre–civil rights movement moment.
Director Ron OJ Parson, who's been investigating Wilson's collected works at Court Theatre and elsewhere for many years now, embraces the musicality on the surface of Wilson's work—in the literal blues played by Floyd, Canewell and Red, and in the sometimes stunning lyricism of the playwright's language, as when Vera recalls missing the absent Floyd and the way she would "search my body for his fingerprints."
Particularly in the long first act, Seven Guitars can fool you into seeming like it's meandering, maybe lingering too long on the shit-shooting of its tenement-backyard milieu. But settle into Wilson's long game and soak up the stirring performances by seven spark-plug actors, and you'll see what Parson does: These are seven blues progressions that weave into a gorgeous suite of songs.