Seven Guitars

Signature Theatre Company. By August Wilson. Dir. Ruben Santiago-Hudson. With ensemble cast.

 IN A JAM Reddick, Carroll and Henderson, from left, trade licks.

IN A JAM Reddick, Carroll and Henderson, from left, trade licks. Photograph: Carol Rosegg

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>0/5

At the risk of sounding hyperbolic or overly reverent, August Wilson may have been the last great American dramatist. Not since Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill has a native playwright covered as wide a canvas as Wilson, whose ten-play cycle spans African-American culture of the last century. (In 20 years, perhaps Tony Kushner will prove this wrong.) Seven Guitars is the fifth chronological piece in Wilson’s grand survey of roots, pain, community and mystical transcendence. Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s magisterial but exuberant production revels in bone-deep, heartfelt performance and the infectious, stirring musicality of Wilson’s words.

The year is 1948, the setting is Pittsburgh’s poor, gritty Hill District. A group of six friends and neighbors have gathered after the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Lance Reddick), a rising blues guitarist cut down in his prime. Some of the members of the reception, like Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll) and Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson), are fellow blues musicians who’d hoped to accompany Floyd to Chicago to cut a record. The action flashes back to the days before Floyd’s death, retracing his tragic path. To say the seven fiercely talented actors—also including Roslyn Ruff and Brenda Pressley—are all on the same page is a gross understatement: They’re happily clustered inside a dependent clause. And what a glorious clause. Wilson’s rich, folksy dialect has an elemental majesty, composed of a vibrant patchwork of soulful speeches, songs, jokes and even kitchen recipes. His language throbs with the vitality of characters who have seen heartbreak and turned it into something beautiful—in other words, it’s true blues. — David Cote