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A CurtainUp Review
A rotting barricade fence provides a degree of privacy around the dirt backyard area of a brick rooming house. A cellar door leads to a basement. A small garden in a corner bravely confirms the presence of nature at this enclave in the African-American Hill District of Pittsburg in 1948. Nature, expectedly, takes a back seat to the lives of seven culturally and emotionally entwined characters compelled to tell their stories, address their personal demons, confront an unforgiving society and retaliate.
Seven Guitars is the seventh of Wilson's decade-by-decade plays exploring the experiences of African-Americans in the last century. It has been ten years since it was on Broadway, but its characters are now even more indelibly etched by a cast that measure up to the highest standards.
This production, under the sensitive direction of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, breathes with a freshness attained through courageously individualized performances and the infallible integrity of the staging. The original blues music by Bill Sims, Jr. helps to establish the artistic side of the play's principal character, Floyd Barton (Lance Reddick), as well as the time and legacy of archetypal Chicago electric guitar bluesman Muddy Waters (referenced in the play).
Floyd's recent death and subsequent funeral have brought together those closest to him. The somber atmosphere at the opening is broken as beautician Louise (Brenda Pressley) descends from her second floor apartment a bit sloshed. She sings "Anybody here wanna try my cabbage just step this way; Anybody here like to try my cabbage; Just holler Hey…", as Floyd's musical partner and harmonica player Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll) and drummer Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson) squabble over a piece of sweet potato pie. Vera (Roslyn Ruff), Floyd's girlfriend, describes a vision she had at the funeral of Floyd ascending to heaven accompanied by six angels and the scene dissolves for the flashback to Floyd's returning penniless from Chicago to Pittsburgh after serving 90 days in the workhouse for vagrancy. It should be noted that Santiago-Hudson played the role of Canewell in the original Broadway production.
Seven Guitars is unquestionably driven more by character than plot. It, nevertheless, stands out in the canon for its exceptionally impassioned dialogue as well as the personality details that propel and buoy seven individuals whose fate is being determined not only by the culture and the time in which they live, but also by their dreams and their willingness to hope.
The artistry of ensemble performing is in evidence everywhere. The tall and lanky Reddick is almost scarily persuasive as the frustrated yet patently ambitious Floyd, who desperately wants to re-ignite the romance he had with Vera before he took off for Chicago with another woman. His desire to persuade Vera to go back to Chicago with him provides the key to the play's principal plot device. Ruff, who was terrific in the McCarter Theater production of Wilson's Gem of the Ocean, gives a stoic yet poignant performance as a woman who is torn between her love for Floyd and her pride. As Canewell and Red, Carroll and Henderson, respectively trade off contrasting attitudes and alliances, as they are unwittingly forced to watch Floyd's hopes being whittled away.
Brenda Pressley lets attitude speak for itself as the sincerely kind if outwardly blasé Louise. Cassandra Freeman is a looker and perfect as Louise's sexy cousin Ruby, who arrives from out-of-town with a bit of a past following her. Charles Weldon stirs up a lot of dramatic juice and touches our heart as Hedley, the occasionally crazed boarder dying of tuberculosis who kills and sells chickens for a living. He also dreams of having an heir to carry on his name. (Wilson's King Hedley II, set in 1985, was produced on Broadway during the 2001 and will be a part of the Wilson season at Signature).
The intimacy created at this 160-seat theater is felt most effectively during Floyd's heart-breaking monologue in which he vents his anger and his inability to overcome the obstacles that have prevented him from realizing his dream. This is a production that should be seen by everyone who enjoys seeing the best in American dramatic literature presented in the finest dramatic tradition.
The original Broadway production, under the direction of Lloyd Richards, opened at the Walter Kerr Theater on March 28, 1996 and closed September 8, 1996, after 188 performances plus 13 previews. The rest of this August Wilson Series will feature Two Trains Running in November and King Hedley II in February. Links to other CurtainUp reviews of August Wilson plays: Here are links to other Wilson plays reviewed at CurtainUp:
Gem of the Ocean (Los Angeles & New York)
Gem of the Ocean (London)
Joe Turner's Come and Gone (Los Angeles)
King Hedley II (LA)
King Hedley IIt/t (NY)
King Hedley II (London)
King Hedley II (Philadelphia}
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Radio Golf (LA)
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