“Seven Guitars,” the 1940s segment of August Wilson’s 20th century Pittsburgh Cycle, is receiving a glorious staging at the Two River Theatre Company in Red Bank (NJ) through Oct. 4.
The company has a knack for hiring good people to mount and perform in its shows and should be applauded for signing Brandon J. Dirden for his directorial debut. (As an actor we saw him here in 2012’s “Jitney” and “Topdog/Underdog,” and earlier this year in the world premiere of Reuben Santiago-Hudson‘s “You’re Blues Ain’t Sweet Like Mine.” Two River doesn’t always take the safest route to fill seats, which is just one reason why this company is so very interesting.
One of my theater quests is to take my son to see productions of all 10 plays of Wilson’s work. Thanks to Two River “Seven Guitars” we can mark three down, seven to go in the series. Each play is set in a different decade with nine set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District (where Wilson grew up) and one in Chicago.
For myself and my son, Wilson’s plays are history lessons — in a good way. They help us — white people — understand situations in an organic way, from different angles, from a different set of circumstances, from a different perspective. Set 67 years ago, the play (first produced in 1996) tackles black men trying to make it in a post World War II white man’s world, being taken advantage of, failing to achieve their dreams, doubting their manhood, ending up in jail. And it happens as the women they love watch them do it.
There’s a whole lot of talking going on here but not much action in this nearly three-hour production, which is a hallmark of Wilson’s style. But that talking! It’s delivered by a septet of talented actors delivering dialogue that sounds like a cross between poetry and syncopated jazz riffs spoken by performers with numerous Broadway, regional theater and TV credits.
The play focuses on Vera (Christina Acosta Robinson), a woman who has been disappointed in love by Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Kevin Mambo), a musician who took off for Chicago with another woman who ultimately dumped him when his music career fizzled. Then he tangled with cops and landed in jail.
His return to Vera happens as one of his previously recorded songs becomes an unexpected hit. A record company is offering him a contract and Floyd, who realizes the mistake he made leaving Vera behind, returns to persuade her join him in Chicago since his future looks so bright.
But she’s not having it. Stoic, smart, hard-working and not to be trifled with, Vera says no. Louise (Crystal A. Dickinson), a fellow lodger in the tenement for which the word sassy barely begins to describe her attitude, tells Vera she’s made the right decision. “Seven Guitars” is a drama punctuated with comedy. Funny lines, funny looks, funny situations. Dickinson seems to get a whole lot of them and delivers then with attitude plus.
Also living in the tenement is Hedley (Brian D. Coats), an elderly man who talks about mysticism, Africa, slavery, and the angel who will come to him with enough money to buy a plantation of his own. Man trap Ruby (Brittany Bellizeare) shows up later in the play and, of all the men, shows partiality for Hedley. She’s been sent north by her mother because of man trouble back home.
The play opens with Vera, Louise, Hedley, Red Carter (Charlie Hudson III) and Canewell (Jason Dirden) sitting in the backyard of a tenement following a funeral. The play ends there as well and what we see in between is what happens when Floyd returns and tries to convince his former band mates — Red and Canewell —as well as Vera to come to Chicago. But the men also say no. They don’t see a future in Chicago for them, especially since they are black men.
Wilson’s plays about the Hill District, like Tennessee William’s plays about faded Southern aristocratic society, Eugene O’Neill’s works about Irish Americans, Anton Chekhov’s works about Russians and August Strindberg’s plays about Swedes, are insightful works of great interest and strength that take their time revealing each character’s story.
Two River’s superb production — with a phenomenal set by Michael Carnahan, costumes by Karen Perry, lighting by Driscoll Otto, sound by David Margolin Lawson, and original music by Jason Moran — makes “Seven Guitars” a must-see event.
To order tickets call 732-345-1400, or click here.