Only in Pittsburgh.
Only here could a small, scrappy theater company stage a production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars in the very setting he had in mind when he wrote the play: the backyard of his childhood home on Bedford Ave. in the Hill district.
That home has sat tragically abandoned and decaying for decades. But rather recently, a local group, spearheaded by Wilson’s nephew Paul Ellis, began rehabilitating it and transforming it into the Daisy Wilson Artist Community, a center for artists and performers.
And, for just one more weekend, it plays a starring role in Mark Clayton Southers’s surehanded interpretation of the play. That’s not to downplay the achievement of the very fine ensemble who bring to life the story of the violent end of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (played by the charming and charismatic Jonathan Berry), but rather to acknowledge how much this production gains from its setting: knowing that people may very well have had conversations and conflicts much like those depicted in the play on this very spot raises the stakes of its issues in a deeply satisfying and provocative manner.
Indeed, I’m not sure I’ve ever found the play’s representation of structural racism and the ways in which the deck is stacked against black men to be quite so resonant. After a summer in which social media has provided incontrovertible evidence of the danger of driving, selling CD’s, or doing practically anything “while black,” the complaints voiced in Seven Guitars by Floyd and his bandmates Canewell (Kevin Brown) and Red Carter (Leslie Ezra Smith) about their maltreatment by the justice system need no additional emphasis for us to see where they fit on a nearly direct line from slavery to the present day. It’s almost as if ghosts have returned to bear witness to what the deteriorated condition of the house provides an apt metaphor for: the depressing fact that the dynamic depicted in the play seems likewise to have deteriorated over the last sixty years.
I fear that last sentence may lead you to believe that this play is nothing but a downer. Not so! The play is very funny, and the cast excels at bringing out the humor in the dialogue and situations. Brown and Smith, in particular, make nice comic hay out of their characters’ tendency to perseverate on a topic, and Teri Bridget is wry and sardonic as the world-weary Louise. Rounding out the case are Wali Jamal as the impassioned and somewhat off-kilter King Hedley, Ty Barrow as Floyd’s love interest, Vera, and Jamilah Chanie, seductive and coy as Louise’s young niece Ruby.
The production overall is very good; there are (perhaps unavoidable) flaws that get in the way of its being transcendant. Long transitions between scenes turn what is already a very long and talky play into an extremely long one (the evening I attended, it was almost midnight when the cast took their bows); the sound system is rather glitchy; there are some sightline challenges; and – my biggest beef – the handling of props and musical instruments is generally unconvincing. The relationships between characters – the meat of this drama – is, in contrast, utterly genuine, and the ensemble does a beautiful job of conveying the rhythms and idioms of Wilson’s dialogue.
Chickens scratching the straw-covered dirt add to the realism of the otherwise appropriately minimal set for the play, which is made more immersively real by the sounds of roosters and voices coming from a neighboring yard (sound design by Mark Whitehead). The period music and Cheryl El Walker’s costuming ground the play in the late 1940s; Xavier Pierce’s lighting design contributes mystery and depth, particularly once the sun goes down and pitches the action under a darkened Pittsburgh sky.