It was in his seventh grade class that playwright August Wilson found history was one of his favorite subjects. His fascination with events prior to 1957 would lead him to, in his words, “ ...to restore the black experience to a primary role, to create in essence a world in which the black American is the spiritual center, thus giving the events of history a different perspective.”
“Seven Guitars” at the Long Beach Playhouse is part of a cycle of plays by Wilson chronicling every decade of the 20th century. The Pittsburgh Cycle is primarily set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, an African-American neighborhood, which becomes a place of legends that he imbues with mystery and spirituality all the while writing about everyday people.
Set in the backyard of Vera Datsun, Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton is back from a stint in the workhouse on trumped up charges. As usual, he is dreaming big, but now he’s also got a hit record and an invitation to record again. Barton is driven to get to Chicago and fulfill his destiny. He just needs the money to do so.
However, this isn’t Floyd’s story, this is a story of community and family. Director, Rovin Jay, trusts the capability of his talented cast and the rhythm of Wilson’s dialogue to keep the storytelling crisp and delicious. Latonya Kitchen (Vera) and Ebonie Marie (Louise) are engaging and authentic in every action and word. Ms. Kitchen can tear your heart out with a look and Ms. Marie’s subtle and perfectly timed physical humor and turn of phrase produces some of the most memorable comic moments of the evening.
Wilson is also given to writing beautiful monologues that Director, Rovin Jay, carefully kept from becoming “soapbox” rants. Instead, we listen to William Warren (Hedley) and Rayshawn Chism (Floyd Barton) craft, passionate, heartfelt and thoughtful musings. Both men create charismatic personas that are fully engaging. Mr. Warren’s unguarded performance as Hedley perfectly plays counterpoint to Mr. Chism’s calculated and manipulative Floyd. Mr. Chism did seem to suffer from some opening night jitters, but quickly found his way back to the reality of the play.
The rest of the cast is solid and provides the needed constant drumbeat. Jay Reed (Canewell), Gilbert Roy DeLeon (Red) and Justyn High (Ruby) are skilled actors whose devotion to the authenticity of the world is to their credit. Reed, DeLeon and High carefully find their characters hearts crafting transparent layered portrayals. In the hands of the actors you could feel the dirt under their feet, the splinters in the wood and smell the roses blooming in the backyard.
While “Seven Guitars” is a detailed portrait of an existence filled with short term joy, and dreams just out of reach there is plenty of bright humor to balance the pain contained inside Wilson’s well composed world. If you have never seen a play by Wilson, you should. I believe this is a perfect introduction. If you are a fan you will be satisfied by this earnest rendering .
Seven Guitars continues on Sunday, June 15, with showings every Friday and Saturday at 8p.m. and on Sundays at 2 p.m.
Ticket prices range from $14 to $24.
For more information, or to purchase tickets, go to lbplayhouse.org/tickets/box-office/ or call 562-494-1014 and select option one.