Stage / To live is to be concerned with things: money and clothes, guns and blades–soulful instruments like food, music and love.
August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, now playing at The Actors’ Group (TAG), is an exploration of such themes, told through the lives of seven African American men and women and set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1948. The TAG production captures the duality of theater and life–moments both funny and tragic, and much of what falls in between–because the show strives for theatrical realism and honest-to-life characters.
Blues singer Floyd Barton, the as yet one-hit-wonder, played by Khem M. Shepsutera, is desperate to get back to Chicago and make another hit record. Fresh out of lockup, he just needs to get a few things in order first: his woman, his guitar and the rest of his bluesmen. He meets resistance on all fronts.
The plot of Seven Guitars centers on the fate of Barton, but Wilson gave each of his “guitars” a distinctive sound, meaning each actor has the burden and the opportunity that comes with playing a character written with individuality and authentic humanity. In the playbill, director Frankie Enos writes, “Seven Guitars started in Wilson’s head with seven bluesmen who together would tell the story of Floyd Barton’s life. Then, according to the playwright, a woman walked onto the stage.” That woman was Vera, and after her came Louise and Ruby.
Thank goodness for that, because in this production, the women are especially good. Reshawn Fields plays Vera, Barton’s one-time girlfriend, with quiet grace. She’s very genuine and likable.
Louise, Vera’s upstairs neighbor, played by Lillian M. Jones, steps on stage singing. Her physicality and style of speech convey a woman at home in her own skin, ready to speak her mind at the drop of a dime. Jones absolutely breathes this role.
Ruby, the mesmerizing Terry Bookhart, is Louise’s niece who shows up from out of town. From the moment she enters a scene, plucking her metaphorical guitar strings, she had me smiling one minute and near tears the next.
Derrick Brown as Hedley, the neighbor who’s not quite all there, delivers a chilling monologue, the most powerful of the show. The other three bluesmen all have their strong moments, though watching them, at times, I wished each would uncork their characters and really play their roles to the fullest.
When the characters sing, a layer of superficiality dissolves. The play, at its core, is about the lives behind the blues–an expression of life as both contained and larger than itself, touchable and intangible, earthbound and ethereal.
Overall, this production does justice to Wilson’s play. The actors portray believable characters; the stage and sound effects provide an authentic atmosphere. Then of course, there’s the rooster, and he takes the blues to another level.