The plays of August Wilson are indeed theatrical treasures. The pieces comprising the acclaimed Pittsburgh Cycle (10 plays spanning every decade in the 20th century) are among the most treasured of his theatrical works. When The AngelWing Project announced its season’s production of “Seven Guitars,” I definitely was excited about seeing it. Without question, this theatre company did not disappoint with their version of Wilson’s deeply layered and powerful play.
This cast and crew strike the perfect chord as they really do bring ‘Seven Guitars’ to life in a brave and profoundly heartfelt way.
The story centers on Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a blues singer just out of jail. He spent 90 days in the “workhouse” only to return to a girlfriend, Vera, who is uncertain about their future; a splintered band who isn’t sure about their future; and a lukewarm agent who isn’t at all sure about Floyd’s professional future. A bit of a dilemma to say the least. We quickly learn that the source of Vera’s frustration is Pearl Brown, a woman with whom Floyd previously ran off to Chicago. Floyd however is determined to win Vera back. This will-she-or-won’t-she love triangle is not the only drama unfolding up on the stage. As perhaps only Wilson can, there are relationships interwoven within relationships made even more complicated by the inner struggles the various characters face.
Canewell, for example, struggles with his own unrequited passion. There is Louise, the gravitational center of this play, who must remain calm and seemingly aloof. Yet, her own anxieties and insecurities are on occasion quite visible. King Hedley is truly an anomaly rotating between moments of sage-like wisdom and reckless abandon. Ruby is a young girl who knowingly heads straight for a world of trouble. All of Wilson’s characters have this uncanny way of bringing out the best and, more often than not, the worst in one another. He was truly a master at his craft creating worlds that you usually find yourself just taking for granted as “real.”
Interpreting Wilson’s work can be a difficult undertaking. The AngelWing Project got it right. Without overplaying their hand, they imagine these characters as both larger-than-life but wonderfully subdued when need be. The cast gels so perfectly that you forget they’re working from a script—this is among the highest compliments I can pay them. As Floyd, Pierre Walters commands every single moment without chewing any scenery. His performance invokes both the pathos of being a Black man in a woefully lopsided world and the pure joy of being a musician absolutely in love with life. It is this seeming irreconcilable duality and the way in which Walters pulls it off that stands as one of the most memorable facets of this production. Nefertari Rasaq’s Vera holds her own next to Walters. There is a quiet forcefulness in her voice and in her overall performance that is truly endearing. While Joelle Denise as Louise, perhaps the most relatable character up there, keenly understands how to pivot from the matter-of-fact center of this play to a woman uncertain how to “go it alone” in a world that can be less than hospitable to single women. She is a treasure. The entire cast elevates this play in a way that would assuredly make Wilson quite proud. Rounding out the ensemble are Jadon Shamir as Hedley, Robert Freemon as Canewell, Reginald Baskerville as Red Carter, and Azure Grimes as Ruby.
Angela Wilson is at the directorial helm on this one. Given the rather large scope of the play and the emotional intensity of the interactions, Wilson does a wonderful job balancing the more “mundane” moments with the bigger explosions. It all comes together very smoothly thanks also in part to the production team including set designer Angela Wilson and Ed Matchem, lighting designer Katelyn Anderson, sound technician Michael Wilson, and costume designer Lisa Dickinson.
Under any circumstances, producing August Wilson can be a formidable task. His plays demand a certain nuance of staging, a highly skilled cast, and a director who understands how to mine the emotional depths of Wilson’s words without going too far afield. This cast and crew strike the perfect chord as they really do bring “Seven Guitars” to life in a brave and profoundly heartfelt way.
Running time: Two hours and 45 minutes including a 15-minute intermission.
August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” ran from October 21-22, 2023 presented by The AngelWing Project at The Chesapeake Arts Center, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, MD 21225. For more information about The AngelWing Project, go online. For more information about upcoming events at Chesapeake Arts Center, go online.