Monday, October 22, 2012

Seven Guitars - Artists Repertory Theatre, Portland, OR

"Poverty & Dreams"

Seven Guitars, by August Wilson, is currently playing at Artists Rep through November 11th at their location at SW Alder and 16th Ave.  It is directed by Kevin Jones.  For more  information on their season and play dates/times, contact their website

August Wilson is recognized by the theatre community as one of the best playwrights of the last few decades.  His ten-play cycle, outlining the life and times of Afro-Americans, is quite impressive.  Seven Guitars is in the middle of that cycle, the 1940’s, exposing the lives of seven individuals in the Hill district of Pittsburg, PA. (the seven guitars?).

We had our own Hill district, in the guise of Vanport, until it was destroyed by a flood.  It was probably a reflection of the Black experience, like the Hill district of PA.  People living in poverty, haunted by their own demons of the past, dreaming of a better tomorrow.  A world dominated by White oppression, steering the lives of all involved.

The play is told as reflections and semi-monologues on each of these characters’ lives.  It begins with six of them coming back from the funeral of Floyd (Lance Mc Queen).  He has been murdered, and the rest of the play is a flashback of his life, leading up to his death.  This is not Wilson’s best play but the explosive efforts of his characters to tell their story outweighs the lack of a strong, narrative thread.

Floyd is a bit of a gad-about, a fly-by-night musician, whose sole purpose seems to be to become rich and famous.  His “main squeeze,” when his hands aren’t wandering, is Vera (Ramona Lisa Alexander), a lady who, perhaps, loves “not wisely but too well.”  His musician friends are Canewell (Victor Mack), a glib lady’s man and Red (Michael J. Asberry) a reflector, perhaps, of the human condition.

There is Vera’s wise-cracking friend, Louise (Gayle Samuels), a no-nonsense lady who seems content to be in charge of her world.  She has a niece, Ruby (Ashley Williams), a young flirt who comes to live with her, seeming to live and revel in turning the heads of all men.  And the bible-spouting neighbor, Hedley (Mujahid Abdul-Rashid), a man with a very damaged childhood but feels destined to come into riches owed to him, and to father a new messiah.

These characters are richly drawn by all the members of this powerful ensemble.  Each  of them having their moments to expound on their dreams and fears in monologue-type expositions.  And each of their traits are expertly told by the performers and universally recognized by the audience.  It is all of us, richly detailed by the genius of Mr. Wilson, Mr. Jones and the cast.

The set by Jeff Seats is a marvel.  It is so realistic it becomes a character unto itself.  You could almost feel yourself walking through their doors and into another time period.  And the costumes by Jessica Bobillot also add colorful flavor to this mix, especially in the last act with the rich hues of their fancy attires.

Kevin Jones’s direction is precise and crisp, moving the play along when it needs the quicker pacing and more slowly for the subtler moments.  He is an actors’ director, obviously taking care with searching out all the possible nuances of a character.  The strength of Mr. Jones (and Mr. Wilson) is presenting us with people who are all shades of gray, without recriminations, and are very much like the sum total of all of us.

I recommend this show.  And, if you liked it, watch for other Wilson plays this season in Portland.  King Hedley II at Portland Playhouse in December and Two Trains Running at  OSF  in Ashland this Spring.  Tell them Dennis sent you.

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