Fort Worth — In his foreword to Seven Guitars as published in an anthology of all 10 of August Wilson’s Century Cycle, Tony Kushner wrote that as the play is set in 1948, chronologically the fifth in the cycle, it represents a crux in 20th century American history. It takes place 83 years after the abolition of slavery ushered in the Jim Crow era, and 52 years after Plessy vs. Ferguson. And it precedes the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Kushner wrote, “radical transformation is not yet palpable nor discernibly immanent in the Hill District, in postwar, economically depressed, racist America.”
“The play is about knowing and not knowing what time it is, about time passing, but even more significantly, about time stalling with tragic consequence.”
In the gorgeous production at Jubilee Theatre, directed by William “Bill” Earl Ray—who has been named the theater’s new artistic director—the pacing reflects that idea of time standing still, but it also moves with the rhythm of heartbeats.
That says as much about Wilson’s musicality here, fitting for a play called Seven Guitars. For the most part, Ray’s production captures that, too.
Especially with the women in this cast of seven (which is where the number of the title comes in; as there aren’t that many guitars we see or hear about). Ayoka Dorsey Lawson is Vera, whose backyard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District serves as the play’s setting (fantastic two-story set by Bryan Wofford). It’s her apartment, and the upstairs neighbors are Louise (a sassy, lionhearted Stormi Demerson) and Hedley (a terrific Alonzo Walker), a Caribbean man with deep spirituality, a suspicion of the white man and a chronic cough (he’s also the namesake for Wilson’s 1980s-set play King Hedley II). When Ruby (Whitney Coulter) arrives with big dreams, she shakes up the dynamic between Vera’s on/off beau Floyd, (Christopher Dontrell Piper), a musician/songwriter with an unexpected hit on his hands, and his friends Red Carter (lovable and menacing Marcus M. Mauldin) and Canewell (Amir Ali, who rushes his lines).
Piper is, as usual, fiery and dynamic; Floyd is the character for whom you want to root, but fear the worst. All three of the women are strong, with Lawson compelling in her confusion to fall, again, for Floyd.
On opening night, despite the skillful individual performances, the whole thing wasn’t quite in perfect balance, but that probably grew tighter in the final weeks. Jubilee has traditionally not been as strong with straight plays as it is with musicals, although that record has improved in this decade. Plus, Wilson’s works are not easy.
Ray has proven many times that he’s a gifted performer and a sure-handed director, and we’re looking forward to his tenure at the region’s oldest African-American theaters. For this group’s six-show season, he’ll hopefully continue in Garrett’s path of smartly balancing box-office hits (musicals and plays) with dynamic work that the audience might not know so well. There’s a wealth of young, talented African-American dramatists that, if programmed, could keep Jubilee on the path to be included in the national theater conversation.