Monday, September 23, 2013

Seven Guitars

Playwright:  August Wilson

Company:  Theatreworks

Venue: Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, 3955 Regent Circle, Colorado Springs, CO

Date of performance:  September 22, 2013
Running time:  3 hours, 5 minutes (includes 15 minute intermission)

As a blues fan, Seven Guitars  is a show I eagerly anticipated.  Based on some of the preshow publicity and photos, my expectations included an entrée of blues music with a side order of dancing: 
     “It tells the story of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a guitar player who went to Chicago and made a hit record, and now wants to go back and do it again with his band.”  From the Theatreworks web site.

I was wrong, and I think it important to clarify what expectations one should have going into Seven Guitars.  It’s not about blues music.  It’s about the “blues.”  The blues you have because you’re poor.  The blues you have because you will always be poor.  The blues you have when every adult male you know has done jail time.  The blues you get when every man you have loved has done you wrong.  Repeatedly.

Seven Guitars is about the subject matter of the “blues,” not the music itself.  That’s a good thing.  It’s just not what I expected, or what any other ticket holder should expect.

What you WILL get with is a richly detailed cultural tapestry of African American life in the Pittsburg Hill District of the late 1940’s. It’s a gritty engaging look at the demeaning, dispiriting effects of perpetual poverty.  But most importantly, it’s about the character and spirit that endures in  the daily struggle to survive.  Seven Guitars is a compelling script that documents the frustration, desperation, and the hopes of oppressed people everywhere.

That compelling script, however, needlessly challenges the audience with its 3+ hour running time and its meandering dialog that creates a drag on the actual story telling.  Wandering from the geographical differences between roosters and whether Canewell (Donald Paul) can follow the topic of conversations, the script would benefit from some serious editing.

Floyd "School Boy" Barton (Calvin Thompson) & Vera (Nambi Kelley)

The Theatreworks cast has impeccable credentials; each is an experienced and accomplished actor.  When you have such a critical mass of talent on the stage, the whole truly is greater than the sum of its parts.

One of the many strengths of Wilson’s script is the strong female characters.  Lynne Hastings (Louise), Nambi Kelley (Vera) and Melissa Taylor (Ruby) portray strong but vulnerable women who would be great role models for my daughters.  Kelley’s nuanced performance is enhanced by her facial expressions; she doesn’t need to move her lips to show us she’s indignant, angry, skeptical, or flirtatious.  She’s a master of her craft, and a delight to watch.  Hastings’ Louise is the mature female voice of reason, keeping the peace in the midst of constant pain and conflict.  Hastings is a perfect Louise, moving quickly and easily from compassionate to stern, from loving to harsh.  Taylor plays a street savvy young woman whose innocence is long gone.  She has a twinkle in her eye that tells us a lot about how she came to have “man trouble.”

The male characters in Wilson’s script are also strong but flawed.  Calvin M. Thompson (Floyd) struts, strums, and talks trash just like one would expect from a budding blues musician with a “hit record.”  His fruitless attempts to reconcile with Vera are touching; he’s a cad, but he’s cute, charming, and vulnerable.  We can’t tell if he needs Vera or actually loves Vera.  It’s a fine line, and it’s one that confounds Vera as well.  Thompson has the only musical moments in the show, one where he sings the blues about quitting moonshine, and one requiring him to sing an acapella version of the Lord’s Prayer.  It’s not often that an actor or a song can bring tears to my eyes, but Thompson’s soulful prayer for his mother did it for me; I suspect he did it for others in the audience as well.  It was a perfect moment in Floyd’s tragic character arc.

Michael Broughton’s “King” Headley is a joy to watch.  “King” suffers from at least two afflictions, mental illness and tuberculosis; Broughton is convincing on both counts.  No dialect coach is credited in the program (a shame, assuming there was one), but Broughton’s Jamaican/Haitian dialect stands in stark contrast to the rest of the characters.  Broughton’s ”King” is not quite crazy enough to be committed, and just sane enough to interact with his neighbors.  Headley’s last scene is a stunner; he commits a gruesome act and cries real tears on cue.  For me, at least, that is a skill reserved for a very small number of very accomplished actors.

L-R:  Michael Broughton, Calvin Thompson, Robb Douglas, Donald Paul
Robb Douglas (Red Carter) and Donald Paul (Canewell) are Floyd’s band mates and friends.  Both actors are outstanding, Douglas as the cool, hip drummer and Paul as the harmonica player who thinks every conversation is about him.
The set design (Jonathan Wentz, designer) is a beautiful rendition of an urban back yard.  The costumes are exquisite (Ashley Rhodes Gamba, designer), faithfully recreating both the look and the feel of the era.  Director Clinton Turner Davis makes the most of the considerable talent at his disposal, bringing the Pittsburg back yard to life. 

Seven Guitars is a challenging but worthwhile experience.  Although it goes on too long, and the script seems unfocused at times, it is an intimate look at people, poverty, and persistence. The performances are first rate, and the Lord’s Prayer is unforgettable.   Seven Guitars was not what I expected, but it nevertheless exceeded my mistaken expectations. 

This play runs through September 29, 2013.
This show is appropriate for all ages, but it may not hold the interest of younger children for three hours.
Parking at the Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater is available in the adjacent lot; despite signs to the contrary, vehicles will not be ticketed for parking there during performances.
Preshow/post show dining suggestion:  BJ’s Restaurant and Brewhouse, 5150 North Nevada Avenue, Colorado Springs.  Only 10 minutes or less from the theater, BJ’s has a full cocktail menu, craft brewed beers, sandwiches, pizza, and burgers.  I had the “Sweet Pig” pizza, usually called Hawaiian pizza.  The service, the food, and the seasonal Octoberfest brew ($5.50/pint) were all very good.

Photo credit:  Theatreworks

Director:  Clinton Turner Davis
Set Design:  Jonathan Wentz

Lighting Design:  Matthew Adelson

Sound Design:  Alex Ruhlin

Costume Design:  Ashley Rhodes Gamba

Canewell:  Donald Paul
Red Carter:  Robb Douglas

Vera Dotson:  Nambi E. Kelley

Louise:  Lynne Hastings

“King” Hedley:  Michael Broughton
Ruby:  Melissa Taylor

Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton:  Calvin M. Thompson

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