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Seven Guitars: Sweetly Strummed

The 1940's brought visible progress in American race relations, but only under certain conditions.  With World War II, more black men were accepted into the U.S. military than ever before, but they were restricted to segregated units whose acts of heroism generally went unrecognized.  Jackie Robinson became the first black man to play major league baseball under the condition that he wouldn't fight back when abused by fans and other ballplayers.  And though he wasn't the first black heavyweight boxing champion, Joe Louis' quiet demeanor made him more acceptable to the white public than his famously outspoken predecessor, Jack Johnson.

It's in this era of conditional integration that August Wilson set Seven Guitars, receiving a completely captivating Off-Broadway revival from The Signature Theatre Company.  

Typical of the late, great playwright, there is more mood to be embraced than plot to follow.  Set in the author's hometown, the Hill District of Pittsburgh, we meet seven characters, each striking their own chord in this jazz suite of sumptuous language and rhythms, conducted splendidly by director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who won a Best Supporting Actor Tony for the original Broadway production. 

The first of seven scenes takes place after the funeral of Floyd Barton (Lance Reddick), a promising young blues guitarist and singer who was grossly underpaid for recording a hit song.  The events leading up to his death are told in flashback. 

Fresh out of prison, serving "ninety days for worthlessness" (a/k/a being black and not having much money in your pockets) Floyd receives a letter addressed to "Mr. Barton" ("When you get a record, the white folks call you Mister.") inviting him to Chicago to record more songs.  But his harmonica player Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll) isn't keen on going back to a town where he can be arrested for just for his skin and his drummer, Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson), has his skins in hock. 


Sweet music is provided both onstage and off by composer and music director Bill Sims, Jr, while Floyd tries to convince his on-again, off-again Vera (Roslyn Ruff) that his wandering days are through.Adding grace notes to the mix are Hedley (Charles Weldon), the mentally disturbed, Caribbean-born chicken sandwich maker, who dreams of future glories, Vera's sassy-mouthed friend Louise (Brenda Pressley) and her smoothly seductive niece, Ruby (Cassandra Freeman). 

Reddick combines a starry-eyed quality with a poised sense of danger as Floyd, nicely contrasting with Carroll's sharp and kinetic Canewell and Henderson's molasses wine portrayal of Red.  Ruff's Vera is a sturdy defensive wall, Pressley is funny and compassionate and Freeman is effortlessly seductive.  Weldon's Hedley is childishly jovial, but with an effectively short fuse.

The physical production couldn't be better.  Richard Hoover's impressively realistic unit set, a grassless backyard and the surrounding houses, is dramatically enhanced by Jane Cox's lights, Karen Perry's costumes and Darron L West's sound design. 

Wilson's King Hedley II and Two Trains Running will follow Seven Guitars in Signature's season.With tickets for each play's initial run priced at only $15, they should all be the most sought-after seats in town. 

Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Lance Reddick, Kevin T. Carroll and Stephen McKinley Henderson

Center: Lance Reddick

Bottom: Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cassandra Freeman and Kevin T. Carroll

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