Review: SEVEN GUITARS at PassinArt: A Theatre Company

This production of August Wilson's play runs through April 9.


Pittsburgh's Hill District, 1948. A group gathers following the funeral of their friend, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a young blues musician who had dreamed of becoming a star before his life was suddenly cut short. August Wilson's SEVEN GUITARS, now running at PassinArt: A Theatre Company, is a poetic meditation on mortality centered around the mystery, who killed Floyd?

The play is the sixth of 10 plays in Wilson's century cycle, each of which represents the African American experience during a particular decade of the 20th century. Portland audiences are lucky because it seems like every year we get the opportunity to see at least one of them. I have yet to see an August Wilson play that didn't blow me away because of its rich language and characters, as well as the insights it provides into a specific era of our complicated American history.

SEVEN GUITARS has all that in spades. It's the story of men with big dreams that will never be realized. Floyd (played by Telvin Griffin) is a musician who had one hit record and dreams of more, but has just spent 90 days in a workhouse after being arrested for vagrancy. Canewell (James Dixon) and Red are also musicians. Canewell, a harmonica player, is a hustler. He has connections everywhere - the kind of person who you go to if you need something, but best not to ask where he got it. Red (Jerry Foster), who plays the drums, is older and more laid back, perfectly content to play cards while enjoying a cold beer and a good meal.

And Hedley (William "Bill" Earl Ray, who also directed the production), a 59-year-old Caribbean immigrant who sells chicken sandwiches and sundries. Hedley believes in the Bible and also in ghosts. He dreamt that he would inherit money from his father to start his own plantation, and also sees himself as a type of king who may someday father a Messiah.

Then there are the women, who are the practical ones. While the men are chasing their dreams, the women do the real work of making sure there's a roof over their heads and food on the table. Louise (the night I went, understudy Kirsten "Shoushone" Ray stepped in for Josie Seid) has become something of a mother to the rest of the group. Vera (Taylore Mahogany Scott) has to decide whether to take Floyd back after he cheated on her. And Ruby (Tyharra Cozier), Louise's young niece comes to stay after a fight over her ended with a man dead.

Of course, the issues at stake are much bigger than the individual characters. As just one example, Floyd was arrested for not having enough money in his pocket, while Canewell had also been arrested - for having too much! How can a person successfully navigate a world where both of those things can happen at the same time in the same place?

I caught the show on preview night, but the production was already solid. Telvin Griffin is wonderful as Floyd - so proud and hopeful and flawed, and earnest even though you know he has lied in the past. And Jerry Foster as Red - he gets the award for most charming and best dressed (costume designer Wanda Walden outdid herself with this show as a whole). Hedley is the play's most challenging character, and Bill Ray played him with a vulnerability that made me understand the choice a certain character made in the end (sorry, no spoilers). And I loved Shoushone Ray as Louise with her I've-seen-it-all-before-so-don't-give-me-any-nonsense attitude.

SEVEN GUITARS runs at the Brunish Theatre through April 9. IMO you should never pass up the opportunity to see an August Wilson play, and that certainly goes for this one. Click Here



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