Review: A Subtle SEVEN GUITARS at Arena Stage

Seven Guitars runs thru December 26

By: Dec. 04, 2021
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Review: A Subtle SEVEN GUITARS at Arena Stage

Midway through the first act of Arena Stage's subtle production of Seven Guitars, a superb Michael Anthony William's Canewell recites a recipe for collard greens. The secret, he says, is that after gathering all the ingredients together, to let them simmer for a long time till they reach perfection - an appropriate metaphor for this play.

August Wilson's story of seven friends in post-war Pittsburgh may take a while to get started, but don't let the slow pace or lengthy run time fool you. The play, and Arena's production, have all the ingredients of great drama - rich characters, powerful writing, and human introspection - and together they simmer and tell a timeless story about race and economic inequality in America.

Seven Guitars is part of Wilson's monumental Century Cycle, a ten play series examining the African American experience in the United States during each decade of the twentieth century. Set in 1948, the play begins with the funeral of musician Floyd 'Schoolboy' Barton, a passionate and tragic Roderick Lawrence and then flashes back to the events leading up to his death.

Wilson, one of America's greatest and most underrated playwrights, takes a subtle, dare I say genius approach, with Seven Guitars. For on its surface, the play is about Floyd's desire to escape the poverty that has defined his life by recording a hit record. However it is Floyd's inability to reach that moment which Wilson uses as an opportunity to explore the legacy of the Great Migration and the uneven distribution of America's economic prosperity following World War II.

Vivid characters and great ensembles are hallmarks of Wilson's work. Seven Guitars is no exception. In this production, there is the no nonsense Roz White as the boarding house manager Louise, a sympathetic Joy Jones as Floyd's long-suffering girlfriend Vera, a charismatic Eden Marryshow as Floyd's friend and drummer Red Carter, and a stunning Dane Figueroa Edidi as Louise' flirtatious niece Ruby.

Finally, there is David Emerson Toney as Hedley.

Now, I have a confession to make and that is, as the cliche goes, I could watch Toney read the phonebook. I am a huge fan. His performance as Holloway in Arena's 2018 production of Wilson's Two Training Running remains one of my favorite performances. In Seven Guitars, I'm thrilled to say that he does not disappoint.

Hedley is a character of many facets. He's funny and lovable one moment, then loathing about the white man and mystical about the neighborhood rooster the next. Toney portrays all these characteristics with skill, precision, and humility. It is a reminder that for me, if there were ever a match made in theatrical heaven, it is Toney performing Wilson.

Tazwell Thompson does a serviceable job as director. However, the two missteps of this production are its staging and design.

This production is performed in the round and it simply does not work. Despite the Fichandler Stage being an intimate space, it was hard to hear every word or see every character's reaction. Additionally, Wilson's prose are so profound that missing even a single word or reaction seems like a disservice. The play would be better off in Arena's traditional proscenium space, the Kreeger Theatre.

Second, Donald Eastman's set design fails to convey any sense of setting or community. That's a major issue considering that the Hill District, Pittsburgh's African American neighborhood where the play is set, is almost a character unto itself in both this play and the Century Cycle.

The staging of a couple of chairs and a table center stage almost make the play feel like it is taking place in limbo. Seven Guitars is about a community of seven friends, and for that neighborhood to feel missing and lacking any sense of realism is a major oversight.

The one design element that does work is Harry Nadal's beautiful forties inspired clothing, especially the men's suit. Each is not only perfectly tailored to the times but the personalities of the characters themselves.

Watching Seven Guitars you cannot help but feel a certain sadness about the timeless quality of the play's themes. From the discussions about police violence to the struggle over economic mobility and inequality, the tensions simmering beneath this play are all very real and still with us. Given the passions and polarization of our times, the story Wilson is telling is all the more poignant and Arena's subtle approach, all the more worthwhile.

Runtime is three hours with one intermission.

Seven Guitars runs thru December 26 at Arena Stage - 1101 6th St SW, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets please click here.

Photo: Eden Marryshow, Michael Anthony Williams, Roz White and Joy Jones. Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photography.