Ask Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton. Life is full of chances. You take them or you don’t. And when you do, you accept the consequences.
August Wilson’s epic, churning Seven Guitars, as staged by A Noise Within Theatre and directed by Gregg. T. Daniel, is a dense and revealing saga of seven lives tossed about by seven dramas, anchored by Barton’s quest of being a major recording star, and reuniting with lost love.
Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, the story opens on a funeral, and then quickly heads off into backstory territory.
Floyd Barton (Desean K. Terry) has returned to his hometown, as a man with a hit record, to once again try to persuade his ex, Vera (Cherish Monique Duke) to return with him back to Chicago as he pursues his “hit record” goals. She is not having it.
Floyd also wants his two smooth but excitable running buddies, Canewell (DeJuan Christopher) and Red Carter (Amir Abdullah) to head back with him to Chicago as well, where recording dates and fame await them.
There is a manager in town who has faith in Barton, and promises him a little bit of the world, but Barton is (literally) a guitar short of his upcoming opportunity.
But he is working on it.
As the dynamic and undeniably appealing Barton sets about reassembling the pieces of his life he will need to return to Chicago, bad luck dogs him, mostly in the form of money. Money he is owed for his 90 days in the County workhouse, money he owes to retrieve his electric guitar from the pawnshop, the money he is slated to make from gigs and recording. Money, money everywhere and not a drop to spend.
Life ensues. Ruby (Sydney A. Mason), the pregnant niece of Louise (VeraLyn Jones), who lives in the same apartment building as Vera, shows up after some “man trouble” down south, has her searching for a new life and a father for her baby.
And there is that manager.
Barton’s week-long stay is interrupted and intertwined with visits from Hedley (Kevin Jackson). Hedley is a haunting and superstitious Caribbean figure of rasp and remorse, who lives in the apartment building and dreams of “Ethiopia rising up” again to free the Black man, and impatiently awaits some mysterious money that he believes that the late jazz trumpeter, Charles “Buddy” Bolden will bring to him, as promised in a dream.
But once the story’s roller-coaster narrative is set into motion, no one is immune.
Director Gregg handles the three-hour production deftly, with only a few plot points hammered just a touch too hard, though all are tempered with the perfect emotional levels.
Jackson’s Hedley, for example, takes us into a dark, unrelenting place, while Duke’s Vera, is both observer and participant as she brings a knowing warmth to the role.
The production design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and lit by Derrick McDaniel is simple, elegant, and space-smart as characters emerge, disappear, and remerge through and around the clever stage surroundings.
As we close on a funeral, we’re a little drained and a lot relieved and exhilarated. Credit Wilson’s captivating narrative for that.
Seven Guitars is a chance to settle in for a long evening of awakening and revelation, doused with heartbreak and what could have been. Enjoy the ride.
Seven Guitars is at A Noise Within Theatre from October 17 through November 14, 2021. More information is available at anoisewithin.org.