Chicago Theatre Review
‘Seven Guitars’ a Hoochie Coochie Masterwork
Seven Guitars – Court Theatre
Court Theatre’s “Seven Guitars” is one of the best looking productions I have ever seen. The scenery, designed by Regina Garcia, perfectly re-creates a Pittsburg urban environment circa 1948, with dirt-encrusted floors and brick buildings, pale lightbulbs dangling from wires, and tables and chairs with waning varnish; the costuming, by Christine Pascual, captures the color tones and patterns of ’40s clothing wonderfully; and the play’s complex lighting, by Marc Stubblefield, ties it altogether, beautifully complementing the play’s ambiguity with smoky dusks and shadows.
And indeed, “Seven Guitars” is a marvelous piece of writing by August Wilson, one of our greatest playwrights. Part of his 10-play “Pittsburgh Cycle,” “Seven Guitars” concerns the late ’40s, a period when African American life was driven by the blues music of Muddy Waters and the redemptive possibilities of travel to bigger, more exciting cities (in fact, though set in Pittsburgh, Chicago plays quite heavily in the latter theme). Yet, the adversities faced by Wilson’s all-black cast – racial apprehension; black pride, via the teachings of Marcus Garvy; economic advancement; spiritual and philosophical peace – are all still relevant to many of the predominantly African American communities not 10 minutes from Court Theatre, making its staging of the play prescient, to say the least.
The plot of “Seven Guitars” is deceptively simple. Focusing on a small group of friends in one Pittsburgh neighborhood, the play concerns to musical ambitions of Floyd Barton, a talented guitarist and singer whose blues single is the toast of the moment. The play, then, tracks Barton’s efforts to return to Chicago and record a follow-up to his single, and to overcome the personal and economic barriers to that action. But of course, for such a detailed, expansive play (the production I saw ran three hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission), such a synopsis does immense injustice to the many other characters in the play: Canewell, Barton’s loquacious harmonica player (portrayed by Jerod Haynes, who was so excellent in TimeLine’s 2013 production of “A Raisin in the Sun”); Vera, Barton’s long-suffering girlfriend; Louise, the sassy matriarch of the group; and Hedley, the Marcus Garvy-reading, voodoo-spouting elder of the group.
And anchoring it all is the direction of Ron OJ Parson, who never lets the production lose sight of Wilson’s chief goal – to bring the everyday hauntings of African American life to the stage, something that “Seven Guitars” achieves beautifully.
Reviewed by Peter Thomas Ricci
Presented Jan. 9 – Feb. 9 by Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago, IL 60637
Additional information about this and other spectacular area productions is available at the one, the only, the indefatigable www.theatreinchicago.com.