SEVEN GUITARS at A Noise Within

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman

August Wilson’s SEVEN GUITARS takes place in 1948. African American servicemen who’d fought in World War II returned to the States and found nothing changed. Racism permeated every aspect of civilian life; then, as now, a Black person could not walk down the street without fear of harassment or worse.

So it is that SEVEN GUITARS’ pivotal character, blues musician Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, receives a 90-day jail term for “vagrancy,” a charge brought by the local Pittsburgh police, who accosted him as he returned home with empty pockets, having spent his last cent on flowers for his mom’s funeral.

A group portrait of Floyd and six other people near or dear to him or both, Seven Guitars affirms once more why Wilson is acclaimed for his kaleidoscopic rendering of the African American chronicle. Directed by Gregg T. Daniel, the play is now running at A Noise Within. Two years ago, ANW produced Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, also directed by Daniel and endorsed by this critic as “illuminating” and with a “stellar cast.”

In this production, the opening image — an independent directorial choice — is arresting: Floyd (Desean K. Terry), bathed in deep blue light (designer Derrick McDaniel), sits center stage, holding his guitar. He plays briefly before the show segues to Wilson’s opening scene, where Floyd’s friends have gathered for his funeral.

As in all of Wilson’s work, the Black man and his struggle for dignity in the face of White rancor permeate the story, often culminating in tragedy, as happens here. But — although Floyd has been targeted by law enforcement and is harried by bad luck, he’s also his own worst enemy. For one thing, he’d ditched his loving steady girlfriend Vera (Cherish Monique Duke) for a fling with another flightier woman who eventually left him. For another, he’d failed to heed the advice of his friend and fellow musician Canewell (DeJuan Christopher) to negotiate royalties on a song he’d sold to a recording company. Now the song is a hit but the flat fee he received for it is all spent.

The recording company want Floyd back in Chicago to sign a contract, a golden opportunity. Floyd wants Vera to go with him, as well as Canewell and a drummer, Red Carter (Amir Abdullah). They are reluctant: Vera because she’s been betrayed once too often by the philandering Floyd, and the men for a variety of reasons. Pittsburgh is home; Chicago is a long way off.

The other characters in this pantheon include Louise (Veralyn Jones), Vera’s neighbor, a woman who values her pistol as some women value their lovers, and Louise’s niece Ruby (Sydney A.

Mason) from Alabama, who’s got man trouble at home and appears to be looking for much the same in Pittsburgh as well. Another neighbor, Hedley (Kevin Jackson), is a loud, loquacious older man with delusional ideas about his place in the universe and a dangerous predilection for rash unnerving acts, like cutting the throat of a rooster for crowing too loud and too often.

Jackson, superb two years ago in Gem of the Ocean, invests the same powerful dynamic into the role of the prickly Hedley, and steals as many scenes. Jones, who played opposite him as Gem’s 285-year-old visionary Aunt Ester, brings a similar gravitas and wiry strength to her stubborn Louise. Christopher, as Floyd’s more clear-sighted friend who’s in love with Vera, turns in a solid, sure-footed performance, as does Abdullah, a contrasting personality as the stylish womanizer, Red.

While Terry successfully relays the essence of the troubled Floyd, he’s less blazingly charismatic here than I’ve seen him elsewhere, though part of that may be his role of a confused conflicted man who makes poor decisions. For me, the lengthy scene between Floyd and Vera, where he pleads for forgiveness, — along with other scenes where they interact — calls for more heat. Duke might go deeper as a woman still smarting from a painful rejection. Mason has an aura of maturity that hampers her portrayal of a flirty Ruby accustomed to flaunting her charms.

Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s earth-toned scenic design is an interesting departure from naturalism, but it fails to support the warmth and color of the characters’ internal lives, so integral to the playwright’s vision. McDaniel’s lighting of the performers’ faces is inadequate for audience seated in the back. Mylette Nora’s costumes are suitably period. Jeff Gardner’s sound design and Maritri Garrett’s original music enrich the narrative.

A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd., Pasadena; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sat,-Sun., 2 p.m., through November 14.

Photo (above) by Craig Schwartz: Desean K. Terry

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