Seven Guitars kicks off Drama season

Senior acting majors Mitchell Edwards (Floyd) and Johari Mackey (Vera) are two standout performers from the School of Drama's season-opening production of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. (credit: Photo courtesy of Louis Stein) Senior acting majors Mitchell Edwards (Floyd) and Johari Mackey (Vera) are two standout performers from the School of Drama's season-opening production of August Wilson's Seven Guitars. (credit: Photo courtesy of Louis Stein)

Seven Guitars sounds like a painfully literal band name, but in this context it’s the School of Drama’s first main-stage production of the season.

Seven Guitars is a relevant and hyperlocal choice for this audience: It’s written by Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson and takes place in the Hill District circa 1948. The crew wastes no opportunity in capitalizing on the setting: The exceptional scenic design is fastidiously detailed, as School of Drama patrons have grown accustomed to seeing.

According to the program, the setting is “the backyard of 1727 Bedford Avenue,” but the scenic design crew ran wild with this barebones description. The setup is distinctly 3-D, featuring small, convincingly textured brick apartment buildings jutting out onto the stage. An herb garden packed with soil stretches toward the audience, and moss grows in the breaks between squares of concrete. A clothesline dips between buildings — sheer garments hanging by clothespins — illuminated from behind by the suggestion of a perpetually glowing distant sun.

As a caveat, the production is exceptionally long: Including the intermission, the performance clocks in at nearly three hours. If you’re viewing an 8 p.m. show, don’t count on being anywhere else until 11 p.m. or later.

In that respect, the producers might have done more to condense the play into a stage-suitable production. The scenes are not extraordinary in number, but they are long, featuring interchanges of rambling and seemingly trivial dialogue between characters. Seven Guitars is considered to be August Wilson’s ultimate artistic catharsis, and the characters’ mundane ruminations, while sometimes tiresome to watch, are important for developing characters and setting a historical time and place. But the shocking moments of the play — isolated spurts of violence — are set so far apart from each other that they lose some of their impact. An abridged version might have made for a more powerful production.

That said, protracted as they were, the actors’ performances were particularly outstanding, surpassing the School of Drama’s already high standard for student performance. The seven actors rose to the demands of incessant, expressive, dialect-heavy and quickly delivered dialogue, rarely appearing to falter.

Perhaps the performance of highest note is that of senior acting major Mitchell Edwards, who plays Floyd Barton. Floyd is an energetic, dreamy, sometimes violent character who grapples with his lot as a poor black musician on the cusp of a possible record deal in Chicago. Edwards seamlessly portrays both Floyd’s uncontainable energy and cheer and his moments of explosive frustration.

His female companion and foil is reserved, skeptical Vera (played by senior acting major Johari Mackey), who finds comfort in menial, domestic tasks and constantly questions her loyalty to the historically unfaithful Floyd. Mackey conveys Vera’s more private nature but also delivers her character’s rare but stunning passionate outbursts in a quavering, but strong voice. Despite the shaky state of their characters’ relationship, the actors have an easy chemistry: Floyd is cheerful and affectionate, while Vera is more likely to brush him aside — impatient but quietly fond — while gardening or cooking.

Other performances are not to be overlooked, however. Each character has his or her moment in the spotlight, although some may be brief. Senior musical theatre major Harron Alexander as railing, distanced, unpredictable Hedley dreams aloud about being a “big man” with a carrying, lilting Creole accent. Senior musical theatre major Veladya Chapman is perfectly hysterical, mothering, and no-nonsense as Louise. And though she makes a late entrance, senior musical theatre major Alexis Floyd playing Louise’s niece Ruby makes her presence known, with her piercing voice, big-booty walk, and surprising emotional complexity. More minor characters Canewell (senior musical theatre major Jean Floradin) and Red Carter (senior musical theatre major Erron Crawford) are similarly dynamic, their portrayals fluid and colorful despite their supporting roles.
It’s important to note that the seven-person cast is entirely non-white. Though the audience isn’t privy to casting decisions or the pool from which actors are selected, it is a notable choice, especially considering that the program ruminates on colorblind casting. The cast works seamlessly together and spares us the suspension of disbelief involved in fitting a white actor into a non-white role.

Another surprising but important quality to all the actors is vocal talent. Vocal music is an integral component to Seven Guitars: The play begins and ends in song, and we hear every character’s voice, however briefly, at one point or another. It’s used as a vehicle for the emotional content of significant scenes. At the play’s beginning, Louise breaks the ice with a jokey, improvised tune. Later, Floyd offers a chilling, thought-stirring solo seated with his suddenly solemn friends. Hedley ends the play with a heartbreaking, voice-cracking repetition of a folk tune.

Seven Guitars is one of the best displays of sheer student skill you’ll see on the School of Drama stage, and it’s thought provoking to boot. Just be sure to bring a snack and a friend to supplement the long first act.