Every year it seems to happen this way: Penumbra Theatre lurches uncertainly through its season, mixing the occasional hit with the just-as-frequent stinker, never certain if the gods of artistic fortune are going to smile on them or not. Then, along comes August Wilson, and everything falls into place. The gods of artistic fortune don't just smile when Penumbra produces Wilson, they beam from ear to ear as they reach down from the heavens, grab hold of the Penumbra stage and lift it skyward.
It happens every year without fail, and this season is no exception. Seven Guitars is Wilson's seventh and latest play in a projected series of 10 works exploring each decade of the 20th century. Set in the 1940s in the courtyard of a Pittsburgh tenement, this episode intertwines the lives of six characters in the days leading up to the murder of their friend Floyd Barton, an up-and-coming blues musician.
As with most of Wilson's plays, Seven Guitars is mostly talk: A bunch of folks sit on benches and around a table shooting the breeze, the men discussing how to get ahead in a white man's world, the women gossiping about the unreliability of men (especially Floyd), and everyone just biding time until someone does something interesting--or happens to get killed.
Yet the dialogue is rich with history. The characters exultantly cheer along with a Joe Louis fight on the radio, and reflect back on the days of Marcus Garvey. Some of the characters live in Pittsburgh as a result of the great migration from the South into the industrial North. Yet this city is at once sleepy and hard; the characters float between trumped-up vagrancy arrests and months in the workhouse to idle afternoons hanging out in the alley. One of Wilson's paramount achievements is to capture a bone-deep anger and resentment borne in a thousand slights and wrongs, while also depicting the tender good humor among friends. When August Wilson says his writing is influenced by the blues, this balancing of opposites is what he means; the humor grows out of the pain, just as the music is both an expression of, and cure for, the blues.
And indeed, sometimes the topics of conversation are seemingly pointless, even cheerfully so. On the surface, one discussion about the relative merits of guns and knives is as inane (and funny) as anything on Seinfeld. There's one crucial distinction, though: The roots of every seemingly pointless discussion in Seven Guitars extend deep into the tragic heart of the play.
It's a tragedy rooted in the African experience in this country, and the catalyst for this in Seven Guitars is a character named Hedley (played by James Williams). At the beginning of the play, Hedley is a peripheral character, a tubercular old street vendor who prattles on in a mellifluous West Indian patois. Gradually, however, Hedley moves from the background into the foreground as the embodiment of the African, a man with a warrior's soul--and an American dream of wealth--who is tortured by centuries of indignity and oppression. In one of the play's climactic scenes, Williams digs so deeply into Hedley's spiritual rage that you almost feel like the character is going to combust spontaneously on the spot. And in a way, he does.
Brilliant as Wilson's writing is, however, full credit for bringing Seven Guitars to life must go to director Lou Bellamy and his stellar cast. As Floyd Barton, David Alan Anderson walks a delicate line between depicting his character as cocky and likable, and also desperate, selfish, and mean. Laurie Carlos turns the relatively small part of Louise, Hedley's across-the-hall neighbor, into a hilarious tour de force; her voice flutters and wends as she imparts her own version of common sense. And the rest of the cast--James Craven, Russel Andrews, Marvette Knight and Austene Van Williams-Clark--works together as a seamless ensemble to create one of most memorable August Wilson plays Penumbra has ever staged. Only one sour note: Actors who can't play guitars--or harmonicas, for that matter--shouldn't try to fake it onstage, especially if their characters are supposed to be skilled musicians. This never works and never will.
Yet, this peccadillo aside, Penumbra has produced a virtually flawless and at times transcendent production of Wilson's work. Each character is developed and articulated with stunning clarity, and depth; watching Seven Guitars is like staring into a gorgeous well of human experience.
Seven Guitars continues at Penumbra Theatre through July 5; call 224-3180.