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Regional Reviews: Connecticut & the Berkshires

Seven Guitars
Yale Repertory Theatre
Review by Fred Sokol | Season Schedule

Also see Fred's review of Other People's Money


Wayne T. Carr, Stephanie Berry, and Andre De Shields
Photo by Joan Marcus
Yale Repertory Theatre is magnificently staging a relatively lesser-known August Wilson work, Seven Guitars, through exemplary actor performances and, as ever, remarkably authentic scripting. Running through December 17th, the three hour production brings us to a house and adjoining backyard in the Hill District of Pittsburgh; it is 1948.

A group has gathered just after funeral proceedings for guitarist/musician Floyd Barton (Billy Eugene Jones). The rest of the play is told via flashback. We learn that Floyd has returned from Chicago and desires to once again couple with Vera (Rachel Leslie). She is fittingly wary since he was recently involved with another woman. He has hopes, again, to return to Chicago. Vera, despite her caution, probably realizes that she is destined to, once again, get together with Floyd.

Louise (Stephanie Berry) has come to the conclusion that no man should be trusted. A neighbor of Vera's, Louise is perceptive and someone who takes note of her community which, she feels, might very well disappear. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is a man who plays harmonica and is both admiring and, at once, envious of Floyd Barton. Canewell, too, has wishes that Vera will prefer him (instead of Floyd) and he gives her a plant which, Canewell says, has positive value as medicine.

Hedley (Andre De Shields) is a prophet/philosopher who is also beset with tuberculosis. Every so often, he carries a knife and, as a butcher, kills a chicken. He puts together chicken sandwiches to sell. Hedley also possesses a sense, as a black man, of history and of the ravages his race has suffered. Sometimes, he is person who is knowledgeable and, at other times, he seems dazed and deranged. His walk is revelatory. When newcomer Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) appears, it is Hedley who hopes she will provide him with a child. Ruby, from the South, is Louise's niece.

Rounding out the cast is Danny Johnson as Red, a man who tells stories—about women he's been with, about guns and knives, and so on. He is also a drummer, able to create a beat even upon a wooden bench.

Many quintessential scenes highlight Seven Guitars. When everyone gathers around Floyd to partake in music, the stage (oftentimes dimly lit by Carolina Ortiz-Herrera) takes on a brighter light and tone. At another moment, individuals gather near the radio as Joe Louis knocks out a fighter—and the ensemble, collectively and individually, rejoice.

No writer is better when embodying and pinpointing time and place: here, Wilson displays his genius. To someone on the outside, his plays afford the opportunity to eavesdrop on a culture and a specific epoch. His dialogue serves to bridge reality with myth, through colloquial conversation, storytelling and folklore. Wilson's scenes might be congenial or filled with conflict and serious trouble.

Seven Guitars also benefits from Timothy Douglas's direction, as he is able to channel Wilson. Douglas and designer Fufan Zhang open up the large stage. The backyard (slanting downward toward the audience) is nearly absent of vegetation—but it is vast.

Actor Billy Eugene Jones provides a confident, brash Floyd Barton, who thinks his luck and fortune are on the upswing; at least, that is what he says. He is the fulcrum for the play. The women in the show are distinctively drawn by all three actresses: Leslie as Vera, Berry as Louise, and Crowe-Legacy as alluring Ruby.

At times, Andre De Shields (featured many times on Broadway) takes the center stage spotlight. He is a man who cannot be typed, since Hedley is impaired. Whether this is all physical or, in part, psychological is up for debate. As the performance nears a conclusion, Hedley, a desperate but insightful person, is dominated by his temperament. Is he or is he not losing his mind? De Shields' ability to control this character marks his performance as a distinctive one.

August Wilson's Seven Guitars is sometimes fierce and furious but, upon a number of occasions, more comic. It was Wilson's gift to listen and represent. His characters speak for themselves and, too, for a visionary author. It was Wilson who imbued them with pictorial words and phrases—moments which live on.

Seven Guitars continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut, through December 17th, 2016. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.


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