Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Phoenix

Seven Guitars
Black Theatre Troupe
Review by Gil Benbrook | Season Schedule

Also see Gil's reviews of The Savannah Sipping Society, Something Rotten!, Hairspray, and Ragtime


Alexis Green, and Rapheal Hamilton
Photo by Laura Durant
The possibility of fame and fortune for a talented, impulsive young man and the impact his poor judgement has on a group of African-American residents in 1940s Pittsburgh is the driving theme of Seven Guitars, one of August Wilson's ten Century Cycle plays. While this play may not have as impactful a payoff as some of Wilson's other dramas, Black Theatre Troupe's production, with one of the best ensemble casts I've seen in the Valley, proves especially vibrant.

With each play set in a different decade, the ten plays in Wilson's cycle depict the impact of changes in culture and social status for African Americans throughout the 20th century. All but one of the plays takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and all offer richly developed, three-dimensional characters as well as distinct and detailed events of these individuals' everyday lives. While the ten plays don't follow the same family over the century, some do include references to characters and events in the other plays, which helps to connect the plays together. They also remind us that, while there were often opportunities and the possibility of progress, the continued threat of racism and the abuse, discrimination and difficulties that these poor, and often broken, individuals faced often made them doubt and distrust any potential positive opportunities that came their way. With this Seven Guitars, Black Theatre Troupe has produced all ten plays in Wilson's cycle.

Seven Guitars is bookmarked by scenes set right after the funeral of one of the characters. The story follows singer Floyd Barton who has just returned to his girlfriend Vera's Hill District apartment after being incarcerated for 90 days. The song he recorded before he was sent to the workhouse has become a big hit on the radio and Floyd has been asked by the record company to return to Chicago to record some follow-up songs. Floyd attempts to get his guitar out of hock and convince his friends and fellow musicians Canewell and Red Carter, as well as Vera, to go to Chicago with him. With the skeptical Louise, who lives in the apartment above Vera, the eccentric, mad and loony older resident Hedley always around, and the arrival of Louise's flirty niece Ruby, Wilson has written a rich play with in-depth characters and an intriguing plot.

Under David Hemphill's insightful direction, there isn't a single weak link in this cast, with each individual delivering believable and compelling performances full of conviction. As Floyd, Rapheal Hamilton skillfully captures the determination and drive of this talented man whose impulsiveness and bad judgement are as strong as his good intentions. The women in the play have all been hurt by men and as the quiet, soft-spoken, smart and long-suffering Vera, Alexis Green is expertly adept in conveying both the lasting effect of the pain Floyd caused her in the past and the hope she has that this man she loves actually loves her in return.

Mike Traylor is superb as Hedley, the older sickly man who can be childlike in his innocent ramblings yet can quickly turn ferocious, powerful, and downright menacing. Ríco Burton is full of warmth as the sweet, all-knowing, sensible and practical Louise. Calvin J. Worthen and Cornelius Johnson, as Floyd's friends Canewell and Red Carter, respectively, and Dzifa Kwawu as Louise's niece Ruby round out the cast with all three delivering heartfelt, serious and rich performances.

Hemphill's thoughtful staging brings many of the important moments close to the audience, which provides an intimacy to the proceedings. He also makes sure the entire cast achieve the rhythm that Wilson so beautifully evokes in his dialogue. Thom Gilseth's two-story tenement building set, which appears slightly run down with chicken feathers scattered on the ground and a hodgepodge of chairs on the lawn, perfectly evokes the time and place of the play. Lighting designer Joseph Carter paints the stage in a beautiful array of colors to adeptly portray the various times of day in the play. Carol Simmons' costumes are stylish, sharp and period perfect.

Seven Guitars is a play about forgiveness, second chances, and what can go wrong when the drive for success outweighs common sense. With a cast who deliver constant and rich portrayals and precise direction, Black Theatre Troupe's production resonates with a dramatic richness.

The Black Theatre Troupe production of Seven Guitars runs through November 12th, 2017, at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street in downtown Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be ordered at www.blacktheatretroupe.org or by calling 602-258-8129.

Written by August Wilson
Directed by David J. Hemphill
Scenic Design: Thom Gilseth
Lighting Design: Joseph Carter
Costume, Hair & Make-Up Design: Carol Simmons
Sound Design: Kareem Deans and Derek Stevenson
Properties: Adam Daley and Kate Slovinski

Cast:
Louise: Ríco Burton
Vera: Alexis Green
Floyd: Rapheal Hamilton
Red Carter: Cornelius Johnson
Ruby: Dzifa Kwawu
Hedley: Mike Traylor
Canewell: Calvin J. Worthen


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