Theater Review: SEVEN GUITARS (A Noise Within in Pasadena)

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by Lyle Zimskind on October 26, 2021

in Theater-Los Angeles


In emphasizing the “musical lyricism” of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, A Noise Within’s promotional copy for its new production echoes the numerous commentaries devoted to this play. Covering its 1995 Broadway premiere, The New York Times described it as “moving and lyrical,” while Los Angeles Magazine called it a “lyrical tale” when it opened at the Ahmanson in L.A. Three more blurbs cited in the paperback edition similarly note its “lyrical polyphony of voices,” “lyrical passages” and so on.

Desean K. Terry

Plays insistently characterized as “lyrical” usually don’t work their magic on an audience through the intricate turns or driving momentum of a plot. Indeed the first on-stage narrative development in Seven Guitars doesn’t occur until about 20 minutes before the end of its three-hour run time (and even that one is slight enough that the story synopsis offered in the production program doesn’t mention it). Our expectation, rather, has to be that the ensemble of characters we’ve committed to for the evening are embodied with enough charm, pathos and urgency not merely to hold our attention, but to lead us away from the perspectives and concerns distracting us before the lights go down and absorb us into their own.

(Front) Amir Abdullah, Veralyn Jones, and DeJuan Christopher
(Back) Kevin Jackson and Cherish Monique DukeEnsemble

Pulling off that difficult trick (and God help everyone in the room if a performance of Seven Guitars doesn’t pull off that difficult trick) requires many production elements to cohere effectively; above all, the cast better really be on point. Fortunately, director Gregg T. Daniel assembled and inspired seven strong actors who effectively ignite the distinctive sparks of humanity in each of Wilson’s seven disparately motivated characters. (It’s been a common observation that these characters collectively represent the seven guitars of the play’s title.)

Amir Abdullah, Veralyn Jones, DeJuan Christopher, Cherish Monique Duke, and Desean K. Terry Kevin Jackson and Sydney A. Mason

Set entirely in a shared backyard in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a Black neighborhood, in the 1940s, Wilson’s play begins right after a funeral for local blues musician Floyd Barton (Desean K. Terry). Floyd already had one hit record under his belt and was murdered just as he was about to make the follow-up album in Chicago that might have been his big breakthrough to stardom. Before that first scene gets underway, though, Daniel has Terry open the show performing a solo guitar-and-vocal number, evocatively setting the tone and elevating the stakes for everything that follows.

 Desean K. Terry
Amir Abdullah, Veralyn Jones, DeJuan Christopher, Cherish Monique Duke, and Desean K. Terry

Most of Seven Guitars takes place in the days immediately prior to Floyd’s murder, though the proceedings are not really suffused with foreboding of that central event. Our active focus remains, rather, on the milieu of the backyard, where six local residents and one out-of-town visitor converse, and sometimes expound, on the racially charged indignities and injustices they confront out in the larger world, the aspirations that impel them, and the shifting terms of their interconnected relationships. Every one of them is a substantial, perhaps a main, character, and the deep resonance of Wilson’s dialogue allows every one of them to shape the personal, cultural and even historical contexts of their lives in Black mid-twentieth century Pittsburgh. These contexts are nicely delineated, too, by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz’s gently impressionistic backyard setting and Maritri Garrett’s original music composed for this production.

(front) Sydney A. Mason, DeJuan Christopher, (back) Amir Abdullah and Veralyn Jones

Seven Guitars is one of ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, each (with one exception) set in his native Hill District during a different decade of the twentieth century, and the second produced by A Noise Within, following Gem of the Ocean two seasons ago. We may therefore have reason to hope that the greatest works in the series (including Fences, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and The Piano Lesson) are coming our way in the years ahead.

photos by Craig Schwartz

Seven Guitars
A Noise Within, 3352 Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena
Thursdays-Sundays; ends on November 14, 2021
for tickets, call 626.356.3121 or visit A Noise Within

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