The title of August Wilson’s 1995 drama Seven Guitars represents the seven characters in this Tony, Pulitzer and Drama Desk Award nominated play. Each strums a different life tune – resonating in different keys and telling unique stories through the lyric and melody in Wilson’s sonorous text. When all seven play as a well-orchestrated ensemble, as they do in Jubilee Theatre’s fluid production running through February 28, they make stage magic of the richest, most entertaining kind.
Jubilee Theatre’s newly-appointed Artistic Director William (Bill) Earl Ray has assembled a strong cast of regional talent to bring this poignant, challenging play to life, allowing them to explore individual nuances, moments of humor or self-awareness with fluent honesty. Ray’s ensemble works together like a well—oiled machine, gliding effortlessly through fast-paced repartee then gracing the majesty of Wilson’s poetic passages and soliloquies with legato dignity. Ray’s production emphasizes the beauty of the language and the delicate, mutability of human relationships as revealed through the play’s themes of community and black experience in late 1940’s Pittsburgh PA.
Leading the show as its devoted but conflicted lovers Floyd and Vera, Christopher Dontrell Piper and Ayoka Dorsey Lawson create a relationship that has managed to weather rough patches with genuine devotion intact. Not always faithful to Vera, volatile guitar player and fast-talking Floyd returns from prison with hopes of collecting his lady and heading to Chicago for big-time success. But life and its challenges get in his way. Piper reels off Floyd’s vivid, driving dialogue and poetic outbursts with clarity and rich intonation like the professional he is, always the catalyst for action, fueled by his character’s talent and ambition, tempered by his love for Vera. Lawson’s Vera exhibits deliberate reserve at first, due to Floyd’s history of infidelity; yet she can’t help getting swept along to rejoin his odyssey. Floyd dreams big and breaks rules impatiently. Vera adores him in spite of it. It’s not a new type of relationship on stage or in life. Wilson’s play makes it feel fresh and exciting, as directed by Bill Ray with Piper and Lawson in the lead roles.
The rest of the play’s characters, the five remaining “guitars” strummed by Wilson’s melodic script, get comprehensive portrayal by a superior regional cast. Stormi Demerson never misses a poignant or comedic turn of phrase as the older and wiser Louise, who sees through Floyd’s schemes and supports Vera through thick and thin. The eternal survivor. Marcus M. Mauldin brings palpably joyous charisma to his Red Carter, lighting up the stage with bright energy at every entrance and verbal turn. Amir Ali shows his tamer but tender affection for Vera with a human sincerity in contrast to Floyd’s overbearing machismo. As the troubled teen Ruby, Whitney Coulter delivers a promise for a better tomorrow with edgy verve. All of Wilson’s characters veer between realism and fantasy icon, yet the most complicated and blended, Hedley, feels more like a distorted Django Reinhardt guitar solo riff than a human being sometimes, expressing the rage of the downtrodden black man, murdering livestock and causing the play’s tragic downturn while loving the future in Ruby. Bill Ray cast confident, quiet Alonzo Waller in this challenging role and allowed him the freedom to be violent while preaching salvation, savage while believable cradling the young girl passionately in his arms. The protagonist for the play’s situation and its tragic hero may be Floyd, ably enacted by Christopher Dontrell Piper; but the thematic hero of the work is Hedley, strumming a fantastical tune between lyrical aspiration and grunge fatalism. Hail the master, August Wilson, and Jubilee Theatre for honoring this work so beautifully.
Costumes, sound, light and sets reinforce the blend of fantasy and realism with sophistication and elegance. Artistic Director Bill Ray’s production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars leads Jubilee Theatre into a glorious celebration of art and life in 2016 that would surely make playwright August Wilson proud.
Seven Guitars runs through February 28. Tickets: $24-$28
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