The backyard of a house with its faded walls, crooked fence, meager flower bed, and beat up lawn furniture set the tone for the story that takes place inside this Pittsburgh home. It resonates with the dreams, mistakes and love of many lives.
One of these lives is Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the central character of “Seven Guitars” (the opening production of Temple Theater’s 2001-2002 season). Written by August Wilson, the play is the award winning sixth installment in the playwright’s chronicle of the African-American experience in the 20th century.
The scene opens after Floyd’s funeral. The story of his last days unfolds in a flashback that makes up the bulk of the play. He has recently been released from jail after serving a 90-day sentence for “laziness.” He has a hit record and is being offered another record deal in Chicago. He wants his old girlfriend Vera to go to Chicago with him, but she has reservations because Floyd ran off with another woman a year before. He also has to convince Canewell and Red Carter, his band mates, to come make the new record. They have their own doubts because of their bad experience with the last record.
The play is a powerful story that deals with racism, poverty and relationships. The characters portrayed seem real; there is no stereotyping in “Seven Guitars.” It is a good story, supported by excellent stage direction, a convincing set, and a strong cast. It is not a musical, but there are several songs in the show. These did not seem out of place; in fact they added an element of passion that kept the audience’s attention in the almost three hour performance.
As Floyd, Bryan Clark exhibits an energy conveying the optimism and ambition of his character. Both Nikiya Mathis, who plays Vera, and Lawrence Stallings, who plays Canewell, make passionate performances that show the disappointments of African-Americans in a post-war world that seemed only to benefit the white middle and upper classes. Lindsay Smiling plays Hedley, an eccentric and perhaps insane old man. His performance was the most powerful, as bits and pieces come to life in his tortured ravings. Christine Williams plays the landlady Louise, whose character is cynical about men in general and Floyd in particular. As Red Carter, Jamyl Dobson is a cocky man with a wife, child, and some girls on the side. Amina Robinson is the sexy Ruby, and Hedley’s unlikely love interest.
Overall, “Seven Guitars” runs a bit long, but the cast carries it along so it does not become boring. The play’s set was realistic and the lighting helped convey the roller coaster of emotion that flows through the show. The story’s close did not tie up all the loose ends, yet you left without dissatisfaction.
“Seven Guitars” runs through Oct. 13 at Temple’s Randall Theater in Annenberg Hall.