SEVEN GUITARS a dynamite staging at Marin Theatre Company

Tobie Windham (Floyd), Omoze Idehenre (Vera), Margo Hall (Louise), Marc Damon Johnson (Canewell), L. Peter Callender (Red Carter) and Shinelle Azoroh (Ruby) in August Wilson's Seven Guitars at Marin Theatre Company through September 4. Photo by Kevin Berne

SEVEN GUITARS: Drama by August Wilson, directed by Kent Gash. Marin Theatre Company (MTC), 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA 94941. 415.388.5200 or August 11- September 4, 20ll.

SEVEN GUITARS a dynamite staging at Marin Theatre Company

Extended through September 11, 2011

August Wilson is a giant in the theatrical world and his legacy will live on for years. His magnum opus The Pittsburgh Cycle often called The Century Cycle is a 10 play compendium, parts of which were awarded two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. The plays are set in each decade beginning in 1900 and ending in 1990s depicting the trials and tribulations of the African-American experience in the twentieth century. Seven Guitars began its production career in Chicago, traveled Boston then San Francisco (A.C.T) before moving to Broadway earning a Drama Critic Award for best 1996 play and nominations for the Pulitzer and Tony Awards.

Seven Guitars dramatizes the 50s experience, specifically the summer of 1948 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wilson’s writing is a combination of realism, spirituality, mysticism and poetry often imbuing his personages with specific individual traits when added together give a complete picture of the era. The protagonist in this play is the up and coming guitarist Floyd Barton (Tobie Windham) who returns to the Hill District after spending 90 days in the work house jail being unjustly arrested while walking away from his mother’s funeral.

The title refers to seven characters created by Wilson and the play opens with a somber wake where six of them bemoan and praise the dead seventh Floyd, trying to understand the surrealistic happenings at the burial site. Director Kent Gash sets up following scenes with spotlight blackouts to keep the action fluid. The story evolves in the memory of the mourners with all of the action unfolding in the backyard of a tenement house run by Louise (Margo Hall) where Vera (Omoze Idehenre) Floyd’s former girl friend lives. Also living there is King Hedlely (Charles Branklyn) a visionary spiritualist who author Wilson uses to presage the cataclysmic future when he violently beheads the rooster that is symbolic of the crowing protagonist, Floyd.

The story is told in flashbacks. Blues singer Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton recorded a song a year ago and it is now a hit on the radio. The record label executive has sent a letter asking him to return Chicago for a new recording. He has blown his flat fee money, deserted Vera for another woman who has split from him and his guitar is in hock. Floyd tries to convince Vera he loves only her and wants her to go to Chicago with him. He also has to convince his side men Canewell (Marc Damon Johnson) the harmonica player and Red Carter (L. Peter Callender) the drummer to join him to cut another record. Floyd’s reformed psyche is ready for the big change but the means of attaining his goals are flawed leading to drastic consequences. Blues music is interspersed between the semi-monologs with reference to the then popular “Muddy” Waters whom Floyd hopes to emulate and surpass.

The evening had special significance for me knowing that my seatmate was excessively depressed remembering the injustice and treatment of Blacks that took place as he was growing up the South during the 20s and 30s. The Southern blacks moved to the Northern cities seeking work and freedom from oppression at the hands of the whites, but discovered that racism and man’s inhumanity to man was not limited to the South. In 1948, the time of this play, the Black population who made the trek North encounter the same animosity from which they fled. This struggle for social and economic equality is a recurring theme in most of Wilson’s plays and hopefully it will help educate the present generation to more tolerant attitudes.

The strength of Seven Guitars is in the superb pitch-perfect acting of the ensemble with each having his turn in the spotlight. All are local actors with impressive resumes. Relative newcomer Shinelle Azoroh nails her small role as Ruby the stunning visiting niece who attracts all the men. Margo Hall’s mere presence on the stage receives audience appreciation as her role of Louise carries most of the humor. L. Peter Callender delivers his usual powerful performance displaying a touch of jocularity. Omoze Idehenre’s Vera radiates the deep hurt inflicted by the unfaithful Floyd. Marc Damon Johnson has the most difficult role as the unassuming Canewell who is not assigned any dramatic lines. He is also a fine harmonica player. Charles Branklyn has who played in nine of the Century Cycle plays and conveys the fierce religious/mystical believer Hedley with authority but some of his speeches are unintelligible. Seven Guitars is Tobie Windham’s time to shine. He radiates the self confidence of Floyd, is believable as he sweet talks Vera and glows when he fantasizes about his prospects for the future.

J. B. Wilson’s inventive set of the drab back yard closed in by bricks and a wooden fence is the touch of reality while the colorful panels surrounding the stage have a mystical quality. He anchors the location with a stylized backdrop of the Hill District.

Marin Theatre Company has again come up with a winner in the total production but is slightly undermined by Wilson’s overlong (about three hours) construction that is often redundant.

Kedar K. Adour, MD

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