The Court Theatre has again chosen a production suitable to its environment. “Seven Guitars,” by August Wilson, is set in 1948 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (where all but one of Wilson’s ten Pittsburgh Cycle plays are set—the exception being “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is set directly in Chicago). The action takes place during the second northward Great Migration of blacks, but it is pointedly hugging the promise of Chicago in the forefront of the story.
“Seven Guitars” first opened in 1995 at the Goodman Theatre as Wilson was literally finishing the lines but on the night I attended this production, today’s Court Theatre audience—within walking distance of the first black President’s house, witnessing the current rebuilding south of the Midway and the integrated neighborhoods of Hyde Park—was tapping their feet to the beat, chuckling to themselves repeatedly about the nuance of the inner black familial, and shaking their heads to the straight-talking inner-workings of growing up a southern transplant, as a poor black who “gets it both ways.” Wilson gets the language right.
Directed by Ron OJ Parson during his current series of Wilson revivals at the Court, this three-hour production moves along comfortably yet energetically, with a sensitive cast working the beat-up, eye-candy-laden set by Regina Garcia. This hybrid blues piece is about guitar picking, frenetic dancing, a rap-off (of sorts), shit-talking, sex, jealousy and the desperate attempts to uncover what it means to be poor and black in an urban 1948 neighborhood. And while Wilson certainly penned a quality script, the cast makes the story work on so many levels. They are, in a word, wonderful.
The central character, Floyd Barton (played by a musical Kelvin Roston Jr.), is recently out of jail on a trumped-up charge; he has a temper. During his time away, a recording he and his fellow bluesmen Canewell (Jerod Haynes) and Red (a delightfully round Ronald L. Conner) made in Chicago is unearthed for the radio. Essentially, Floyd goes into prison a broke, womanizing, talented black man and comes out a FAMOUS, broke, womanizing, talented black man. With Chicago and fame and money hanging over these characters, Floyd attempts to convince his band to go back to Chi-town to make another record, to convince his girl Vera (played by an understated Ebony Wimbs) of his reformed ways and trade in his acoustic for the razzle-dazzle of the electric guitar.
All are in tune with the potential of Chicago. However, during one delightful exchange, Canewell has a come-to-Jesus moment and resists the call back to the Windy City by referring to their last $19 trip to Chicago that landed him in Cook County Jail (a beat that struck the right tempo with the audience). But the real story is what takes place in between. When the characters aren’t talking about fame and money, they start battling with rhymes that they have known since childhood. These characters speak knowingly about where poor people are buried when they die. They chase the same women. There is a tone that comes naturally: it just is. Sometimes this breaks into violence, but mostly it’s the heart of the story. And, true to form, these personalities come alive when the outside creeps in.
The supporting characters round out this group nicely: the chicken-killing Haitian neighbor King Hedley (Allen Gilmore), Louise the landlady and older voice of wisdom (played by Tony nominee Felicia Fields) who adds her soulful voice and voluptuous rump to the mix (Fields’ grinding easily puts Miley Cyrus to shame) and Louise’s sexpot niece Ruby (played by the alluring Erynn Mackenzie) who is running from guy trouble and the South in general.
Wilson plucked the hell out of the chords for “Seven Guitars” and this cast delivers the goods on this very American story. (Mark Roelof Eleveld)
At Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis, (773)753-4472, courttheatre.org, $45 -$65. Through February 16.