Laurence Brown, Grandison Phelps III, Milena Phillips in Seven Guitars
  • Laurence Brown, Grandison Phelps III, Milena Phillips in Seven Guitars
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Cygnet Theatre’s commendable achievement, staging August Wilson’s Seven Guitars and King Hedley II in repertory, must close this weekend. One of America’s finest playwrights, Wilson makes rare visits to San Diego. In this sense, Cygnet has done him a double service by staging his two most connected plays, and doing them justice.

Seven Guitars

Guitars takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948. Although the country’s begun to settle after World War II, life in the district’s going the other way. Like the Delta bluesman Robert Johnson, land many other black artists from the '20s through the '50s, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton sang on a hit record, “That’s All Right,” but didn’t make “no hit money.”

“I don’t want to live my life without,” he says. “Everybody I know live without.” While Floyd fights for himself, old Hedley prays for help from without; the coming of King Buddy Bolden (legendary New Orleans cornet player), and the rise of black people. The results combine faint glimmers of hope with tragedy.

King Hedley II updates Guitars. Same place, some of the same characters, but now it’s 1985. Sean Fanning’s set has graffiti on the walls, kids have guns, and a sense of menace looms over the Hill District.

“It used to be you got killed over something,” says King, who may be Hedley’s son from Guitars. “Now you get killed over nothing.”

Stool Pidgeon keeps connected to the past with a house stuffed with browning newspapers. King, having completed a seven-year sentence for killing a man in self-defense, looks toward an improved future: his own video store, and proof he can make something grow even from “bad dirt.”

With all their troubles in Guitars, Wilson suggests that the characters have each other, for information, argument, to entertain, and for criticism. In Hedley II, each is isolated, more alone. The invisible barriers feel thicker now, even more codified. In Guitars, Floyd could go after his rights with a practical solution. He could work it out. For King, that door slammed the second he left prison.

King Hedley II

Neither play needs the other. Each stands on its own. But being able to see Hedley II after Guitars combines them into a rich, often deeply moving tapestry, like reading an engrossing novel.

These are only two of Wilson’s ten-play, *American Century Cycle. He wrote one for each decade of the 20th Century, beginning in 1904 with Gem of the Ocean and concluding in 1997 with Radio Golf. Almost 100 years of the black experience in America. Fences (set in 1957) and The Piano Lesson (1937) won Pulitzer Prizes — and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone should have. With the addition of Guitars and King Hedley II, San Diego has seen about half of the cycle. Maybe it’s time for an August Wilson Festival: all ten plays in order. Other communities have already done it with success.

Sure, a festival would be a logistical maze, and the cost deeply prohibitive. But the experience would be priceless.

Playing through Sunday, November 6

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