Praise Cygnet Theatre! Without this company’s ongoing efforts, San Diego might not have seen August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, The Piano Lesson, Fences and, currently in repertory, Seven Guitars and King Hedley II. That’s five of Wilson’s monumental 10-play chronicle of the black experience in America.
He set Seven Guitars in Pittsburgh, in 1948. As things settle down after the war, things unsettle in the Hill District. Something’s closing in: new laws, licenses, slippery rules. Choices narrow. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton saw his seven choices cut down to one.
The play has seven characters, but begins with only six. They just buried Floyd. The gifted black singer had a hit record, “That’s All Right.” But, says Canewell, his harmonica player, “he ain’t got no hit money.”
As they try to make sense of Floyd’s sudden rise and equally sudden fall, Red Carter, the drummer, says, “I believe every man knows something, but most times they don’t pay attention to it.” Typical of the group, they agree with or dispute the remark. Then Louise, a beautician, says, “Whether he did or not, ain’t done him no good.”
It always amazes me how August Wilson can use only a back yard or living room in Pittsburgh, and maybe six or seven characters, and say so much about a period, different religious beliefs, the black experience, oppression, and “the pain of living.” His characters are people, not walking symbols or convenient types, yet together they interweave the highs, lows, and felt texture of the times.
Each is a microclimate. Hedley (Antonio “TJ” Johnson) performs rituals for the coming of King Buddy Bolden, legendary jazz trumpeter, and the ascent of the black race. For him and his “seven generations,” salvation will come from without. For Floyd (electric Ro Boddie), it’s in his hands, but he must fight systems within systems to reach it.
“I don’t want to live my life without,” he says. “Everybody I know live without.”
The others jostle between these extremes. They share, dance, dispute, plan, and rail. Some topics are inescapable: injustice; fate versus free will; the use or abuse of the past; police brutality (“How come the police is the only one who always shoot straight? Everybody else miss”) and death, most of all. The play begins and ends with a funeral, and death is almost the eighth character on stage.
Producing Seven Guitars and King Hedley II in repertory is Herculean. Viper-fast dialogue and long, deep monologues abound. Memorization must be insane. Guitar’s opening night lacked polish in spots, especially timing and enunciation. No matter. Director Jennifer L. Nelson and a committed cast turned Sean Fanning’s excellent set — two buildings; one brownish red brick, the other dusty clapboard, dirt yard, tiny garden — into the site for the hopes, fears, and truths of seven people who, as Wilson says, “struggle to remain whole in the face of so many things that threaten to pull them asunder.”
4040 Twiggs Street, Old Town
Playing in repertory with Wilson’s King Hedley II through November 6.