Black Theatre Troupe’s Seven Guitars Is Superb

David Hemphill created a shiny new take on this play.
David Hemphill created a shiny new take on this play. Laura Durant

Impeccable casting is the jewel in the crown of Black Theatre Troupe’s superb Seven Guitars. Unfettered by fidelity to previous productions, director David Hemphill has created a shiny new take on this August Wilson play, the second show in BTT’s new season.

Seven Guitars is the 1940s entry in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a decade-by-decade anthology of 20th-century African-American life in Pennsylvania. At the center of this one is Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, just home from 90 days in the detention workhouse. While he was incarcerated, the single he recorded for a Chicago-based label has become a hit, and he’s headed back to the Windy City to record some more sides. He wants his former girlfriend Vera and his two friends and musical sidemen to join him.

Before they can leave, and because this is an August Wilson play, they must first bicker, gossip, and reconstruct the plight of the black man in 20th-century America. The result, again because this is an August Wilson play, is a layered and handsome social portrait, studded with music, religious debate, talk of superstition, and a recipe for collard greens.

Hemphill, the company’s longtime artistic director, is at the top of his game. He’s burnished a simple story built around complex staging with brisk pacing that fuses many criss-crossing scenes. Hemphill sets a tone that allows his cast to deliver subtle performances of unsubtle characters — namely Dzifa Kwawu’s oversexed tart, Ruby; Calvin J. Worthen’s slick-talking Canewell; and Cornelius Johnson’s Central Casting heavy, Red.

There is no single best performance here, although I was riveted by Alexis Green’s anxious and unusually serene Vera. Rapheal Hamilton offers a masterpiece of rationalizing, conniving, and braggadocio as Floyd, and Rico Burton ignites her role as the matriarch of Wilson Street with restraint. In the flashy role of mind-bent King Hedley, Mike Traylor avoids imitation and scenery chewing, finding his own interpretation of a flamboyant character.

As ever, Thom Gilseth’s set is basic yet quite personal, and his rundown tenement courtyard complements the action without competing with it. Kareem Deanes and Derek Stevenson have created a subtle sound design that provides texture and tension with a backdrop of barking dogs, crowing roosters, and big city sounds. Joseph Carter’s lighting design — or at least its execution — is the single flaw in an otherwise sterling production. On the night I was there, badly timed cues left actors emoting in darkness or in sudden bursts of sunshine halfway through a monologue. But the people in this lushly acted and sharp-eyed production triumphed, unharmed by the occasional shadow.

Seven Guitars continues through November 12 at the Helen K. Mason Performing Arts Center, 1333 East Washington Street. Call 602-258-8129 or visit
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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela