DramaWatch: August Wilson’s rhythms in ‘Seven Guitars’

PassinArt dives into the musicality of the great American playwright. Also: Black & blue, Borges & Neruda, Bill Wadhams' musical memoir, Red Door's "Evolve."

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Taylore Mahogany Scott (Vera), Jerry Foster (Red Carter), William Earl Ray (Hedley), Telvin Griffin (Floyd), Shoushane Ray (Louise), and James Dixon (Canewell) in PassinArt’s “Seven Guitars.” Photo: Owen Carey

Upon seeing the August Wilson play Seven Guitars, a literalist might notice that during the course of the show only two guitars appear. There’s a trusty old acoustic model that the story’s protagonist, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton,” totes around, and, near the end, a flashy red electric solid-body, “just like the one Muddy Waters has,” that Floyd believes will carry him to the land of plenty. Where are the other five?

Not every instrument has strings, though. This installment in Wilson’s grand “Century Cycle” chronicling African-American life is set in late-1940s Pittsburgh, amid post-war mobility and aspiration for Black folk. And in Wilson’s characteristically discursive, fat-chewing style, all seven of the play’s characters have to get their licks in – minor chords, strutting vamps, solo flights and all. 

So, seven different folks, seven different ways to play the blues. Seven guitars.

Music, after all, is an essential part of the late playwright’s work, both a prime inspiration for his great cultural project and a key to its working method. There’s room for stars to shine, but the whole band needs to have it together, ready to move and breathe and bob and weave – or even clash and cut – as the moment demands.

The production of Seven Guitars being mounted by PassinArt at the Brunish Theater sounded – at least in its final preview performance on Thursday night – like a band still finding its groove. It’s a long play (clocking in at about 2 hours and 45 minutes on this night), which becomes a reminder of the importance in Wilson’s work of such musical qualities as rhythm and pacing, tone and voicings, all of which bear, at some point, upon ensemble cohesion.

Such relations of timing and interaction, intent and emphasis, are part of any ensemble acting, but they play a particularly crucial role amid Wilson’s loose-limbed yet thematically dense conversations. Getting such a play moving in the optimal way requires attention to what I began thinking of, midway through this performance, as the velocity of character.

August Wilson, the greatAmerican playwright, who died at age 60 in 2005 in his adopted city of Seattle. Photographer not known.

The characters in Seven Guitars are a good bunch to hang out with for awhile. There’s Floyd (Telvin Griffin), a bluesman buoyed by the belated attention to a record he cut the previous year on a trip to Chicago and eager to push his chips in on a Windy City return. His friends and bandmates Red (Jerry Foster) and Canewell (James Dixon) are ambivalent about the move, and so is his once-bitten twice-shy sweetheart Vera (Taylore Mahogany Scott). Hedley (William Earl Ray, who also directs the show) peddles eggs and sandwiches from the chickens he butchers in the communal yard, even as he spouts arcane prophecies about becoming a “big man.” Vera’s neighbor Louise (Josie Seid for most of the run, but played by understudy Kirsten “Shoushone” Ray this weekend) is a steady force in their little community, while her younger relative Ruby shows up midway through with a dash of destabilizing sexual energy. The essential plotline is simple: Will Floyd get back to Chicago and turbocharge his dreams of success? Will Vera give in to his entreaties enough to trust him again and make the move, too? The richness is in the wealth of cultural detail and social commentary that pours out as these folk talk and go about their lives.

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Portland Playhouse Passing Strange Portland Oregon

That talk is most compelling  when Griffin and Scott are at the heart of it. Both convey the ease and forcefulness of real people fairly boiling over with wants and fears and frustrations. Regardless of what view we take about their relationship prospects, they quickly become characters we understand and care about. And whether with each other or in scenes with other actors, Griffin and Scott give everyone something tangible to work with, whether to play smoothly alongside or to push against.

The problems of rhythm and tone arose on this night, it seemed to me, mostly from a comparatively low-velocity performance from Dixon. His line readings struck me initially as colorless, flat, sounding more like recitations than thoughts and feelings. Eventually I began to entertain the idea that perhaps Dixon merely was working with a novel interpretation: that Canewell, who serves primarily as the protagonist’s buddy and conversational foil, is a sort of 1940s nerd, thus explaining his milquetoast awkwardness. But in either case, the rhythm and vigor of scenes frequently went slack whenever he spoke.

William Earl Ray as Hedley and Tyharra Cozier as Ruby. Photo: Owen Carey

A bit more puzzling was Ray’s depiction of Hedley, who eventually becomes the source of the kind of revelatory or dramatic outside dynamic that moves most Wilson plays to their denouement. The script hints at Caribbean origins for Hedley, and his references to Toussaint L’Overture and Marcus Garvey surely suggest aspects of a slave history distinct from that in the Southern U.S. But Ray gives Hedley no readily discernible accent, and not until the very end of Act I do we get any sense (beyond that he wears overalls, not a pleated slacks and a sports jacket) that he’s an outsider within his own community — or, more crucially, of the delusional part of his character that brings the story’s chickens home to roost.  

Still, there’s much to revel in here – Wilson’s rich yet casual language being one of the great pleasures of American theater. And the return of Seid, who tends to have that velocity of character thing down pat, should help kick the ensemble interplay up a notch. Don’t be surprised if this production is soon — like Floyd with his shiny Fender — ready to plug in and let ‘er rip.

Opening

“I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t.” Photo: Shawnte Sims

The late Bill Royston, founder of the Portland Jazz Festival, once told a story about the great singer Dianne Reeves. Royston had presented Reeves in concert a handful of times, and his then-young daughter had become an avid fan. So, on the star’s next visit, Royston decided to introduce the girl, who bounded into Reeves’ dressing room and proclaimed, “When I grow up, I wanna be you!” At which the regal singer simply smiled slightly and replied, “Good choice.” 

And it was. Reeves also is deserving of the stature accorded her by poet/playwright Sonia Sanchez, who puts her among the icons of black culture represented in the play I’m Black When I’m Singing, I’m Blue When I Ain’t, along with such fabled predecessors as Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, and Nina Simone.

The history those women have embodied, of course, isn’t all smoky nightclubs and jukebox hits. Perhaps to frame some of its traumatic truths, Sanchez’ play voices these figures through a character who is institutionalized with a multiple personality disorder. But don’t go to Third Rail Rep’s production for something bleak. As one earlier reviewer of the play put it, “Sanchez shows the political and personal avenues from the past to a hopeful present.” And the return of Portland favorite Ithica Tell in the play’s central role is a hopeful sign here indeed. 

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Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

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“Records From Babel,” inspired by the writings of Jorge Luis Borges. Photo courtesy Our Shoes Are Red/the Performance Lab.

A confession: Your faithful DramaWatcher (despite his penchant for amusing himself with occasional third-person self-reference) is not so literate after all, and has never read from the works of Jorge Luis Borges. He imagines, though, that it’s a little like reading the script for Records From Babel, a new show from Our Shoes Are Red/the Performance Lab:  a bit puzzling at first, disorienting even, then intriguing and, in the end, quite rewarding.

“Developed by Matt DiBiasio in collaboration with Andrew Shaughnessy and the Company,” as the theater’s website credits it, the show appears to stitch together narrative pieces from various stories by the 20th-century Argentine author as part of a clever conceit that reflects Borges’ own taste for multiplicity and nonlinearity; for tales that branch and wind and twine.

Di Biasio, who has anchored marvelous productions from this company (Will Eno’s Thom Pain, Conor McPherson’s This Lime Tree Bower, etc.) and Imago (Yukio Mishima’s The Black Lizard), performs the piece along with Ben Roberts, Pat Janowski, and Clara Navaille, directed by Devon Roberts.   

Closing

 Roberta Cumbianchera and Brandon Guzmán in “Ardiente Paciencia” at Milagro.  Liana Rose Photography

Friday and Saturday nights are your last chances to catch Milagro’s revival of its Spanish-language production of Ardiente Paciencia, about a hapless romantic who finds a courtship coach of sorts in the Nobel-winning poet Pablo Neruda. English subtitles.

Brief engagements

Despite laboring under the odd cultural albatross of “one-hit wonder” status, Portlander Bill Wadhams is a compelling songwriter who has also been part of some fine theater (acting in the musical Next to Normal at Artists Rep in 2012; co-writing the in-progress musical Vortex I with playwright Sue Mach). Lately he’s been developing Up in the Air, a “musical memoir” that recounts his life and career — from early inspiration by the Beatles, through success in the 1980s band Animotion (whose hit, “Obsession,” he didn’t write, by the way) and inevitable music-biz frustrations, tracking dreams and compromises and family ties along the way. 

He pops back into the 21ten Theatre on Sunday for another workshop showing.

Sponsor

Portland Opera Puccini in Concert Keller Auditorium Portland Oregon

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The Red Door Project brings The Evolve Experiencea theater-based community workshop on issues of criminal justice – to Bend’s Tower Theatre for presentations (free, but with reservations required) on Sunday afternoon and Monday evening.

The flattened stage

Spring is here! And so, naturally, a young person’s thoughts turn to what else but … Morris dancing!

The best line I read this week

“Beliefs are ideas going bald.”

– Francis Picabia, quoted in the Little Surrealist Dictionary 

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Sponsor

Portland Columbia Symphony Adelante Voices of Tomorrow Beaverton and Gresham Oregon

That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Editor

Marty Hughley is a Portland journalist who writes about theater, dance, music and culture. His honors have included a National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at the University of Georgia, a fellowship at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute in Theater and Musical Theater at the University of Southern California, and first-place awards for arts reporting in the Society of Professional Journalists Pacific Northwest Excellence in Journalism Competitions. In 2013 he was inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame for his contributions to the industry. A Portland native, Hughley studied history at Portland State University, worked at the alternative newsweekly Willamette Week in the late 1980s as pop music critic and arts editor, then spent nearly a quarter century at The Oregonian as a reporter, feature writer and critic. His recent freelance work has appeared in Oregon ArtsWatch, Artslandia and the Oregon Humanities magazine. He lives with his cat, and dies a little with each new setback to the Trail Blazers.

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