By Charlene Baldridge | Theater Review
Cygnet Theatre opened its repertory of two plays by August Wilson, “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II,” respectively, on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.
Neither play has had full production in San Diego until now. The two plays are connected in that “Hedley” revisits the interactions and dependencies of some characters from “Guitars” and their descendants. The plays alternate performances through Nov. 6.
In addition to other works, Wilson (1945-2005) wrote a series of 10 plays. All but one, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District where he was born and raised. Known as The Pittsburgh Cycle or The Century Cycle, the plays are set, one per decade, and chart the African-American experience in 20th-century America. Wilson’s plays garnered Pulitzer Prizes for “Fences” and “The Piano Lesson,” a Tony Award for “Fences,” an Olivier Award for “Jitney” and numerous New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, among them for “Ma Rainey,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Two Trains Running,” “Seven Guitars,” “Jitney” and “Radio Golf.”
Cygnet guest director Jennifer L. Nelson hails from Washington, D.C., and along with associate director Lydia Fort, elicits excellent performances from her company of Southern California actors, many of whom are familiar from previous Wilson plays and readings and appearances in Cygnet’s productions of “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson” and “Gem of the Ocean.”
In “Seven Guitars,” Ro Boddie, who appeared in Cygnet’s “Stupid F**king Bird,” portrays a songwriter named Floyd, who returns to the Hill District after serving time in a Chicago jail. His aims are to retrieve his hocked guitar and his reluctant woman, Vera (Yolanda Franklin). While in Chicago he laid down a hit recording, and the record company wants him to return and record more songs. He sees in this a chance to escape poverty and does whatever he can to bring about his future success, with tragic consequences.
Other characters who live in the two houses that are marvelously detailed by scenic designer Sean Fanning (action takes place in the backyards) are Vera’s friend, Louise (Milena Phillips) who apparently owns one of the houses and rents a room to the mentally deranged Hedley (Antonio “TJ” Johnson), Canewell (Laurence Brown), Red (Grandison Phelps III) and Ruby (Yvonne) who is Vera’s niece.
Threats of violence hang over this play from the opening scene as the characters struggle for subsistence and a modicum of dignity. “King Hedley II,” which takes place 30 years later, is equally heartbreaking.
King Hedley II (Brown), Ruby’s unborn child at the end of “Seven Guitars,” has just returned from seven years in prison. His father is dead. Ruby (Phillips), who became a big band singer after the close of “Seven Guitars,” has moved back to the Hill District to be near her King, who lives with his second wife, Tonya (Franklin). Hedley and his best friend Mister (Boddie) sell stolen refrigerators in the hope of going into business for themselves. A frequent visitor is Elmore (Phelps), a former boyfriend trying to reestablish himself in Ruby’s life. Living next door is Stool Pigeon (Johnson), formerly known as Canewell, and right up the street lives Aunt Esther (unseen), the 366-year-old seer who is a presence in many of Wilson’s plays.
Seeing the two plays in tandem reinforces the conclusion that nothing has changed, that the lives of these endearing Hill District characters will always be mired in despair and desperation — a bleak prognosis. Today, a miracle solution is still needed. Sadly, that’s why these plays and these people are as if extracted from today’s newspaper.
A telling moment occurs when Tonya defends her decision to abort her unborn child because she doesn’t want to raise him merely to be gunned down. There are many such riveting moments Wilson’s plays. He is doubtless one of the great playwrights of the past 100 years and has been called the American Shakespeare. Beautifully produced and stunningly performed, they are a gift to theater lovers and others, who will be fascinated by the actors’ range and abilities as they strut their stuff in rep.
There are several opportunities to see both “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II” in one marathon day. If you want to do so chronologically, “Guitars” comes first.
—Charlene Baldridge has been writing about the arts since 1979. Follow her blog at charlenecriticism.blogspot.com or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.