"Seven Guitars" is playwright August Wilson's ode to the 1940s.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American writer, who died in 2005 at age 60, wrote a series of 10 plays called "The Pittsburgh Cycle." Each play was set in a different decade, and nine of them, including "Guitars," were set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson lived. The play debuted on Broadway in 1995, and earned a Tony Award for best actor.
The show opens at TheatreWorks on Thursday.
Wilson has created tremendous African-American characters, says "Seven Guitars" director Clinton Turner Davis, "chronicling the lives and experiences of African-Americans in this country. He has captured specific moments of the 20th century, and no other playwright has ever done that or attempted such a feat."
Written in 1995, "Seven Guitars" is a murder-mystery set in 1948. The play begins and ends with the funeral of Floyd Barton, a young blues singer recently released from jail. He's been offered a record deal in Chicago after one of his singles becomes a hit, and he wants to go back to the city and take his ex-girlfriend, Vera, with him. The play is told through flashbacks, and Floyd's killer remains a mystery until near the end.
"The marvel of 'Seven Guitars,' which is always true of Wilson at his best," writes New York Times critic Ben Brantley, "is how large a social portrait emerges from seeming small talk: from bickering, joking, gossiping and idle scheming. From such conversation emerges a sense of an entire economic and legal system, stacked unwinnably against the black man; a social structure in which home and relationships are rarely fixed; and a folklore of rhymes and superstitions and recipes that acquire another layer every time they are repeated."
Local actress Lynne Hastings, who plays apartment manager Louise, believes Wilson has a unique way of telling the story of the '40s.
"Through the emergence and love of the blues," she says, "and the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance moving its way toward Pittsburgh. There were black people who were getting jobs in the North and... coming from parents who (had been) slaves. It was probably the first generation not living on a plantation and working it."
In 2012, TheatreWorks produced Wilson's "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," a play set in 1911. Three members of that ensemble are back, including director Davis, actor Calvin Thompson, who will play Floyd and Hastings.
Davis has directed five Wilson plays over the course of his career, he says, including five productions of both "Fences," a 1983 play set in the '50s, "Joe Turner," and two of "Guitars."
"I always find something new each time," he says, "because it's a great work of art. Like looking at or hearing any masterpiece, every time you look at them, say, the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel, you should be able to see something new. Every time you hear a work of Duke Ellington, something new and exciting is revealed to you in that work. The same is true with August."
Davis vividly remembers the first time Wilson gave his direction a stamp of approval. He was directing a production of "Joe Turner" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1993, and Wilson was in the audience. Davis unwittingly sat right behind him.
"I was on pins and needles in the second act," he says. "After curtain call, he turned around and said 'That's just what I had in mind.' It almost knocked the wind out of me."
Contact Jennifer Mulson at 636-0270.
Playwright: August Wilson
Cast: Calvin Thompson, Lynne Hastings, Melissa Taylor, Donald Paul, Robb Douglas, Nambi E. Kelley, Michael Broughton
Director: Clinton Turner Davis
Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission
When: Opens 7:30 p.m. Thursday and runs 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Sept. 29
Where: Dusty Loo Bon Vivant Theater, University of Colorado at Colorado Springs,3955 Regent Circle
Tickets: $35, $15 for 15 and younger, free UCCS students, no kids 4 and younger; 255-3232, theatreworkscs.org
Something else: There's a First Friday Talkback with actors after the show, Sept. 13; First Saturday Gala, with drinks and food, Sept. 14; Prologue Lecture with blues musician Anthony Davis, 2:30 p.m. Sept. 15.