Aired on KSDS-FM on 10/14/16
RUN DATES: 9/28/16 – 11/6/16
VENUE: Cygnet Theatre
August Wilson wrote jazz; he wasn’t a composer, but in his plays, the language is distinctly musical, with dips and riffs, crescendos and stunning solos.
The late playwright famously chronicled the African American experience in the 20th century, through ten decade-by-decade dramas, mainly set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District.
Cygnet Theatre, which relishes presenting plays in repertory, has brilliantly paired two Pulitzer-nominated Wilson pieces, set in the 1940s and the 1980s. A number of characters recur in later generations; the relationships introduced in “Seven Guitars” are clarified in “King Hedley II.”
These two searing, gut-wrenching works focus on folks who are under-educated and mostly unemployed. The men are all armed – with guns or knives. Their anger and resentment, their lack of opportunity, the hopelessness of their lives, often erupt in violence. They lament their treatment by white people in general and police in particular.
When they dare to hope or dream, and seek out self-advancement, their quick-fix efforts often involve crime. Most of them have already been incarcerated.
In this milieu, a man’s name and his sense of honor define his masculinity. When he feels disrespected, he instinctively lashes out, and bloodshed results. Of course, the women are left to suffer. As a counterbalance, the plays are riddled with humor and rife with symbolism and spiritual or religious ritual.
These two spectacular productions, clocking in at a weighty, intense three hours each, simply must be seen. Though they can stand on their own, one clearly informs the other, so they should be viewed chronologically, with “Seven Guitars” first.
The cast of seven, all but one appearing in both dramas, is uniformly superb, each mastering several dazzling melodic, poetic monologues. D.C.-based guest director Jennifer L. Nelson keeps the pace nimble, rhythmic and lyrical. Sean Fanning’s splendidly detailed set is wonderfully evocative.
The plays could not be more timely or relevant. Sadly, the situation in poor African-American communities remains disturbingly unchanged, as do the encounters with police and prisons. These two tragic works remind us how exquisitely attuned Wilson was, and what a timeless gift he gave to the American theater.
©2016 PAT LAUNER, San Diego Theater Reviews