Theatre Review: Seven Guitars at the Long Beach Playhouse

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Theatre Review: Seven Guitars at the Long Beach Playhouse

From left: William Warren (Hedley) and Ebonie Marie (Louise) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Seven Guitars

From left: William Warren (Hedley) and Ebonie Marie (Louise) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Seven Guitars

Photos by Michael Hardy Photography

From left: William Warren (Hedley) and Ebonie Marie (Louise) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Seven Guitars

Photos by Michael Hardy Photography

Photos by Michael Hardy Photography

From left: William Warren (Hedley) and Ebonie Marie (Louise) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Seven Guitars

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One of six plays by Pulitzer-prize winning playwright August Wilson that each take place in a different decade, Seven Guitars– at the Long Beach Playhouse (LBPH) through June 15– is a moving meditation on hope and desperation inflected through the African-American experience. Set in 1948 Pittsburgh, the story focuses on one musician but is very much an ensemble portrait of seven men and women deciding how to live their best lives in the shadows of oppression and uncertainty.

Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Rayshawn Chism), a blues musician whose recorded single is a hit on the radio, is itching to return to Chicago at the invite of the record label. But he wants Vera (Latonya Kitchen)– who has already been burned once by his abandonment– to go with him.

This story is actually told in flashback with the play opening in the wake of Floyd’s funeral. We don’t know how he has died, but we see Vera grieving, along with fellow musicians Canewell (Jay Reed) and Red (Gilbert Roy DeLeon). Also sharing Vera’s common backyard are sharp-tongued landlady Louise (Ebonie Marie) and brooding older neighbor Hedley (William Warren).

The days leading up to Floyd’s funeral comprise most of the play, filled with banter among these likable characters, along with songs, stories and Hedley’s ominous, Bible-infused musings as he sharpens knives. Louise’s visiting niece Ruby (Justyn High) soon adds her alluring energy (and her own problems) to the mix.

The interactions among the men reveal a shared sense of oppression. The threat of being arrested at any moment just for being black informs their choices. Their simmering feelings find expression in music and stories, but also threaten to erupt in violence– each character has a weapon and pulls a gun or knife when things get heated.

From left: Jay Reed (Canewell), Rayshawn Chism (Floyd) and Gilbert Roy DeLeon (Red) in Long Beach Playhouse’s Seven Guitars

We thus viscerally feel how the men’s desires to achieve their dreams and live a fulfilled life is persistently thwarted by white power and whim. Desperate choices seem inevitable and result in tragic consequences. The women are left defensive, making decisions and building lives from what little the men can offer and the crumbs they leave behind.

Hedley, between his Caribbean heritage and mental incapacity, invokes a more mystical feeling of thwarted black legacy expressed through his memories, dreams and songs. He also adds uncertainty and foreboding, at one point unexpectedly executing a rooster.

Wilson’s poetic words that dive deep are given excellent voice by the well-cast ensemble. Marie as the quick-witted Louise is especially vivid, often making the audience laugh with her observations and delivery. Reed as Canewell is similarly true to character, expressively spinning yarns. DeLeon as Red is delightfully charming; Kitchen as Vera is believably warm-hearted and conflicted; Chism makes a very suitable and emotive Floyd; and High as Ruby plays her young role with confidence.

But Warren as Hedley is perhaps the most transcendent, embodying in his character the roots of black pain, the brokenness of its collective suffering, its visceral anger that lashes out in violence and its intense faith in redemption and a chance for wholeness. He is the spiritual center of the play and the character through which we feel the most devastation.

Seven Guitars is ultimately a three-hour meditation on the black experience, resonant as much today as in 1948, judging by the audience’s verbal responses during one Sunday-afternoon performance. Desperation and hope are also part of the shared human experience– we see ourselves in these characters making the most of what they have, living for their dreams.

Seven Guitars continues at the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage Theatre, 5021 E. Anaheim St., through June 15, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $14 to $24. For tickets and information, call the box office at (562) 494-1014 or visit lbplayhouse.org.