August Wilson's plays first arrived in Chicago as they were still being written, mostly in the 1990s. For those of us who were around, the experiences at the Goodman Theatre — complete with Wilson, cigarette in hand, pacing the Dearborn Street sidewalk — are unforgettable. But although Wilson always had a smile on his face, an open spirit and a willingness to sit and chat, the birth of such masterworks came with some tension. The scripts often felt long and unwieldy (although, looking back, those already seem like absurd criticisms). Wilson would invariably tell me at some point that the money to take them to Broadway was not quite in place. And the actors, feeling the weight of working with a great, always had sweat on their brows, wrestling with lines maybe penned in Wilson's hotel room the night before.
Perhaps all that explains why I find the relaxed, playful quality of Ron OJ Parson's series of Wilson productions at the Court Theatre to be so refreshing.
This informal, ongoing series — the hugely enjoyable latest of which, "Seven Guitars," opened in Hyde Park on Saturday night set in a simple, intimate setting from Regina Garcia — has no conceptual pretension. And it doesn't have a formal company of actors, although there are many regulars. But these really are the first major, Chicago-based explorations of these great plays since their original production ("Seven Guitars" opened in Chicago in 1995). Removed from that original pressure, the plays have become a great deal of fun, and the actors seem freer and more willing to take a few risks. That feels particularly the case with "Seven Guitars," which is set in 1949 and features a central character, Floyd Barton (a rich performance by Kelvin Roston Jr.), who has his heart set on becoming a famous blues musician, if only he can get his electric guitar out of the pawn shop and talk his homebody girlfriend Vera (Ebony Wimbs) into trusting him one more time (she has good reason to be cautious).
The blues infuse many of Wilson's plays, of course, but none more so than "Seven Guitars," where the characters both sing and play together. Parson takes the permission that Wilson gives him and runs with it, making this the closest that you'll ever have seen an August Wilson play to feeling like a musical.
Felicia Fields, a Tony nominee for "The Color Purple," plays Louise, a dispenser of blues-infused wisdom (and, here, big numbers). The superb Jerod Haynes, who plays the coiled-up Canewell, blows out some blues, as does Ronald L. Conner, who plays Red. Even the unstinting Allen Gilmore, who plays the somewhat unhinged King Hedley (a name to which Wilson would return), feels like he is part of a backyard band, there among the chickens.
"Seven Guitars" is, of course, very much about how real talent dies without the funds to pay off the pawn ticket, and a nurturing system that might actually return some money to the artist. But its chronological setting, in the middle of the second Great Migration, allows for a lot of exploration of the great African-American transition from the South to the North, from the rural economy to the urban. The journalist Isabel Wilkerson called this moment a mass seeking out of the "The Warmth of Other Suns."
All of the characters in "Seven Guitars" have rural roots: They still know how to tell an Alabama rooster from a Georgia rooster, and that easy sense of storytelling, the cathartic feeling of the pre-electric blues, permeates every inch of Parson's production, which is unhurried throughout. But Floyd plays an electric guitar and that means one thing: Chicago.
Nine of Wilson's 10 decade-themed plays are set in Pittsburgh. Only one, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," is set in Chicago.
"Seven Guitars," like the rest, takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. But Chicago actually has a stronger presence in "Seven Guitars" than any other play: It is a town of aspiration, full of people and record studios, a place where any black man would want to be, we're told. But it's also a city that has already knocked down these characters, who have retreated to Pittsburgh not unlike a boxer goes back to his corner.
The question of the night is, will they, should they, trade in that harmonica for an electric guitar, head (metaphorically speaking) back up Highway 61 and see what the noisy city might have for them. Parson understands that 'Seven Guitars" is one long riff on doubt and uncertainty, a clash between the desire to go out and get the American Dream and these savvy characters' innate understanding that, when the game is rigged, the risk of self-destruction is colossal.
Maybe it's better to stay with the chickens. Then again, no one in this play really is from where they are living, they've just made choices about where the safest spot might lie between ambition and acceptance. One young woman, Ruby (the enigmatic Erynn Mackenzie), is already in trouble. She tries to find her own peace, but Wilson was laying the groundwork for what was about to happen to her unborn child, father unknown. Pittsburgh, presented here as a kind of way station and refuge, was no panacea. The second Great Migration brought its trail of tears.
You don't have to be any particular kind of person to understand these characters' worries over risk and safety. We all struggle with it daily. But the point of "Seven Guitars," I think, is that Wilson is saying that you've still got to make your music. And at Court, so they do.
When: Through Feb. 9
Where: Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave.
Running time: 3 hours
Tickets: $45-$65 at 773-753-4472 or courttheatre.orgCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun