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Theater Review: “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II”

Laurence Brown, Grandison Phelps III, Yolanda Franklin
Photo credit:
Daren Scott

Dreams persist, though life is hardscrabble and largely disappointing for the people in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle, a group of ten plays progressing chronologically about the residents of the broken-down Hill District community where life sometimes hangs by a thread.

Cygnet Theatre presents two plays in the cycle which share some characters: “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II.” Both are about broken dreams, lowered expectations and how to get through the day. “Seven Guitars” takes place in the late 1940s; “King Hedley II” in the Reagan ’80s.

Seven Guitars

The crumbling bricks and generally exhausted look of the backyard match the quickly disappearing dreams of Hill residents in “Seven Guitars,” where seven African American characters scramble to make a living and a life in a society that has them pegged for failure (and the men for prison sentences).

Blues singer Floyd Barton (Ro Boddie) returns to the Hill after a 90-day sentence for vagrancy in a Chicago jail.

Now he wants to get his life back on the right path, and the first thing he needs to do is get his guitar out of hock.

He’s had one hit record and has been invited to return to Chicago to record some more. He’s hoping to take sometime girlfriend Vera (Yolanda Franklin) with him, though having already been burned once by him, she is, to put it mildly, reluctant.

But he has hopes of stardom. “Everybody I know lives without,” he says. “I don’t wanna do that. I wanna live with.”

Harmonica player Canewell (Laurence Brown) and Red (Grandison Phelps II), a drummer in Floyd’s band, are both also interested in Vera.

Louise (Milena Phillips), landlady of the boarding house, is surprised (and a bit discomfited) by word that her niece Ruby (Yvonne) is arriving from Alabama, figuring that augurs ill.

Hedley (Antonio TJ Johnson) is an old man with tuberculosis, a religious fetish and a big knife with which he kills chickens for the sandwiches he sells. Hedley serves as the Greek chorus of the piece.

“Seven Guitars” is about dreams and mistakes, hope and the crushing load of reality, written in near-poetry by Wilson (who has been called the American George Bernard Shaw) and delivered flawlessly by this superb cast.

King Hedley II

The much darker “King Hedley II” takes place 40 years after “Seven Guitars” (during the Reagan ’80s) and the first line (a song snippet) gives it away: “Would you like to go with me down my dead-end street?”

The eighth play in Wilson’s ten-play cycle, the plot follows King Hedley (Laurence Brown), an ex-con with a vicious scar down the side of his face trying to raise $10,000 with his friend Mister (Ro Boddie) to open a video store. They’re doing it by selling stolen refrigerators.

The Hill has by now become even more a place of broken dreams, reflected in the broken concrete and a yard where King (who reports that his fifth-grade teacher told him he’d make a fine janitor) attempts to plant something live for his wife Tonya (Yolanda Franklin), only to have it accidentally stomped on by professional hustler Elmore (Grandison Phelps III). Tonya, a grandmother at 35, has another problem to deal with: she’s pregnant. 

Other characters from “Seven Guitars” are here as well. One is King’s mother Ruby (Milena Phillips), a former big band singer who has recently moved back to Pittsburgh. 

Finally, the soothsayer from “Seven Guitars,” here called Stool Pigeon (Antonio TJ Johnson, in a bravura performance), is still here, spouting Bible verses.

It’s a difficult life for these characters, and an extremely sad play, punctuated by lengthy but spellbinding poetic monologues that Director Jennifer L. Nelson’s cast treats like operatic arias.

“King Hedley II is a more coherent piece than “Seven Guitars,” but together they reveal the unfairness of a system that seems to have African Americans trapped in that “dead-end street.”

This is the first time two Wilson plays have been presented in repertory locally. Cygnet, director Nelson and this terrific cast are to be congratulated on the splendid job.

The details

“Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II” play in repertory through November 6, 2016 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs Street in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday at 8 p.m.; Saturday at 3 and 8 p.m.; Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.

Tickets: (619) 337-1525 or www.cygnettheatre.com