Among the 10 plays in the late August Wilson’s monumental Century Cycle, “Seven Guitars” might not be as well-known as, say, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “Fences,” “The Piano Lesson,” or “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.”
So experiencing Actors’ Shakespeare Project’s new production of “Seven Guitars" is a way to deepen your familiarity with the oeuvre of one of our greatest playwrights. But, really, the production itself is reason enough to get yourself to Hibernian Hall.
Under the sensitive, pitch-perfect direction of Maurice Emmanuel Parent, this “Seven Guitars" makes a powerful argument for itself as a must-see. And, as ever with Wilson, a must-hear. This playwright’s dialogue is a kind of music, and it requires actors who know how to play all the notes. The excellent ASP cast proves to be more than up to that task, delivering portrayals bursting with a vivid specificity.
Before dying in 2005 at age 60, Wilson sought to capture aspects of the Black experience in America by writing a play set in each decade of the 20th century. Like most of the dramas in his Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle, “Seven Guitars" is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. It is there that the ambitions and dreams of four Black men and three Black women intersect and collide in “Seven Guitars."
The year is 1948, shortly after the death of bluesman Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Anthony T Goss), just when his career seemed on the verge of taking off.
Gathered together in a rooming house backyard in the opening scene are Floyd’s girlfriend, Vera Dotson (Maya Carter), who contends she saw six angels at the cemetery transporting Floyd to the sky; two of Floyd’s musician friends, Red Carter (Dereks Thomas) and Canewell (Omar Robinson); the boardinghouse manager, Louise (Regine Vital); and an older, mysterious fellow named Hedley (Johnnie Mack), who also claims to have seen angels at the cemetery. Much later in the play, they are joined by Louise’s pregnant niece, Ruby (Valyn Lyric Turner), who has journeyed to Pittsburgh from Alabama.
Through flashbacks, we see the events that led to Floyd’s death. But Wilson’s stories seldom travel in a straight line. Although he had a genius for the swift and vivid delineation of character, the playwright also made ample room for digressions. A simple query like “Where you from?" can unleash a torrent of anecdotes, memories, opinions, and tall tales. Wilson liked to spread the wealth among the boisterous talkers who populate his plays, including “Seven Guitars"; no character is too minor to command the spotlight with a memorable monologue.
Not long before his death, Floyd had served a 90-day stint in a workhouse on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy, arrested by a white policeman while walking home from his mother’s funeral. In ways subtle and not, Wilson dramatizes how the choices and day-to-day lives of Black people have been constricted or distorted by pervasive racism. When the friends in “Seven Guitars” erupt in jubilation while listening to a radio broadcast of Joe Louis winning a prizefight, we don’t have to guess why the moment means so much to them.
Once out of the workhouse, Floyd learns that a song he had earlier recorded in Chicago had become a hit. He got paid a flat fee, rather than a percentage of sales, and the money went fast. (His need for money looms large by the end of the play.) Now he has an offer to return to the Windy City and record an entire album.
“You get a hit record, them white folks start calling you ‘Mister,’” he remarks sardonically. Floyd tries to persuade Vera to go to Chicago with him, but it’s a hard sell. Vera is all too familiar with Floyd’s restless ways, given that he left her for another woman.
On either side of Jon Savage’s inventive set hang a pair of large cityscape collages, evoking both the opportunities Floyd seeks and the dangers that could ensnare him there. Or is the greater danger at home?
Many dramatists strive to combine the intimate and the epic. It’s an elusive goal. But August Wilson managed to reach it in “Seven Guitars" and his other plays. Maybe that’s another reason to see this “Seven Guitars": It reminds us what an immeasurable contribution he made to the American theater.
Play by August Wilson. Directed by Maurice Emmanuel Parent. Actors’ Shakespeare Project. At Hibernian Hall, Roxbury. Through March 5. $52.50. 617-241-2200, www.actorsshakespeareproject.org
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeAucoin.