Performing Arts

'Seven Guitars' a riveting revival of August Wilson's take on black life in the 20th century

Jean Hyppolite as Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is confronted by Stephon Duncan’s Louise in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.”
Jean Hyppolite as Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is confronted by Stephon Duncan’s Louise in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.”

The world according to August Wilson — a world churning with life and death, lovemaking and violence, uplifting dreams and hard realities — is back onstage in South Florida with the opening of M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.”

Written in the mid-1990s, the sprawling drama is part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle (first called the Century Cycle), with each play focused on black life in a different decade of the 20th century.

Set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Wilson’s birthplace and the locale for nine of the 10 plays, “Seven Guitars” takes place in 1948. It begins and ends with most of the characters dressed in funereal black, as they eat and joke and mourn the sudden death of talented guitarist Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton.

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Keith Wade’s Hedley is comforted by Rita Joe’s Vera in M Ensemble’s production of “Seven Guitars.” DEBORAH GRAY MITCHELL

The bulk of the nearly three-hour play flashes back to the days leading up to that prelude and coda, when a fresh-out-of-jail Floyd (Jean Hyppolite) has come back to try to convince his former lover Vera (Rita Joe) to follow him to a recording studio in Chicago. “That’s Alright,” a song he recorded with Pittsburgh pals Canewell (Chat Atkins) and Red Carter (Pedro Louis), has become a hit, so the record company is ready to give the musicians another shot.

But Floyd’s dreams of big city fame and fortune are complicated by a number of obstacles, not the least of which is Vera’s reluctance to trust him after he ran off with another woman who, he mistakenly thought, had more faith in his future greatness.

The drama plays out in the small backyard of the house where several of the characters live in different apartments. Strewn with stones and feathers that are the byproduct of the chicken sandwich business that a tenant named Hedley (Keith Wade) runs to earn his rent money, the gathering place also features a table and a small garden.

At the former, Vera shares her thoughts and confesses her fears to her friend Louise (Stephon Duncan), who collects the rent money for the landlady and who figures the gun given to her by her ex-lover will protect her far better than any new man would. The garden, with its colorful flowers peeking up, proves critical to the plot and to Floyd’s fate.

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Keith Wade as King Hedley proclaims his vision for true freedom in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.” DEBORAH GRAY MITCHELL

Another woman, Louise’s sultry niece Ruby (Brianna Hart-Cox), arrives from Alabama, escaping a scandal and bearing a secret. Oozing sensuality, she attracts the attentions of Canewell, who doesn’t really care that he’s living in a new place with his woman of the moment; Red, a juggler of women and the new father to a baby boy; and Hedley, this play’s mad prophet, a man suffering from tuberculosis and a furious rage against white oppression.

Into the play’s complex stew Wilson stirs police bias and brutality, frustrating bureaucracy, myths and angels, poverty, criminal activity, sudden violence, humor and the temporary salvation of reconnecting with a soul mate. His distinctive speeches become plainspoken arias, and along with actual songs they make “Seven Guitars” one of his most musical plays.

Director Lowell Williams gets glorious performances from his M Ensemble cast, each of the seven sounding distinctive notes in a play that is both intimate and operatic in scale.

Atkins is playful, Louis commanding, Duncan warm, Hart-Cox dangerously alluring and Hyppolite persuasive as the tragically flawed figure who will stop at nothing to make his dreams come true.

Two actors, however, deliver magnificently haunting performances.

Rita Joe, playing the role originated by Viola Davis, uses her expressive face and voice to communicate Vera’s torn nature as a woman who has been burned and thus expects the worst but who can’t help hoping for love’s redemption.

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Stephon Duncan as Louise and Rita Joe as Vera talk about the risks of trust in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.” DEBORAH GRAY MITCHELL

Wade, who was so memorable as the damaged Gabriel in M Ensemble’s most recent production of Wilson’s “Fences,” makes Hedley outsized yet emotionally vulnerable, frightening yet charismatic. Several times he sings a capella, his voice a soft thing of beauty. Hedley’s final embrace by Vera, as tears slip from both actors’ eyes, becomes an act of grace and pardon.

Set and lighting designer Mitchell Ost, scenic designers Miriam Sierra and Jessica Diaz, costume designer Shirley Richardson and prop designer Patricia E. Williams beautifully deliver the late ‘40s world of the play. The sound in the space at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, however, remains challenging, as lines are sometimes extremely difficult to decipher.

M Ensemble has presented “Seven Guitars” before, and the company keeps returning to Wilson’s work — as it should. That work is a towering theatrical achievement, deeply resonant and, like opera, always worth revisiting and reinterpretation by new generations of artists for new audiences.

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Stephon Duncan’s Louise and Rita Joe’s Vera prepare greens as they talk in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.” DEBORAH GRAY MITCHELL

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If you go

  • What: ‘Seven Guitars’ by August Wilson.

  • Where: M Ensemble production at the Sandrell Rivers Theater, 6103 NW Seventh Ave., Miami. (The theater address has been updated.)

  • When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, through June 24.

  • Cost:$26 ($21 students and seniors).

  • Information: 786-320-5986 or 305-200-5043 or www.themensemble.com.
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