Saturday, October 15, 2016

“Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II” in stellar performances at Cygnet Theatre.

August Wilson would be proud. Two of his plays are now being mounted, in repertory at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town and that in itself is a treat. Cygnet has a habit of throwing out red meat to its audiences and having it come back marinated, ruminated and debated.

They have done that with plays of Alan Ayckbourn, Nöel Coward, Sam Shepard, Oscar Wilde and Tom Stoppard (in alternating performances). So far (and that includes these two shows) it has succeeded in bringing out the best of all possible worlds.   

August Wilson oft times called the American Shakespeare, is most known for his Century Cycle Plays or The Pittsburgh Cycle. There are ten of them and nine take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District; one is set in Chicago. Each setting is in an Africa-American neighborhood and each takes place in a different decade.

While they are not directly connected, they are in tone, character, aspiration, frustration, and are often beset by tragedy. Characters in one play might show up or be mentioned in another. For some the connection is evident for others we are left to make the connections or distinction.

Cygnet Theatre has previously produced three of Wilson's cycle plays (“Gem of the Ocean”, “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences”) and is currently mounting two more “Seven Guitars” and “King Hedley II”. They will be playing in repertory through Nov. 6th.

Wilson wrote “Seven Guitars” in 1990. It is set in 1948. That was the year that President Truman integrated the military. To some things were looking up in The Hill District. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964 and hopes were high that the Negro would finally get an even break. History will attest it was not to be.

Ro Boddie, Grandison PhelpsIII, Milena Phillips, Antonio AJ Johnson, Yolanda Franklin ("Seven Guitars")
“King Hedley” was written in 2001 and takes place in 1985 over thirty years later. Rather than seeing things improving in the District, it appeared to be standing still and taking a toll on its population. Even the District, especially the contrast of the two neighboring back yards is looking dilapidated and run down.

Laurence Brown, Grandison PhelpsIII, Antonio AJ Johnson and Ro Boddie ("Seven Guitars")
Sean Fanning has built a realistic looking set complete two row houses side by side, chain link fences, dirt front yard and a working bulk -head in ‘Guitars’ that’s been shut down by the city in ‘Hedley’.

 What makes his cycle plays so current, no matter the year, is that the Black experience as played out in real time, never seems to change for the better but for the hair- styles and clothes. Veronica Murphy designed the look of the different centuries and Peter Herman the wigs.

Everyone in the District is looking to get out. Circumstances, some caused by economics, others just plain prejudice keep the cycle of poverty and self -destruction in a loop with no window for escape. Wilson who truly understands the Hill District, he was born into it, spent his early life on the streets there and became the eyes and ears of the District and the plight of his Black community.   

In “Seven Guitars” Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Ro Boddie), the main character played a mean guitar. Just as he was about to make it big he was arrested on trumped up vagrancy charges and sent off to prison. While there his one recorded song had become a hit.

Straight out of jail, he returns to the old homestead to pick up where he left off with his old girlfriend Vera (Yolanda Franklin) and to make plans with his band -playing pals, Canewell who plays the harmonica (Laurence Brown), and Red Carter (Grandison Phelps III) who plays drums. He wants to go back to Chicago make more records.

He was playing around before he went off to jail and Vera’s not ready to take him back. Canewell is not on board because he was arrested in Chicago (for laziness) the last time they were there and Red now has a new son, Mister. Floyd’s biggest obstacle though is getting his guitar out of hock. At the crux of Floyd’s dilemma and for that matter, the entire community is always a sense of frustration in dealing with ‘the man’.

Grandison PhelpsIII, Milena Phillips, Laurence Brown Antonio AJ Johnson, Ro Boddie and Yolanda Franklin (from "King Hedley")
Orbiting around Floyd is Hedley (Antonio AJ Johnson), a Haitian spirit suspicious of whites and a society that has kept him oppressed. He lives in Louise’s tenant house and slaughters chickens down in the cellar that he later sells as chicken sandwiches. He ekes out a small amount of money.

Louise (Milena Phillips) owns the tenant house right next door to Vera. Ruby (Yvonne) is Louise’s niece. She makes her appearance a bit later bringing suspicion and tension especially to Hedley. She’s there to take refuge from two men who were fighting over her back home in Alabama. We will learn later that she is pregnant.

Fast forward thirty years and “King Hedley” (Laurence Brown), Ruby’s son, is at the center of this story. He too has just gotten out of prison for killing a man who attacked him with a knife leaving him with huge scar running from his forehead to his cheek.

Laurence Brown, Grandison PhelpsIII and Yolanda Franklin (from "Seven Guitars")
He lives with his mother Ruby (Milena Phillips), who still owns her row house and his wife Tonya (Yolanda Franklin). He has big dreams of owning a video store with his pal Mister (Ro Boddie). They get their money from selling stolen refrigerators.

Circling their orbit now is the soothsayer and evangelical prophet Stool Pigeon (Antonio TJ Johnson) and Elmore (Grandison PhelpsIII) an old lover from Ruby’s past (not seen in “Seven Guitars”) who just happens to show up and wants to resume his courtship with Ruby. Phelps is perfect as the con man personified. He shines in “Hedley”.

If director Jennifer L. Nelson had searched any further, she could not have come up with a better cast in which to make the case for Wilson’s two works. All give stellar performances in both shows even as the actors take on different characters.

Ro Boddie is a firebrand as both Floyd in ‘Guitars’ and Mister in “Hedley’. He has enough energy to keep things afloat for the almost three hours in each production. As Floyd, he sparks life into his character, always looking on the positive and pushing his friends to chance it with him one more time. He is pure confidence.

Laurence Brown walks in much bigger shoes as King. He seethes with anger at his frustrations from his partner, Mister wanting to use some of their money that they saved for the video shop for his own use, to the outright resentment and anger of Tonya not wanting to have their baby, to Elmore’s stepping on his newly planted seed garden and his winning bets on several ill timed wagers. His is the personification of the Black struggle in America, one -step forward, two backward. 

Yolanda Franklin and Laurence Brown (in "King Hedley")
Ms. Franklin’s Tonya gives us an ah ha moment when, in a stunning monologue, she tells King why she does not want to bring another life into this world because of the violence and suffering in their world. “I ain’t raisin’ no kid to have somebody shoot him. To have friends shoot him. To have the police shoot him.” “Why I want to bring another life into this world that don’t respect life?”

Milena Phillips’ Ruby is the down to earth landlady and Kings mother trying to get everyone on the same page only to come face to face with her own tragedy in the end. Her character is consistent throughout although she’s a little more lighthearted in “Hedley” before her world explodes in front of her.

 Bravo to Antonio TJ Johnson for his powerful characterizations as Hedley in “Guitars”, and Stool Pigeon in “Hedley”. Standing head and shoulders above the others in stature and with a Haitian accent (mostly) he brings it all together prophesizing in his many monologues. His is a steadfast commitment to his character as a historian collecting stacks of newspapers to preserve his world and as the prophet of the future.

Yours truly happened to see “Two Trains Running” on opening night and that, unfortunately was standing on tenuous footing. The sound was almost inaudible in some cases especially when the actor’s backs were toward me and the pacing was a bit too slow. Things picked up beautifully the next day when I saw “Headley”. By now everything should be running smoothly.

Floyd: “Now here’s what I don’t understand. If I go out there and punch a white man in the mouth, they give me five years even if there ain’t no witnesses. Joe Louis beat up a white man in front of 100,000 people and they give him a million dollars. Now you explain that to me.”
A well deserved hats off to the cast and crew.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through Nov. 6th
Organization: Cygnet Theatre
Phone: 619-337-1525
Production Type: Drama(s)
Where: 4040 Twiggs St., Old Town.
Ticket Prices: Start at $36.00
Venue: Theatre in Old town

Photo: Daren Scott

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