by Chris Davis
Earl's fresh out of jail, back in Pittsburgh's Hill District with his friends and former bandmates, and the record they cut together is climbing the charts. After much uncertainty there's an opportunity to return to Chicago to cut another single, if only Earl could get his guitar out of the pawn shop. And if the Jim Crow-era threat of a black man being arrested for "worthlessness" or for "having too much money" didn't make the proposition that much riskier.
Seven Guitars is one of August Wilson's most rambling and meandering plays. That's not necessarily a complaint, but it can be when the producing company isn't up to the challenges Wilson throws down. Thankfully, all of the performers in the Hattiloo's loose, but lucid show are able to wear their characters like a bespoken wardrobe, breathing real life into these living embodiments of the blues.
Dramatically speaking, Seven Guitars owes much to the concept Chekhovian stasis, even as it lays the foundations for some of the best contemporary African-American theater. Katori Hall's Hurt Village is the show that immediately comes to mind, in part because James Cook, who was so memorable in Hall's best play to date, turns in an equally strong performance as Earl's harp player. And he's not alone at the top. The title, Seven Guitars, is less a reverence to specific instruments than to show's seven primary characters. To every actor assembled on stage, all I can say is "Well played."
But I single out Cook— who is so very good in his role— for a reason. He's also the best example of the one thing that keeps this show off of my short list of the season's best. At one point the character pulls his harmonica out to play, and the actor just doesn't have the skills to pull it off. That's not his fault, necessarily, but it's still a problem because the only time this crew isn't jamming beautifully together, is during the jams.
That said, if you can only see one show this weekend, I'd seriously consider this one. When it cooks, it cooks and after Sunday, it's gone.