A top-notch ensemble makes verbal music in 'Seven Guitars'

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  • Floyd  "Schoolboy" Barton (Kingsley Leggs) shares his plans with Ruby (Lakesha Glover) in the Black Rep's production of "Seven Guitars." Photo by Phillip Hamer.

As producing  director of the Black Rep, Ron Himes continues to head the troupe he founded. Over the years, he’s also acted in, directed, and now and then created the company’s shows. In the company’s 40th season, he’s giving the performance of his career. Playing King Hedley in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” Himes gives his audience a persuasive glimpse of the seed of determination that lies under Hedley’s lifetime accumulation of physical illness, mental delusion and injustices suffered. How he has kept it alive, we’ll never know; Hedley may not know himself. But at the end of Act 1, when he slaughters a rooster as if it were a ritual sacrifice and slams the audience with his stern gaze, Himes shows us what Hedley intends. He wants to be a “big man,” he says — a Moses or a plantation owner, a Marcus Garvey or the father of the new Messiah. But he is a big man, already — the high priest in a community of seven Pittsburgh neighbors. Manhood is a big issue for other characters as well, distinct personalities whom director Ed Smith melds into a companionable ensemble. Some of the dialogue — a list of cigarettes brands, for example, or the speech in which Linda Kennedy, as Vera, anatomizes her longing for a man who went away — feel like the blues, full of elaborated, vivid details that go off in unpredictable directions. That’s appropriate, because Vera’s man is a blues guitarist called Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton. Played by Kingsley Leggs (a Broadway star who grew up in St. Louis and got his start at the Black Rep), Floyd has returned to his old neighborhood, hoping that his life will turn around. He’s been incarcerated for months — and during that time, a blues record he made turned into a big hit. The Chicago producer wants him to return to make more records. Sharply dressed and broad-chested, Leggs’ Floyd nurtures an image of success. But with one stroke of bad luck or bad decision after another, can he build anything of substance? 

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Floyd and Hedley feel that the world has let them down, and as poor black men in Pittsburgh in 1948, they aren’t wrong. Floyd hopes music will be his route to better things, but he’s open to criminal alternatives; Hedley, ranting about philosophy and a dream that haunts him, is looking for some kind of magic. Although “Seven Guitars” is primarily a character study, it also draws on elements of mystery, earthly and spiritual alike. Their neighbors are more down-to-earth. Vera tries to protect herself, but she and Floyd care deeply for each other. (Just look at the way they tenderly draw together as he describes the headstone he’s chosen for his mother’s grave.) Vera confides her worries to her good friend Louise (Cathy Simpson), a no-nonsense hairdresser whose attractive niece Ruby (Lakesha Glover) shakes things up when she arrives for a long, possibly permanent, visit. Two musicians who have performed with Floyd round out the company: Red (Reginald Pierre), loose-limbed and good-natured, and quiet Canewell (Phillip Dixon). Dixon gives a touching delivery of Canewell’s speech about all he gained, rather than lost, when Vera didn’t return the love that he felt for her. The whole ensemble is impressive in “Seven Guitars,” one of the 10 dramas in Wilson’s towering Century Cycle of plays. (Each explores the African-American experience in a different decade.) This one, set in the backyard of the apartments where several characters live, looks poor but kind of cozy, thanks to scenic designer Tim Case’s homey touches (a radio propped up in a window, a fence to create an outdoor common space). Costume designer Michael Alan Stein defines period and personality down to the last detail, from the men’s ties to the women’s costume jewelry. And although this probably goes without saying, no actual rooster is involved in the slaughter — just a huge handful of feathers. That’s more than enough to make Wilson’s bloody point about what the world can do to men with aspirations that society forbids.