Arena Stage presents August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Seven Guitars' at Arena Stage (Part 1)

His plays have made acclaimed movies from “Fences” to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” This month, Arena Stage presents August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” now through Dec. 26.

“It takes place in the 1940s in Pittsburgh,” Artistic Director Molly Smith told WTOP. “This is a story that centers on seven different lives who are interconnected when an old friend and blues singer, Floyd Barton, vows to turn his life around after a surprise windfall.”

The show is the fifth installment of Wilson’s legendary Pittsburgh Cycle of plays.

“August Wilson set a focus that he was going to write about the past 100 years of American history, the 20th century basically,” Smith said. “That’s exactly what he did: Every decade of life from African Americans in Pittsburgh in the Hill District … other writers have tried it. Eugene O’Neill tried to write a cycle of plays and could only get four out.”

Wilson’s storytelling rivals the best playwrights in theater history.

“He was a brilliant poet,” Smith said. “He used to sit in a coffee shop and write his plays … he basically became Shakespeare for African American artists and audiences. He is our American Shakespeare … his language is always so tasty, so thought-provoking and so much about the vernacular of the time, only done through the eye of the poet.”

The rhythm of his dialogue is complemented by cool blues music.

“I think people are really going to like it because it’s infused with great and soaring blues rhythms,” Smith said. “It’s directed by Tazewell Thompson, a musician himself and a great director for the round — it is being done in the Fichandler space, so it’ll be in the round.”

Visually, the entire story unfolds in a single setting in Pittsburgh.

“It takes place outside in a backyard,” Smith said. “Half of the set has been sitting here for a year and a half … collecting dust, but it’s a backyard, so dirt didn’t hurt.”

The relatable setting and universal themes are sure to inspire audiences.

“It is about our interconnectedness,” Smith said. “That’s something that August Wilson has in every single one of his plays … it is about a character’s struggle to become someone, a character’s struggle to leave the past behind and become someone he wants to be … we all have that. This is all about the second chance. Can I have a second chance at life?”

Tickets might even be a good stocking stuffer this holiday season.

“Normally we’re doing a big musical at this time, but we just figured, hey, there’s some people that want to see drama during the holiday season,” Smith said. “They’ve got their families with them, maybe they are real theater lovers from different parts of the country. This is a perfect place to come see great actors tell an incredible story.”

Proof of vaccination and masks are required indoors.

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'Seven Guitars' at Arena Stage (Part 2)

Listen to our full conversation here.

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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