A PITT STUDENT IN REHEARSAL FOR “SEVEN GUITARS.” (PHOTO BY MENGYI YANG)
by Genea L. Webb, For New Pittsburgh Courier
Miya Gaines is leaning on her relationships with her older female family members to portray the sassy Louise in August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars.”
“I look at my own great grandmother and aunts who are similar to Louise and I pull from that,” explained Gaines, a 21-year-old junior linguistics and theater major at the University of Pittsburgh who hails from the D.C. area. “Louise’s past is long gone and she’s constantly trying to move forward. She doesn’t understand that the other people in the cast have to move forward. August Wilson plays with characters’ emotions but the characters all have a common goal.”
Set in the backyard of a Pittsburgh tenement in 1948, “Seven Guitars” tells the story of a blues guitarist and singer—Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton—who unexpectedly died just when he was on the verge of stardom. Friends then gathered to reminisce about his life and speculate about his untimely death. The play, which was a finalist for the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and winner of the New York Drama Critics Award for Best Play, is the 1940s effort of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Century Cycle—10 plays that highlight a slice of Pittsburgh life decade by decade during the twentieth century.
“Seven Guitars” will be presented by Pitt Theatre Arts from Feb. 17-26 at the Charity Randall Theatre, 4301 Forbes Ave., as part of a week-long celebration preceding the grand opening celebration of “From the Hill to the Stage: Celebrating the August Wilson Archive with the University of Pittsburgh Library System,” from Feb. 24-March 3.
“Pitt was honored with the archive as a way to help get August Wilson productions on their feet. We really wanted to do the work justice and once you understand the material and the gravity of the language it allows you to delve into the play’s world,” said Pitt dramaturge Victoria LaFave. “August Wilson isn’t here with us, but the archive is open and I was able to go in there and read his notes and some faxes, which allowed me to be able to share his world with the Pitt actors.”
The university also enlisted the help and direction of several professional Pittsburgh actors to play key roles in the production alongside the students. Those actors include Wali Jamal, Tru Verret-Fleming and Chris Collier.
Jamal will be portraying the mystical Headley in the production.
“I enjoy working with the kids,” Jamal said. “This is new to the kids and they don’t know what’s safe and it’s awesome to see them learning. They learn about the the common sense of theater and they learn about the other aspects of theater, like the set designer. I try to take away unnecessary stress for the kids.”
Jamal will be performing the character of Headley for the third time during this special production. He’s also performed in all 11 of Wilson’s plays. “August Wilson wrote rich, fulfilling characters for the older Black man. For people watching August Wilson’s play for the first time, they’re in for a treat because people are going to hear their family’s voices and hear that these situations, regardless of the decade, are relatable and that’s what makes August Wilson’s work so good because it deals with the basic human condition. Regardless of what you think, August Wilson didn’t fail to put in the characters’ dignity.”
Following his “Seven Guitars” run, Jamal will be performing Wilson’s one-man gem, “How I Learned What I Learned,” at the August Wilson Center for African American Culture, March 2-4 during the August Wilson Society’s Biennial Colloquium.
Wilson’s intricate characters are what drew Gaines to tackle the role of Louise.
“I love that August Wilson didn’t give concrete direction and he wants us to embody the characters,” Gaines told the New Pittsburgh Courier. “Everyone in the cast has a positive attitude and the older actors don’t shy away from getting to know us. This show is full of energy, the set is gorgeous and everything happening is so rich.”