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When August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” opens Feb. 17 at the Charity Randall Theatre, it will mark the first time Pitt Stages produces an installment from Wilson’s American Century Cycle — 10 plays exploring Black life in the 20th century — and only the second production to feature an all-Black cast since the Department of Theatre Art’s founding in 1982.
“It is exciting to be a part of a history-making moment,” said assistant director Ty’Mariya Moss, a sophomore social work major and theatre arts minor.
Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, the play — which Pitt lecturer and costume designer Karen J. Gilmer is directing — depicts friends gathering to mourn the unnatural death of the talented, but ill-fated, blues guitarist Floyd Barton and chronicles the weeks leading up to his demise.
“When you consider the racial dynamics within Pittsburgh, where you have many different religious and cultural backgrounds, it’s nice for the University to offer a reflection of the community around us,” Moss said.
A citywide celebration
The play’s debut at Pitt follows the University Library System’s (ULS) acquisition of Wilson’s archive in 2020.
“People have wanted to study August and his works for a long time. The collection could have gone to a lot of different places. That it came home to Pittsburgh speaks volumes to August’s legacy here,” said Ed Galloway, associate university librarian for ULS’ Archives and Special Collections. The rhythm of the neighborhoods where Wilson grew up as well as the vocabulary, nuances and everyday lives of those he encountered, he adds, are all preserved in the archive on tablets, napkins and notepads.
“Pitt has been building and collecting in this area for a while. August is the cream of the crop,” Galloway said.
ULS also houses collections of Wilson’s legendary friends: Vernell A. Lillie, founder of the Kuntu Repertory Theatre; dancer and choreographer Bob Johnson; and Robert Lee “Rob” Penny, a Pitt professor, activist, playwright and poet.
“It isn’t just that we have the August Wilson archives — that is tremendous and important. It is also the context around these other people with these other accomplishments,” Galloway said. “His roots are here with these friends.”
ULS is partnering with the August Wilson House, the August Wilson African American Cultural Center, the August Wilson Society, and Pitt’s Africana studies, English and theatre arts departments and Center for Creativity to celebrate Wilson’s legacy and the archive’s opening.
A “Seven Guitars” display in the Hillman Library is underway, along with several initiatives, including one where University Prep students’ research will evolve into a Carnegie Library exhibit. Register for events from Feb. 24 through March 3.
A space for diverse stories
For Moss, whose passions for social work and theater are coalescing into an exploration of drama as therapy, this production is an essential step toward remedying some students’ feelings of isolation.
“[Performing] ‘Seven Guitars’ sends a message to future students that there is space for you, space for our stories,” said Moss, a Loganville, Georgia, native.
Another rewarding aspect of the production, she said, is working alongside talent ranging in age and experience from first-time student actors to professionals like Wali Jamal — the 2018 Post-Gazette “Performer of the Year” and only actor in the world to have appeared in all 11 of Wilson’s plays.
Jamal first performed in “Seven Guitars” more than two decades ago with the Kuntu Repertory Theatre, a Pitt-based performing arts group that ran from 1974 to 2013 and showcased the works and talents of Black Pittsburgh artists. Now, for the third time in his 25-year career, Jamal will reprise the role of antagonist Hedley. The show, he said, is a testament to the timelessness and relatability of Wilson’s work.
“August Wilson illustrates the dignity of Black people in his characters,” said Jamal, who grew up in Pittsburgh’s St. Claire Village public housing projects during a time when diverse representation in theater was scarce. “That rings true in all his writings.”
— Kara Henderson, photography by Mengyi Yang