Seven Guitars | Pittsburgh City Paper

Seven Guitars

It's probably galling to artists how little control they have over their legacies. The thing Tchaikovsky famously hated the most, The Nutcracker, is what he'll best be remembered for. And no matter what followed, Citizen Kane is the only thing people think about when they hear the name Orson Welles.

After a landmark career as America's most successful and artistically important African-American playwright, August Wilson died in 2005 leaving behind his "Pittsburgh Cycle," ten plays (almost all) taking place in Pittsburgh, and each set in a different decade of the 20th century. Now that Wilson is gone, it will be interesting to see which of the ten rises to the top. You'd think Fences, the most lauded play, would remain No. 1, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Joe Turner's Come and Gone might end up the leader of the pack.

On the other hand, it's nonsense to assume that any playwright could sustain that level of achievement for 10 plays. So which will posterity assign to the bottom of the pile?

One of the great things about Pittsburgh Playwright Theatre's "mission" to stage all 10 (in the order in which they opened on Broadway) is the chance it affords us to make up our own rankings.

With Seven Guitars, Pittsburgh Playwrights is up to No. 6 (with Jitney, King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean and Radio Golf still to come). And on my third or forth exposure to this play, I have to say that it is definitely my least favorite of the 10.

The problem is that absolutely nothing happens. Now of course Wilson is hardly known for the complexity of his plots -- he just wasn't that kind of writer. And having seen all the plays, you can spot the same sort of characters and, especially, the same sort of relationship dynamics again and again. Two men set out to achieve some goal with the peripheral involvement of a third man. Meanwhile, a wife or girlfriend exists in the margins, and occasionally an older, spiritual man hovers in the background invoking African lore.

I know all of that. I expect it even. But still, Seven Guitars, which centers on the death of a young musician, goes on and on for great patches of time and absolutely none of it matters. And the tiny bit of action which does occur (a man tries to get to Chicago and unseen forces stop him) happens in the final few minutes. It's August Wilson, so, yeah, the poetry of the dialogue is beyond gorgeous ... but three hours is a very long time for nothing to happen.

The time, however, things do move a bit more quickly thanks to this remarkable cast (and director Mark Clayton Southers' eye-popping set). It's unlikely you're going to see an ensemble as strong as this one: Teri Bridgett, Alan Bomar Jones, Jonathan Berry, Ericka Ratcliffe, Wali Jamal, Montae Russell and Genna Styles. Though each has his or her individual moment to shine, it's their collective work that does such honor to Wilson's work.


Seven Guitars continues through May 24. Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, 542 Penn Ave., Downtown. 412-394-3353 or

Seven Guitars
Montae Russell in Pittsburgh Playwrights' Seven Guitars.