Playwright August Wilson’s “Century Cycle” was an ambitious effort to chronicle the progress, or lack of same, of the U. S. African American community during the 20th Century. Wilson’s accomplishment was premiering ten plays, each set in a different decade of the century. The plays were centered in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a neighborhood that changed with the times as Pittsburgh absorbed migration from the south and then changed with the times again as pressure for civil rights grew and was resisted.
Mr. Wilson wrote two of his plays as something of a pair, and these two are the ones that Cygnet Theatre is currently presenting in repertory. Seven Guitars is set in 1948, when the Hill was at its peak, known as the Harlem of Pittsburgh and supporting a thriving blues and jazz scene. King Hedley II is set in 1985, when a national culture of greed had turned the Hill into a desperate tenement, with its residents scrambling to make do however they can. One character is a young woman who is a newcomer to the neighborhood in Seven Guitars and is still living there in King Hedley II. Other characters in King Hedley II are offspring of characters in Seven Guitars. Cygnet recommends that the plays be seen in chronological order.
Just producing the two plays is an ambitious project, and I’m happy to report that Cygnet has pulled it off in style and with strong performances.
In Seven Guitars, World War II has ended, there is pressure for civil rights after African Americans served with distinction during the war, and the entire country is in a post-war boom. Veronica Murphy’s costumes reflect that boom, though residents of the Hill District are still battling for fair treatment and recognition of their accomplishments. In particular, Floyd (Ro Boddie), a blues singer who has recorded a hit single with band members Canewell (Laurence Brown) and Red (Grandison Phelps III) hasn’t seen any financial reward from that recording. Louise (Milena Phillips) runs a boarding house for her subsistence, and she shares a back yard with her neighbor, Vera (Yolanda Franklin). Vera and Floyd have been a couple, but Floyd had an affair and Vera is resisting Floyd’s renewed affections. Louise’s boarder, Hedley (Antonio TJ Johnson), makes do by butchering chickens and selling chicken sandwiches. Hedley fantasizes that Buddy Boldon, a pioneer jazz artist, will deliver money from Hedley’s father that will allow him to buy his own “plantation” and live in style. Arriving mid-play is Ruby (Yvonne), Louise’s niece. She’s from the south and pregnant, but she takes to city ways quickly.
King Hedley II is set in the same shared yard (Sean Fanning designed the stunningly detailed set for both productions). Ruby (Ms. Phillips) now presides over the boarding house, and the neighboring house is occupied by a man called Stool Pidgeon (Mr. Johnson), who collects newspapers in an attempt to record the changes to the neighborhood, which have been substantial and for the worse. Ruby’s son, King (Mr. Brown), lives in the house but is having trouble with his relationship with Tonya (Ms. Franklin), his wife of a couple of years. King scratches for his living however he can and dreams of opening a video store with his boyhood pal, Mister (Mr. Boddie). Ruby also has a suitor, Elmore (Mr. Phelps), who is a professional hustler.
In each play, the first act is devoted to introducing the characters and setting the social and cultural milieu for the story. Act 2 is devoted more to action, though both plays turn on bad treatment and violence. Mr. Wilson takes his time (the plays run around three hours each), uses humor to hold interest, and makes the ultimate tragic conclusions of each play both inevitable and, in their own ways, cathartic.
Under Jennifer L. Nelson’s direction, the cast creates an ideal ensemble in each play out of characters that are both familiar and disparate. One of the pleasures of the pace and the length of the plays is watching an expert company tell a compelling tale, as well as allowing individual members chances to shine, often through monologues (Mr. Johnson has a couple of doozies).
While each play is unique and stands on its own, audiences willing to invest time and patience will be vastly rewarded by seeing both plays.