At Howard, remarkable students with old souls play August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’

Returning to the College of Fine Arts on Howard’s campus brought back a flood of rich memories of my encounters with what we called the “Fine Arts Freaks” back in the day. And drinking in the collage of famous graduates showcased in the lobby such as Chadwick Boseman, after whom the building is now named, Taraji P. Henson, Department Chair  Nikkole Salter, and the newly appointed Dean Phylicia Rashad brought full circle the department’s power to groom and produce world-class talent.

Vera (Mya Hunter) cares for the herb garden planted by Hedley, in ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Myeves Lucien.

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars provided Howard’s Department of Theatre Arts with its latest opportunity to showcase an abundance of new talent including Director Jeff Kirkman III, a 2013 HU graduate with a BFA in acting, who is currently serving with Baltimore Center Stage’s artistic producing team, where he launched his directing career as an assistant director in The Raisin Cycle (A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, Clybourne Park by Bruce Norris, and Beneatha’s Place by Kwame Kwei-Armah).

Canewell (Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper) reads the news of Schoolboy’s death as Vera (Mya Hunter) listens on, in ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Myeves Lucien.

When I asked Jeff what inspired him to take on this August Wilson classic, he said, “August Wilson’s play Jitney is what got me interested in theater, and a monologue from that same play allowed me to be admitted into the Department of Theatre Arts. Directing Seven Guitars adds another point to the circle because this production is the first post-pandemic opportunity to get the students in the theatre arts department back on stage. I am honored to be back at Howard and lead the students in this production.”

And a remarkable cast of young college students with old souls was chosen to fill the well-traveled shoes of seven road-weary musicians and their loved-starved “other halves,” from Mississippi to Chicago and Pittsburgh and back.

The musical undercurrent is driven by the ambitious dreams of Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, played by Shawn Smith, who after serving time on a trumped-up charge, wants to get his guitar out of the pawn shop and return to Chicago, with his side men harmonica player Canewell, played by Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper, and Red Carter, a smooth trash-talking, pistol-packing gangster, played with solid street creds by Matthew Margerum.

But Seven Guitars is as much about the women in Floyd’s life as about the music. And here is where the southern undercurrent of Mississippi bubbles to the surface and explodes with Louise, the broken-hearted boarding house matron, played by Mississippi native Ahdis Beruk, opening the play with the sultry song of “Try My Cabbage.” She and her equally love-starved friend Vera, played by Mya Hunter, who was abandoned by Floyd on his last trip to Pittsburgh, listen to crazy chicken sandwich maker Hedley, played to a psychotic twist by Julius Shanks II, as he foreshadows the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton.

The final ingredient is provided by the late arrival of Ruby, Louise’s foot-loose and fancy niece from Chicago, played by Madeline Phillips, a senior acting major from Meridian, Mississippi, who completes the authentic southern flavor of the student cast, who together deliver an authentic take on mature mid-life characters played in the original Broadway production by stage and film veterans Viola Davis as Vera, Keith David as Floyd, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Canewell.

Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton (Shawn Smith) dazzles the house with his pawn shop liberated guitar, in ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Myeves Lucien.

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars represents these seven characters’ last chance at fame, fortune, and love in post-WWII Pittsburgh, and plays on Wilson’s recurrent themes of the violent and soul-crushing trauma of prison and white exploitation of Black males represented by the symbolic slaughter and hatred of the Rooster, as Floyd’s blind ambition leads to a tragic and bitter ending.

The creative team was led by Director Jeff Kirkman III, supported by design team members Harlan Penn and Gregory Jackson (set); Professor Benny Gomes (lighting); Jason Jones (sound); and Professor Frankie Bethea, who coordinated an 18-member costume team of students that nailed the felt-hat, zoot-suit-with-vest, and gold-watch-chain-wearing styles of 1940s Black men as well as the slithering yet sophisticated below-the-knees dress styles of urban Black women of the period.

Hedley (Julius Shanks II) envisions the future after the death of Floyd as Canewell (Kah’lil Hicks-Jumper), Vera (Mya Hunter), and Louise (Ahdis Beruk) grieve in the final boarding house scene, in ‘Seven Guitars.’ Photo by Myeves Lucien.

The production also gave 13 student members of the run crew — 5 members of the makeup and hair crew, 2 set designers, and a behind-the-scenes collection of another 2 student stage managers and a fight choreographer and marketing team — an opportunity to earn more than college credits.

In true collaborative fashion, the creative team included Professors Hammond, the dramaturg; Professor Jackson, technical direction; and Professor Frankie Bethea, costume design.

Running Time: Two hours 30 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.

Seven Guitars played November 3 to 6, 2022, presented at Howard University by the Chadwick A. Boseman College of Fine Arts Department of Theatre Arts performing in the intimate 50-seat Al Freeman Jr. Environmental Theatre Space. Originally presented at the National Playwright’s Conference of The Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.