Kim Sullivan has been in all of the August Wilson plays produced by American Stage, one in each of the past five seasons, and he likes the way things are going. "This experiment is in the groove right now," Sullivan said during a lunch break in rehearsal for Seven Guitars last Friday. "This August Wilson train is rolling along just fine. People are used to the language. They know what to expect. August is no longer a stranger to them. There's no reason this train can't keep on running."
With Seven Guitars, the Wilson play that opens this week, American Stage is halfway through the playwright's century cycle, 10 plays depicting African-American life, one for each decade in the 20th century, all but one set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. The production is directed by Bob Devin Jones, who previously staged Wilson's Gem of the Ocean and King Hedley II for the company.
"This is a very gutsy undertaking," said Alan Bomar Jones, who has been in four of the five American stage productions. "It is the smartest way for a theater to integrate its audience. Even if it is just one show a season, the main thing is that it's consistent. African-Americans now feel wanted coming here."
In Seven Guitars, which takes place in 1948, Sullivan and Jones play musicians (as they also did in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom last season), Canewell, a harmonica player, and Red Carter, a drummer, respectively. They're in a band led by Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a blues singer with a hit record.
But as the play begins, Floyd's girlfriend and friends are mourning his death, and then, in a flashback, Wilson explores the mystery: Who killed Floyd Barton?
Wilson loved music, especially jazz, and many of his plays are about musicians. "Ideally, what August wanted was actors who can actually play music," Sullivan said. "We can't always do that. You have to find ways to fake it."
Then the actor pulled a harmonica from his pocket and played a riff or two, sounding good.
"Well, he's got a guy here who can play the harmonica — and hopefully a real harmonica player won't come to see this play," Sullivan said, laughing. "I can't really play. I play at it. If somebody put sheet music in front of me, I'd be lost. But I can make it sound like and seem like I'm a real harmonica player."
Jones was a high school drum major, growing up in Dayton, Ohio. "So I've had some experience handling the sticks, and that comes in handy in Seven Guitars," he said.
Sullivan and Jones both have long August Wilson resumes. Sullivan has been in eight of the 10 plays in the century cycle; Jones has been in seven. Sullivan met the playwright, who died in 2005, a couple of times.
"August saw me in Seven Guitars and Ma Rainey," Sullivan said. "I was a pup when I met him, and it was 'Mr. Wilson' this and 'Mr. Wilson' that. I was very respectful. He seemed to like what he saw (in Sullivan's acting) because I know that he would insist that people not be cast in his plays if he didn't like them. He never put that bad mouth on me. He was charming, personable, a very nice guy."
Sullivan, who lives in New York, would see Wilson at the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street near the theater district.
"He'd hold court," the actor said. "I saw him there after going to a performance of Ma Rainey, which was a play that I didn't understand when I first saw it, and I had to go through the motions and tell him how great it was, because you don't walk up to a playwright and say, 'I didn't get your play.' I didn't want him to think I was stupid or naïve. I certainly didn't want to insult him.
"I also got the impression that he was somebody you didn't mess with. You could see that he had grit. Eventually I got a chance to do the play myself, go through all its intricacies, and then I understood it and realized how great this man really was."
Jones never met Wilson, but the playwright's eldest sister, Linda Jean Kittle, has seen the actor in several Pittsburgh productions. "She grabbed my hand after a performance of Seven Guitars, when I was playing Canewell, and she said, 'I've never seen anybody play him that way, and I loved your performance, really loved it,' and she gave me this big old hug," he said.
The Wilson style, with its long, meandering speeches, can be a challenge. "As a black actor, I think he is our Shakespeare," Jones said. "I find that you've got to lock into the August Wilson rhythm, the August Wilson cadence, because when you think that you're supposed to do a monologue slow all the way through, you've missed the point of the monologue, and you're going to lose the audience. When the important part of the monologue comes, you'll know and that's when to pull back a little bit. I took me several years of doing it to figure that out."
John Fleming can be reached at fleming@ tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.