Friday, January 19, 2018
Features and More

American Stage produces August Wilson's 'Seven Guitars'

ST. PETERSBURG

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 [email protected] tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

   
Comments
‘Mike Hammer - Encore for Murder’ serves up hard-boiled 1950s fare with a healthy side of wit

‘Mike Hammer - Encore for Murder’ serves up hard-boiled 1950s fare with a healthy side of wit

CLEARWATER — From the moment the title character takes center stage, Mike Hammer — Encore for Murder is sold. Rarely does one actor own an entire production the way Gary Sandy owns this world premiere, and it’s a pleasure at watch, in large measure t...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Banksy’s Haight Street Rat coming to Winter Haven gallery

Banksy’s Haight Street Rat coming to Winter Haven gallery

Fans of notorious street artist and activist Banksy won’t have to travel too far to see one of his original pieces, thanks to an exhibit opening on Jan. 27 at the Outer Space Gallery in Winter Haven. The "Haight Street Rat" will be on display, on the...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Inside American Stage’s plan to offer free or reduced admission to young people

Inside American Stage’s plan to offer free or reduced admission to young people

ST. PETERSBURG An air compressor did most of the talking as the small crew stapled down flooring to the stage. A master carpenter kept unskilled but eager workers on track, telling them where to line up edges. An astringent smell of glue permeated t...
Published: 01/18/18
Overtourism and safety cited in Fodor’s where-not-to-go list

Overtourism and safety cited in Fodor’s where-not-to-go list

As you contemplate all those "where to go in 2018" lists, here’s a twist: a list of places to avoid in the new year. The where not to go list is from Fodor’s, the travel guidebook publisher. Fodor’s "no list" includes places plagued by overtourism an...
Published: 01/18/18
Bar review: Florida spirits and brews at the newest Local Draught House in Tampa

Bar review: Florida spirits and brews at the newest Local Draught House in Tampa

I don’t consider myself "old" — though I have gotten into a bad habit of informing door people insistent on checking my ID that I’m halfway to 70. But I’m frequently made aware of how far removed my lifestyle is from that of my 20s.So when I walked i...
Published: 01/18/18
Local craft beer of the week: Electric Wizard IPA from 7venth Sun Brewery

Local craft beer of the week: Electric Wizard IPA from 7venth Sun Brewery

The past six months have been kind to Dunedin’s 7venth Sun Brewery. In August, the brewery’s long-awaited Tampa expansion finally happened, with its much larger Seminole Heights facility and tasting room opening in a town eager to try its range of ul...
Published: 01/18/18
Shake Shack, Momofuku and more: Please come to Tampa Bay

Shake Shack, Momofuku and more: Please come to Tampa Bay

Fabio is coming! Not the Fabio on your romance novel, with the billowing hair and large quantities of artificial butter. This Fabio, in all likelihood, uses real butter. And olive oil. Fabio Viviani, the charming Top Chef alum known for appearances...
Published: 01/17/18
Time to carbo load: Three new bakeries include an Australian bakery, second La Segunda

Time to carbo load: Three new bakeries include an Australian bakery, second La Segunda

LA SEGUNDAA Tampa Bay giant has stirred and is on the move. La Segunda Central Bakery, a family-owned Ybor City institution for nearly 103 years (they celebrated that birthday Jan. 15) and the largest producer of Cuban bread in the world, will open a...
Published: 01/17/18
Shake Shack inches closer to Tampa Bay with new Florida restaurant

Shake Shack inches closer to Tampa Bay with new Florida restaurant

Beloved burger restaurant Shake Shack, which once inspired hungry diners to wait in hours-long lines at New York's Madison Square Park before expanding with dozens of locations across the U.S., is inching closer to Tampa Bay. A lease agreement  with...
Published: 01/17/18
Florida teen is begging Taylor Swift to take him to prom

Florida teen is begging Taylor Swift to take him to prom

A Bradenton teenager isn’t hoping to take just anyone to his senior prom — he’s set his sights high.Dayton Modderman, a senior at Bradenton Christian School, is getting attention across the web for making a prom-posal video asking Taylor Swift to be ...
Published: 01/17/18