Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson loves to share this story (which I heard him tell at a theater conference): An African-American woman who usually doesn't attend theater hears of a local black ensemble and decides to see a show. When asked why she came, she replies, "I understand there's something going on here that concerns me." For 20 years, Wilson has been writing plays that concern individuals yet tell a larger story -- along the way attracting many non-theatergoers; Seven Guitars, which opens at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre this week, is no different.
Wilson's plays nimbly walk the line between politics and entertainment. Though he's in the process of writing a 10-play cycle that chronicles each decade of the black experience in the 20th century (not in chronological order), you won't get a depressing history lesson here: His characters have the "You go, girl" attitude of a raunchy daytime talk show (without the hair-pulling, of course). Seven Guitars, the fourth installment in the series, premiered in Chicago in 1995.
Set in Pittsburgh's Hill District, Seven Guitars takes place in 1948, the age of the atom bomb. You can't get much more absurd -- or optimistic -- than playing jazz in the face of nuclear war, but that's just what Wilson's characters do. Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a murdered blues guitarist, has just been buried; his six friends return home to reminisce. The rest of the play is a flashback to the previous week, chronicling Schoolboy's journey from hope to despair and, ultimately, death.
Admission is $25-32
By deftly portraying black angst and yet still entertaining audiences with his music- and dance-infused plays, Wilson has racked up two Pulitzers -- and gotten butts in seats across the country.