Pitt Stages brings August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’ back to Pittsburgh

By Sarah Pine, For The Pitt News

KJ Gilmer, the director of Pitt Stage’s production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” drew inspiration from August Wilson’s archives in the University Library System while preparing for the play.

“Any August Wilson play is big, it’s a monster, and it takes a lot of people to get the show off the ground,” Gilmer said. “It takes a lot of commitment, time and collaboration between staff and students.” 

Pitt Stages is presenting “Seven Guitars,” written by August Wilson, to celebrate the arrival of 450 boxes of August Wilson’s archives to Hillman Library. The production will run this week from Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. General admission is $15 for students and the show is held at the Charity Randall Theatre. 

“Seven Guitars” takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, and tells the story of six friends who are mourning the mysterious loss of their friend Floyd Barton, who nearly made his big break as a blues musician before his death. The play features four professional actors and three student actors.

Spanning nearly three hours, the production requires a lot of teamwork among cast and crew, Gilmer said.

“The show is three hours long, and I can honestly say that we have probably done each scene in rehearsal maybe three times tops because it is just so long,” Gilmer said. “It’s hard to get all the scenes rehearsed in a normal three-week period.”

Miya Gaines, a junior majoring in linguistics and theater arts, plays the role of Louise in the show. She said she liked the production’s set, which is a backyard containing clotheslines and chicken cages.

“I loved the costuming. Karen, our director, was also our costume designer, and she has a particular eye for accuracy, especially with historic works like this, so costuming is really cool,” Gaines said. “Our set design is beautiful. I especially loved the levels to our set because we have multiple stories going on, so I think that that was another really cool element that we had going.”

With the mix of professional actors and students, Gilmer explained the mentorship that occurred behind the scenes.

“Everybody is really excited, and the spirit of collaboration has been working throughout,” Gilmer said. “It happens constantly between Floyd and Vera on stage. She hasn’t acted very much, so the support that he gives her is really nice to see.”

Mariam Ahmed, a junior communication major, plays the role of Vera, Floyd’s girlfriend, in her first production with Pitt Stages. Ahmed explained the challenges of preparing for the play.

“Especially just this play being a real, more deep play, at first it was a little bit hard for me to tap into those emotions that my character was feeling,” Ahmed said. “The energy of the characters who had more experience, and their talent, really influenced me to do better, and I learned a lot from them and what they did.”

Gaines said she also experienced challenges while preparing for the production, but found that working with the professional actors was very rewarding.

“It was definitely a bit intimidating at first, but once we all kind of hung out more outside of rehearsal, and just got to know each other a lot better, we just came together as a really good crew overall, like a great rag-tag team of people trying to put on the show,” Gaines said.

Gilmer said the play, although taking place in the 1940s, still embodies a lot of the African American experiences now. The characters face police brutality and financial struggles. 

“I think that it sheds light on the African American experience during that time and how things really have not changed,” Gilmer said,  “So I find it interesting with the parallels and the connections that the play makes in 1948 and what the play says by doing it now in 2023.” 

Ahmed mirrors this sentiment by explaining her relationship with her character, Vera. 

“[Vera] embodies an independent woman even though this play is in the 1940s — she still represents an independent woman that is not afraid to put her foot down and speak her mind when she needs to, and I feel like that is something that is really relatable, not just to me, but to a lot of women,” Ahmed said.

Gaines also brought up the show’s relevance, citing her family as inspiration for her character.

“I feel like because I really relate [Louise] to people in my family — we’re very outspoken and we’re extremely honest — so I definitely understood her in that regard,” Miya said. “Honestly, Louise felt like playing an older version of myself, which is kind of scary.”

Gilmer said an important piece to this production, especially in relation to Pitt, is the August Wilson archives. The materials now belong to Hillman Library, in part by the efforts of Hillman Librarian and director of the University Library System Kornelia Tancheva

“It has to be presented in a certain way because we are talking about Hill District in 1948, so there are a lot of people who are from Pittsburgh who will see this,” Gilmer said. “You try to create an atmosphere using [Wilson’s] words and the Hill District to uplift this play.” 

Gaines also said research was important while preparing for the production.

“I did a lot of research about culture related to the 1940s, especially during this time post-war, and also because I’m not native to Pittsburgh,” Gaines said. “Which, now that we have the August Wilson archive at Hillman, is much easier, so that’s great.”