A Tab Bit of Tea | Behind the Scenes on August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars”’

A Tab Bit of Tea is a biweekly blog about being backstage in theater

By Elizabeth Amstutz, For The Pitt News

If you’re a part of the theater community and someone mentions Pittsburgh, there’s always one person that comes to mind — August Wilson. Wilson, one of the greatest and most influential artists from the city, has left his mark across the world — he even has a Broadway theater named after him. It wouldn’t feel correct to say that I did theater in Pittsburgh without saying I did an August Wilson show.

So when I joined the Pitt Theatre Department’s production of Wilson’s “Seven Guitars,” I knew I was doing something big. “Seven Guitars” is part of Wilson’s infamous Century Cycle of plays, a series of ten plays set in a different decade across the 20th century. Like most August Wilson shows, the play is set in Pittsburgh, specifically the Hill District, and follows the ambition of an aspiring blues singer.

Not only was this my first lighting design for the University, but this was also a show with a lot of attention on it. The library was about to accept the August Wilson Archives, and the August Wilson House was supporting the production in honor of Wilson and Black History Month. I would be lying if I said I didn’t feel the pressure of living up to such big expectations. I didn’t just want to honor Wilson, I wanted to honor the Theatre Department, my friends working on the show and the city of Pittsburgh itself.

I remember learning about the history of the Hill District my first year, particularly how fundamental the location was in cultivating Black culture in the 20th century. Romare Bearden was another artist that emerged from Pittsburgh in the 1900s and was a huge inspiration for August Wilson. Our director shared research images of Beardan’s work to guide the designs for the show. What struck me about Bearden’s pieces was the bold pops of color meshed with a collage style. His images felt like a puzzle — different textures and tones all blended into a collective work.

I was inspired to use the same theme in my own lighting design. I decided to use pops of color in the window frames on stage and play with different lighting textures on the set. I layered lights upon lights to create my own collage. I wanted the lights to feel as innovative and bold as the Hill District felt to Wilson. Looking back, I think my work was successful, and I’m incredibly proud of it. The director loved the design choices I made, and I’m so happy that I got to support a story that means a lot to the department and the city itself.

Beyond the lighting design, simply working on the show was an experience I’ll never forget. Throughout the whole process, the sheer passion the rest of the collaborators felt was remarkable.

My friend, who was the assistant director on the project, kept speaking about how honored she was to give the Black community more visibility while also helping the audience cultivate an appreciation of theater.

Working with professional theater artists who have worked in the business for decades is daunting, but all the students on the show really leaned on each other for support. Without my peers, I couldn’t imagine getting through this production alone. One of the most memorable parts of the entire process, though, was the opening night reception.

Moments before we opened the doors for the first show, those working on the production were invited to join other members of the University and the community to gather for a small celebration. But the most exciting part by far was our special guest — the mayor of Pittsburgh, Ed Gainey. It was unbelievable watching him speak to all of us about the power and relevance August Wilson still holds and how Wilson inspired his own life. Meeting the mayor was certainly a major highlight of my life, and I even got a photo with him.

Bringing the mayor and so many other important figures in the community to our show made me realize how important our work is. Theater holds weight in the community and is especially important when it tells stories that are always prevalent but rarely heard. It’s been an honor to support others in telling these stories and getting to experience August Wilson’s vision in Pittsburgh itself.