A Tale of Two Reps

Two plays at two Reps expose the cultural apartheid of St. Louis

Rather, as in Seven Guitars, Wilson's stage erupts with joy, sorrow, anguish, pain and anger. Wilson does not soothe. He presents hauntingly beautiful moments, such as when the central protagonist, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (J. Samuel Davis) remembers how his mother used to sing the Lord's Prayer, then sings it, with all the emotional loss the memory engenders. Compare this with the musical interludes of Avenue X, and you find the difference between entertainment and art. Avenue X pleases with pretty sounds; Seven Guitars uses music to deepen the story, to provide shadings and color and open more penetrating visions of the heart.

A few nights later, in the Grandel Theatre, among a mostly African-American audience, the difference between the real deal -- in terms of "relevance" to the community -- and the pap is obvious. In Seven Guitars, for example, three African-American men -- Floyd, Red (Thomas Jefferson Byrd) and Canewell (Kim Sullivan) -- spend some time good-naturedly comparing and contrasting the virtues of their weapons of choice -- a .38, a .32 and a knife, respectively. There's great humor in this, as there is the chill of reality -- these men who have gained our sympathies are also violent, even dangerous men. Three black men with weapons in their hands means one thing to an African-American audience. We're left to imagine what it would mean in Webster Groves, where issues of race are served with the easy-to-swallow plea for peace, love and understanding.

The cultural apartheid of St. Louis is not institutional. It's not that blacks aren't welcome at the Rep or that whites aren't welcome at the Black Rep. It's about where blacks and whites choose to go; it's about where they feel more comfortable. And so the two institutions serve their audiences.

Can't we all just get along? Avenue X has nothing more to say than that.
J. Bruce Summers
Can't we all just get along? Avenue X has nothing more to say than that.

Avenue X means well, but it doesn't demand that the audience look in on itself or look -- with a harsh light -- at the lives the Rep patrons choose to accept. The view outside the windows of the SUV doesn't change.

Leaving Seven Guitars, you walk down broken sidewalks, notice deteriorating buildings and vacant lots, see the Sun sign glowing like a tutu on an arthritic. The play doesn't take you out of this landscape but makes you see it more vividly, makes you think there is a cause for the squalor. Seven Guitars confronts important issues of relevance to our community.

And it won't resolve them for you, whatever community you may be from.

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