Landmark Play by Legendary Black Dramatist Opens Fridaycsudhbulletin February 19, 2020 0 COMMENTS
Director Jozben Barrett (left) works with some of the cast from “Seven Guitars” (Clockwise from top: Jordan Hyman, Tevin Jackson (standing), Nisey Turner and Irene Jones. Photo Cred: Sarai Henriquez
By Sarai Henriquez, Assistant Culture Editor
As an artist and an educator, one of Jozben Barrett’s driving focuses is to tell the untold, or under-told, stories of those who have long been denied the forum to express their voices.
And his directorial debut at CSUDH gives him exactly that opportunity.
Barrett, a lecturer with the CSUDH Theatre and Arts Department since 2017, is staging “Seven Guitars,” a play by two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson, one of the most acclaimed American playwrights of the past 50 years and the most decorated person of color in American theater history.
For Barrett, directing a Wilson play is a dream come true, and he couldn’t be more thrilled to share that experience with his cast.
“August Wilson is a very prolific playwright, and an opportunity to direct one of his plays only comes along every so often [and] an opportunity to be in one of his plays [only] comes along every so often,” Barrett said. “It was an opportunity that every black actor at CSUDH should have, the opportunity to audition.”
Wilson, who passed away in 2005, was a poet and playwright best known for his 10-play cycle that documented the African American experience of the 20th Century. Each of the 10 plays was set in a different decade of the century.
“Seven Guitars” is set in 1948. It is infused by one of the great influences in Wilson’s life, blues music, and, via flashbacks, centers on Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who has just been released from jail and finds that a song he recorded before incarceration has become a surprise hit and he’s asked to sign a record deal.
But issues of identity, the clash of rural and big-city values amid the Black Diaspora of the first half of the 20th Century, and the dynamic between Floyd and his circle of associates complicate his decision.
When Barrett was an undergrad student at Cal State Northridge, he felt that the plays he did were not relatable to him or other people of color. So he and a friend decided to stage Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog” for free to introduce people of color to the theater.
That experience, coupled with participating in a middle school English Language learner program during his second year of grad school at the California Institute of Arts School of Theater showed him his path.
“That’s when I believed in this model that theater can be used as a tool for change,” Barret said. After he graduated from grad school, he landed a job at a community arts partnership. He traveled to lower-served communities in Los Angeles and provided free art programs.
Since then, whether acting directing, producing or educating, Barrett has focused on his mission to help people of all backgrounds find their voice, and to allow people to listen and understand the depth of Black Art by telling the untold and under-told stories of alternative voices, whether they are plays from Black writers like Wilson, Latinx writers such as Nilo Cruz’ “Anna in the Tropics,” or women writers such as Yazmina Reza’s “Art.”
“To have stories about black people, to have stories about brown people, where we see ourselves in these scenarios, is just as important as the discussion of having representation in Hollywood,” Barrett said.
His cast and crew have rehearsed “Seven Guitars” since December
“We are his prodigy, what he is teaching us I want to spread to others,” said Jordan Hyman, a guest actress in the play.
Barrett said he always makes sure that his students and actors are always having fun. He does not let them quit and helps them see the potential he sees in them.
“He has so many connections with so many wonderful people it speaks a testament [to] what kind of person he is,” said Blessing Oluwole, another member of the cast. “He is so genuine in himself as a human being that I just want to be able to always [display] the same type of energy.”
Barrett’s role in mentoring his cast is a throughline to his own mentor, a relationship that further strengthens his connection to Wilson.
Barrett’s mentor was the late actor James Avery who played “Uncle Phil” on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Barrett first met Avery when Barrett was looking for a director to direct another Wilson play called “King Hedley II.”
These people that I was reading in this play, I knew, they did not feel like characters, I felt someone was writing about true life experiences,” Barrett said.
Little did he know that King Hedley’s title character was introduced in the show that would bring Barrett’s talents to CSUDH.
Seven Guitars, University Theater. Opens Fri., Feb. 21. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Thru March 2. $13-$18.www.csudh.edu/theatre-arts/program-productions/