William “Bill” Earl Ray has the challenging task of playing Hedley in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, a mystery and mediation on seven Black lives in Pittsburgh in 1948. Unlike the other characters, Hedley isn’t recently arrived from the Deep South. He’s from Haiti, roots that result in a different perspective from the others.
“If all you see in Hedley is that he’s crazy, you’re not listening to what he’s saying,” Ray says. “He keeps telling you, ‘Mark my words.’ He can quote the Bible. He can read. He just goes to a different sphere than most people.
“You feel his spirit – that’s how you play Hedley” Ray adds. “Somebody’s feeling something, that’s how you play it.”
Ray finds a kindred spirit in the character Hedley. “I’ve felt his pain, his anger, his need for survival, for love.”
Growing up in Jim Crow Texas, Ray recalls walking into the white-only restroom.
“I walked in there to see what was different,” Ray says. Nothing. “It still stinks.” Like Hedley, who descends from enslaved people, Ray notes, “you grow up in a situation where something is not quite right.”
In addition to emotional resonance, Ray brings life experience to Seven Guitars. Not least, a personal relationship with August Wilson himself.
The two first crossed paths at a book signing in Seattle. The great writer took time to counsel Ray who was heading back to Texas to play Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Next, Ray was cast as understudy for Boy Willie in Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. Wilson attended all the rehearsals, giving notes and working closely with another famous name in Black theater, the great director Lloyd Richards.
Ray says he continues to reap life-long benefits from the potent creative experience created by these two giants of Black American theater. PassinArt’s forthcoming production of Seven Guitars will be Ray’s eighth production of Wilson’s work as actor and/or director.
The decision to dedicate his creative life to theater happened while Ray was stationed with the US Army in Korea.
“I went to see a play. There were Black people on stage!” he exclaims. It was The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. “At that moment, I knew what I was going to do.”
As PassinArt’s artistic associate, Ray will also be directing Seven Guitars (assisted by Jill Giedt). In addition, he runs the company’s summer theater workshops, which most recently graduated Iyania McClendon into the role of assistant stage manager for Seven Guitars.
Ray says he finds his proudest moments in this work.
“Working with young people and seeing a sense of achievement in their demeanor,” is the reward, he says. “Otherwise I don’t know why I stay in theater,” he jokes. “It doesn’t pay me.”