PlayGuide - "August Wilson's Seven Guitars"

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2 August Wilson’s Seven Guitars – PlayGuide Mark Clements ARTISTIC DIRECTOR Chad Bauman EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR PLAYGUIDE WRITTEN BY Lindsey Hoel-Neds CONTENT WRITER PLAYGUIDE EDITED BY Deanie Vallone LITERARY & NEW PLAY CONSULTANT Lisa Fulton CHIEF MARKETING OFFICER MARCH 7 – APRIL 2, 2023 | QUADRACCI POWERHOUSE
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About the Play.................................................................3 Characters......................................................................4 The Century Cycle...........................................................5 About August Wilson.......................................................6 Wilson on the Work.........................................................7 Pittsburgh: Wilson’s City and Soul....................................8 Characters with Disabilities, Mental Health Conditions, or Neurodivergence in Wilson’s Plays..............9 A Brief Early History of Blues Music...............................10 Issues of Structural and Institutional Racism in Seven Guitars................................................12
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Seven Guitars premiered at the Walter Kerr Theatre in March of 1996, starring Keith David and Viola Davis. The play went on to be nominated for several Drama Desk, Drama League, New York Drama Critics’ Circle, Theatre World, Outer Critics Circle, and Tony Awards, as well as the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who played Canewell, won the Tony Award for Featured Actor in a Play; other wins included the New York Drama Critics Circle Award for Best Play, Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Direction of a Play for Lloyd Richards, and several others.

The play is the fifth in the chronological timeline of Wilson’s Century Cycle, but was the seventh to premiere with Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, Two Trains Running, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and The Piano Lesson being produced previously.

Seven Guitars is set in 1948 in the backyard of a Pittsburgh apartment building. The play begins with a gathering after the funeral of bluesman Floyd Barton and follows the events leading up to his death in a series of flashbacks. Barton has returned to Pittsburgh from Chicago where he has recorded his first hit song and hopes to pursue a larger recording career. His friends and fellow musicians Canewell and Red Carter plan to record with him in Chicago. Barton has also just finished a ninety-day sentence at the workhouse for “vagrancy.”

Floyd has returned to Pittsburgh to ask his ex-girlfriend Vera to accompany him back to Chicago, but she is wary, as he has not been faithful to her. Her friend and neighbor, Louise, tells it like it is and offers Vera support as she tries to make the decision.

Also living in the building is Hedley, who is dying of tuberculosis and wants to father a child as part of his legacy, but whose mental health issues color his interactions with others and lead to manic episodes with dire consequences. When Louise’s niece Ruby arrives to stay, Hedley sees an opportunity to pursue her as the mother of his future child, who he believes will be the liberator of all Black people.

As the play progresses, the audience sees the characters reflect on issues of racism, financial hardship, relationship dynamics, music, and surviving in a world determined to perpetuate inequality. The character’s lives are intertwined and circumstances lead to actions that have unalterable consequences.

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Cast of Seven Guitars at A Noise Within, 2021. Photo credit:
Craig Schwartz.

CH A R A CT ERS

H E DL E Y

An older man who has some sort of mental health issue that leads him to delusions and rantings. He is in tune with the world of ghosts and spirits, has strong feelings about the place of Black people in the world, and hopes to sire a sort of messiah to lead his people out of oppression.

In love with Floyd, but wary of his intentions and fidelity. She is good friends with Louise and possibly has reciprocal feelings towards Canewell.

V E R A

A talented blues guitarist and singer who hopes to pursue his dreams of becoming a star. He loves Vera, but has not committed fully to their relationship. He has experienced oppression at the hands of law enforcement and unjust arrest.

FL O Y D

A talented harmonica player who has long lived in Floyd’s musical and personal shadow. He has strong affections for Vera and is quick to anger.

C A N E W E L L

A drummer by trade who has played with Floyd in the past and who is laid-back in counter to Canewell’s fiery personality. He is also a new father.

R E D

C A R T E R

A no-nonsense sort of woman who has a big heart and big presence; she is tough, but also takes care of those around her and supports them in many ways.

LO U ISE

Louise’s pregnant niece who comes to stay after her two lovers get into a fatal conflict. She is free-spirited and hopes to find someone to serve as the father to the child she is carrying.

B A R T O N

R U B Y

4 August Wilson’s Seven Guitars – PlayGuide

THE

C E N T U RY C Y C L E

August Wilson is best known for his Pittsburgh Cycle or Century Cycle plays, a series of ten plays that take place in each decade of the 20th century. The plays reflect the African-American experience during the century while also reflecting cultural shifts in America. All of the plays, except Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Seven Guitars marks the eighth title produced by Milwaukee Rep.

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Gem of the Ocean (1904) Jitney (1977) The Piano Lesson (1936)Seven Guitars (1948)Fences (1957 and 1963)Two Trains Running (1969) Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1911) King Hedley II (1985) Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1927) Radio Golf (1997)
From left: Derrick Weeden as Herald, Caroline Stefanie Clay as Molly (in background), and Helmar Augustus Cooper as Bynum in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Milwaukee Rep 1993-94 season. Photo credit: Mark Avery, UW-M Special Collections Milwaukee Rep Photographic History. Greta Oglesby as Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Milwaukee Rep 2010/11 season. Photo credit: Alan Simons. Samuel L. Jackson in the 2022 Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson Photo credit: Julieta Cervantes. Joy Hooper and Marcuis Harris in Milwaukee Rep’s 2001-02 production of Jitney. Photo by Jay Westhauser. Kierra Bunch and Kelvin Roston Jr. in Court Theatre’s 2019 production of King Hedley II. Photo credit: Michael Brosilow. William C. Mitchell and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson in Milwaukee Rep’s 2009-10 season production of Radio Golf. Photo credit: Jay Westhauser. Lance Reddick in Seven Guitars at Signature Theater Company, 2006. Photo credit: Rahav Segev, New York Times. David Alan Anderson in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s 2015/16 Season production of Fences. Photo by Tim Fuller. Chike Johnson and Malkia Stampley in Milwaukee Rep’s 2018-19 season production of Two Trains Running Photo credit: Mikki Schaffner. Lanise Antoine Shelley and Shane Taylor in Gem of the Ocean, 2006/07 Quadracci Powerhouse Season. Photo credit: Jay Westhauser

Wilson August About

August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. He was the son of Daisy Wilson, an African-American cleaning woman, and Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant and baker, who was not an active part of Wilson’s life. Wilson’s mother raised him and his siblings in a two-room flat, and later remarried and moved her children to a predominantly white neighborhood where Wilson and his siblings experienced bullying and racism.

After being accused of cheating on a paper by a teacher, Wilson dropped out of high school and took his education into his own hands. He spent most of his time at the Carnegie Library, both at the branch in his old neighborhood and at the central location, and was able to expose himself to other great African-American authors. His voracious reading led him to writing poetry and to listening to the voices and stories of the people of the Hill District, which would later inspire his most famous plays.

In 1965, Wilson’s father died, and he changed his name in honor of his mother. That year, he also bought his first typewriter and began his long career. He began to write plays after dabbling in poetry, and in 1969 founded an activist theater company called Black Horizons on the Hill with playwright Rob Penny.

In 1978, Wilson moved from Pittsburgh to Minneapolis, and began to experiment with the voices of the people of “the Hill” that he had observed throughout his life. An early draft of his play Jitney earned him a fellowship at the Minneapolis Playwrights Center. This fellowship led to his acceptance into the National Playwrights’ Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center, where he met his longtime collaborator, director Lloyd Richards. Richards would go on to direct Wilson’s first six plays when they premiered on Broadway.

Wilson is a vital figure in the American theatrical canon, and his works are among the most highly produced and highly regarded plays in American theater. Both Fences and The Piano Lesson won Pulitzer Prizes for Drama. Wilson’s plays have won Tony awards, New York Drama Critics Circle Awards, and numerous other honors. Wilson even earned the sole honorary degree given out by his beloved Carnegie Library.

In 2005, shortly after the premiere of Radio Golf, the final play in his Pittsburgh Cycle, Wilson was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He died on October 2nd of that year. Wilson’s legacy continues on in his work, his unique take on the African-American experience, and his stories that have graced so many stages.

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Wilson Work on the

Despite my interest in history, I have always been more concerned with culture, and while my plays have an overall historical feel, their settings are fictions, and they are peopled with invented characters whose personal histories fit within the historical context in which they live.

I have tried to extract some measure of truth from their lives as they struggle to remain whole in the face of so many things that threaten to pull them asunder. I am not a historian. I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life – her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter – are all worthy of art. Hence Seven Guitars.

- Seven Guitars, Notes from the Playwright

In the Hill District, I was surrounded by all this highly charged, poetic vernacular which was so much part and parcel of life that I didn’t pay any attention to it. But in moving to St. Paul and suddenly being removed from that environment and that language, I began to hear it for the first time and recognize its value.

I still don’t know what works until it works, until I see it working. It wasn’t through seeing other playwrights or reading other plays because I haven’t done much of either of those. Again, you have an intuitive sense that this is dramatic or a nice shape to a scene; you intuitively know how to tell a good story (because all a play is is a story), where the highlights are, what information to withhold, and how to reveal things. This comes from an innate sense of storytelling. Here again you don’t always know what works, but if you have an opportunity to workshop a play, see a production of a play, and sit with the audience in a play, you certainly can tell the parts that don’t work. And then you say, “Show me the parts that do and I’ll make the parts that don’t ... I’ll make them like that.” This is the general idea.

- Wilson on “what works” when writing a play, 1999 interview

I write for the play, if you will. I write to create a work of art that exists on its own terms and is true to itself. I don’t have any particular audience in mind, other than the fact that the play is an artwork which is written with the audience factor sort of built in so that, craft-wise, when you do your exposition, the exposition is for the purpose of the audience knowing certain aspects of the play at certain times, and knowing what happened prior to the events of the play and things of that sort, but I don’t write for a particular audience.

- Wilson on writing for a particular audience, 1999 interview

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- National Endowment for the Humanities Interview
August Wilson in front of a poster for production of Seven Guitars. Photo credit: Getty Images.

PI T T S B U R G H : W I L S O N ’ S CI T Y S O U L A N D

While August Wilson did not spend his entire life in Pittsburgh, his formative years there had a huge influence on his life and his work. He returned to the city often after moving away, and nine of his ten Century Cycle plays take place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. The Pittsburgh, and Hill District, of today have changed drastically from Wilson’s childhood, but the touchstones that held a special place in Wilson’s heart and work are part of the playwright’s and Pittsburgh’s story.

WEIL SCHOOL

August Wilson’s home until the age of 13, this house is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Wilson used the house as the conceptual setting for Seven Guitars, which takes place in the backyard of a similar home. The home is currently under renovation, with plans for it to reopen as a cultural center for The Hill District in honor of August Wilson’s legacy. Read more about The August Wilson House here: augustwilsonhouse.org.

Wilson was an avid library-goer as a child and throughout his life, letting books capture and ignite his imagination. This branch of the Carnegie Library system in Wilson’s childhood neighborhood has taken on new life as a mosque in recent years.

If you are in Pittsburgh and would like to visit locations highlighted in Wilson’s plays, or important in Wilson’s life, the following resources can be your guides:

Wilson frequented this library and his local branch after he dropped out of school and took his education into his own hands. The expansive collection and huge reading rooms gave Wilson space to explore his interests.

August Wilson’s Pittsburgh – The New York Times

Following August Wilson – Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

August Wilson: Pittsburgh Places in His Life and Plays by Laurence A. Glasco

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1727 BED F O RD AV E N U E
MAIN BRANCH C A R N E GI E L IBR A R Y
C A R N E GI E L IBR A R Y HILL DISTRICT BRANCH
Still an operating public school, August Wilson and playwright Rob Penny created Black Horizon Theater in 1968 at this location. August Wilson House with future plan diagram laid over image. Photo credit: August Wilson House. Pittsburgh Weil School. Photo Credit: Discover PBS. Former Carnegie Library, Hill District Branch. Photo credit: Father Pitt. Main reading room of Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh Main Branch. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

CO

D IS A BIL ITI E S, M E N T A L HE A L T H

N D ITI O N S , O R N E UR O DIV E R G E N CE

CHARACTERS WITH IN WILSON’S PLAYS

In several of Wilson’s plays, characters with seeming neurological disabilities or neurodivergence appear as a repeated trope: Hedley in Seven Guitars, Hambone in Two Trains Running, Gabriel in Fences, and Stool Pigeon in King Hedley II. Wilson referred to these characters as “spectacle” characters. Jim Shea characterizes the commonality of these characters thusly: “August Wilson’s spectacle characters share many of the same qualities: nonsensical dialogue, comic relief, disruption within the play, but all the while foreshadowing what is to come within the play.” Harry Elam Jr. explains their importance as, “Paradoxically, in Wilson’s works those characters who appear mentally impaired, besieged by madness, unable to grasp the reality of the world around them, represent a connection to a powerful, transgressive spirituality, to a lost African consciousness, and to a legacy of black social activism.”

Sometimes, critics or producers have not understood the importance of these characters in Wilson’s dramas. In fact, when Fences was brought to Broadway, a producer wanted to remove Gabriel from the play altogether - she insisted that she and audiences would not understand him or his role within the narrative and see him as a comical character with little significance. This insistence not only misunderstood the importance of Gabriel to the plot of the play, but also promoted an ableist and normative viewpoint of the production. Critics have sometimes highlighted these characters as being extraneous or comical, distracting from the play’s larger purpose. Indeed, in a review of the original Broadway production of Seven Guitars, a critic referred to the subplot with Hedley as “rather melodramatic,” and the other characters within this group have often been called out as incongruous to their respective stories.

Scholar Sandra Shannon points to the characters’ purpose as, “For Wilson, such characters become forceful metaphors; their significance to the play may be measured in terms of the multiple and profound interpretations they make possible.” Many of these characters fixate or highlight injustices perpetrated upon them for not only their disabilities or neurodivergence, but also their blackness - financial, institutional, incarceration, and other restrictions and repression of their agency.

While Wilson said that these characters are fully integrated into the communities in which they live, there are several cases in the plays where they are seen as “problems” to be dealt with; Gabriel in Fences is institutionalized, some characters in Two Trains Running see Hambone’s fixation as a nuisance, and several characters in Seven Guitars conspire to have Hedley tested and treated by a health system he does not trust.

Although characters such as Hedley, Gabriel, Hambone, and Stool Pigeon are not often the center of their dramas, they are essential to Wilson’s storytelling and provide powerful meaning nonetheless. Stacie McCormick highlights their importance in the plays: “Together these characters shed light on the interlocking oppressions of blackness and disability while also demonstrating the power that comes when one demands recognition in the face of erasure.”

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Frank Britton as Hambone in Milwaukee Rep’s production of Two Trains Running, 2019. Photo credit: Mikki Schaffner. Terry Bellamy) as Gabriel in Milwaukee Rep’s production of Fences, 2016. Photo credit: Tim Fuller.

BR IEF, E AR L Y A OF H ISTORY

BL U E S M U S I C

The story of the Blues began in the Mississippi Delta after the Civil War as a folk music; as formerly enslaved people migrated throughout the South and to other parts of the country, the musical form came with them. The genre gained popularity and could be heard in many different settings; traveling musicians accompanied traveling doctors, magicians, circuses, and other musical troupes. Musicians played juke-joints, clubs, brothels, and street corners. Because of Jim Crow laws, audiences in performances were segregated, but this allowed Black Blues artists to take ownership of the genre on their own terms.

In 1903, bandleader W.C. Handy first heard the Blues while waiting for a train and was captivated by the original and soulful sounds. Handy later said it was "the weirdest music I had ever heard." With formal musical training, Handy was able to quickly transcribe the music he heard from the street performer, capturing what we now know as the 12-bar Blues structure. He was later commissioned to write a campaign song for a mayoral candidate in his adopted home of Memphis. He composed “Memphis Blues,” the first recorded example of Blues music written and published as sheet music in 1912. Handy would later be known as “Father of the Blues.”

Just eight short years after the publishing of “Memphis Blues,” Marnie Smith’s recording of “Crazy Blues” sold over a million copies. Smith was the first Black woman to record a Blues vocal, and its success made record labels realize that so-called “race records” (aka music performed by Black artists) could be highly profitable.

The “Mother of the Blues” was singer and bandleader, Ma Rainey. Ma Rainey started her career singing in her family’s traveling act, but, like Handy, was moved by the Blues after hearing a performance. She became one of the most well-known Blues performers, mentored Bessie Smith, and played with the likes of Louis Armstrong. A fictionalized version of Ma Rainey is the centerpiece of another of August Wilson’s Century Cycle plays: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

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W.C. Handy, 1941. Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress. “Ma” Rainey, 1917. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

In the 1940s, artists who had migrated to more urban surroundings looked to electric instruments to modernize the traditional Blues sound. Musicians like Muddy Waters added electric guitars, harmonicas, drums, and bass to give their type of Blues a new sound. This new sound became popular on the radio and in record stores, but was eclipsed in the 1950s with the advent of rock n’ roll.

Blues music had a huge influence on many rock n’ roll artists and many white artists used songs originally recorded by Black artists for their own gain. While artists like The Rolling Stones championed their Blues idols, leading to renewed interest in the genre and tours for Blues artists abroad in the U.K., artists like Elvis Presley, Led Zeppelin, and many others built their brands on the backs of Black artists. One of the most famous examples is Elvis’ hit “Hound Dog,” which was originally recorded by Big Mama Thorton just four years before Elvis released the song.

Blues music may not have the popularity it once did, but its influence continues to be felt throughout the musical world. There are still many clubs and artists keeping Blues alive and making music unlike any other.

CHARACTERISTICS OF BLUES MUSIC

• Guitar- or piano-based instrumentation

In addition to guitar (often slide guitar) or piano, blues combos also usually include bass and drums, and many blues singers also double on harmonica.

• Twelve-bar AAB song form

• Call and response is common to the form

• Dissonant harmonies

• Syncopated rhythm

• Most blues songs center on the major and minor pentatonic scales with flattened “blue notes” thrown in.

• Country blues is the earlier blues tradition and Urban blues evolved after The Great Migration.

• There are dozens of types of Blues music, but some of the most notable include: Delta Blues, Chicago Blues, Memphis Blues, Boogie Woogie, Jump Blues, and New Orleans Blues.

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Bessie Smith, 1936. Photo credit: Carl Van Vechten, Library of Congress. Sheet music from “The St. Louis Blues,” 1914. Image credit: Wikipedia. Muddy Watters, 1976. Photo credit: Wikipedia.

T R U C T U R A L AND

I NS TI T UTI O N A L RACISM

SEVEN GUITARS

RACISM IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY OF THE MIDCENTURY AND THE POLICING OF BLACK BODIES

FLOYD BARTON SINGS THE BLUES: DREAMS DEFERRED BY RACISM IN THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

the Black culture such as blues, jazz, gospel, and others. These records were marketed towards Black audiences and highlighted Black performers, but did not give the Black community the benefits befitting their popularity.

In Seven Guitars, Floyd sets out to find his place in a music industry made to exploit him and other talented musicians of color. In the play we learn that Floyd has recorded music in Chicago and is planning to return, but has not gotten the compensation that he rightfully deserves for his talents. This story was not uncommon for many Black artists of his time.

During the early days of recorded music, producers did not quite understand that there was an audience for the performances of musicians of color, more specifically Black musicians. Once producers caught on that there was money to be made, “race record” departments became a part of many major record labels, highlighting the music of Black artists and genres that originated in

Most record labels were run by white people who profited off the labor of Black artists; there were a few labels run by Black producers, but “Segregation and racism, combined with only fleeting access to capital, technology, and distribution—which were almost exclusively controlled by whites—placed the African-American labels at a disadvantage and ultimately contributed to their quick demise,” notes historian Matthew A. Killmeier. Many albums were published without the artist’s name attached, so artists were unable to parlay recording success into touring gigs. Many songs were previously unpublished, so labels bought the recording rights along with the recordings themselves and could have anyone record the pieces again or could sell the songs for profit. Black artists often recorded without contracts or without royalty agreements, leading them to little to no compensation for their work. Starting in the 1920s, labels took portable equipment to the South and recorded local performances with unknown artists who were never recognized or acknowledged for their work.

Eventually, the “race records” became popular with white audiences as well, and they were rebranded as “Rhythm & Blues,” but often the unethical treatment of Black artists continued.

12 August Wilson’s Seven Guitars – PlayGuide
IN
I S S U E S OF
S
Record Rendezvous in Cleveland, a store that specialized in “race records.” Photo credit: Getty.

“I KNOW HOW THE POLICE DO”: INEQUITY IN THE POLICING OF BLACK PEOPLE

In Seven Guitars, the post-WWII world of Pittsburgh presents many challenges for the main characters, but one of the most relevant to our contemporary reality is the unjust policing reflected in the stories of the Black men in the play. Several characters reflect on past and present encounters with law enforcement in which their race seemed to factor heavily into their treatment. The inequity in treatment of Black people by law enforcement, but more specifically Black men, has been a social justice crisis for hundreds of years in America from slave patrols to the Civil Rights Movement to now. This topic has been

brought to more stark light in recent years with the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Dontre Hamilton, and countless others which have led to extensive protesting and outrage, drawing attention to the injustice and social justice movements such as Black Lives Matter.

This topic is more complex and nuanced than we can possibly address in this PlayGuide, but it is a topic that is important in the play and to August Wilson, and continues to color our national identity.

• Between 1900-1950, racial disparities in Northern prison populations doubled.

• In the 1940s, the correctional institution system emerged in the Nor th, but rehabilitative programming was reserved for incarcerated white people.

• During the Civil Rights Movement, many politicians made the false connection between rising social activism and street crime.

• In the 1970s, an exponential rise in mass incarceration began. In 1970, the U.S. prison population was 196,429; by 2022, it was over 1.2 million.

• While white people comprise 62% of the American population, they only represent 32% of the prison population, with almost all other ethnic and racial groups being overrepresented (2016).

• The rate of fatal police shootings of unarmed Black people in the U.S. is more than three times as high as it is among white people.

IN MILWAUKEE AND WISCONSIN

• According to a 2021 repor t, Milwaukee Police Department conducts traffic stops on Black residents 9.5 times more often than white residents.

• The same repor t shares that Black Milwaukeeans are frisked at a rate 10 times higher than white residents.

• One in every 36 Black adults in Wisconsin is in prison (2021 The Sentencing Project report). Black people account for 6% of the Wisconsin populace, but 42% of the prison population. Black people are incarcerated at 12 times the rate of white Wisconsinites.

• Black Wisconsinites are 11.9% more likely to be imprisoned than white Wisconsinites.

• Wisconsin imprisons people of color at a much higher rate than the national average.

• Wisconsin spends 10.7% more on the corrections system than the national average.

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BLACK/WHITE INCARCERATION RATIOS Milwaukee Black Lives Matter Protest, 2020. Photo credit: Graham Kilmer, Urban Milwaukee.

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Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex is located in the Milwaukee Center downtown at the corner of Wells and Water Streets. The building was formerly the home of the Electric Railway and Light Company. The Ticket O ce is visible on the left upon entering the Wells Street doors. The Quadracci Powerhouse is located on the rst level.
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