Seven Guitars

Goodman Theatre

In the United States, becoming a professional musician was a permitted way for a black man to achieve and move up the caste-class ladder. The few extra pennies or dollars that the black musician earned put him a notch up economically; he became a catch for all the girls….The keenest pain of poverty and homelessness is losing love and family, and the constant refrain of the blues is the faithlessness of lovers.

–Alan Lomax, The Land Where the Blues Began

Women and money….Them is the two things that get most people killed.

–Canewell, in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars

In the first scene of Seven Guitars–August Wilson’s new play, receiving its world premiere in an exquisitely acted and vividly designed Goodman Theatre production–a group of friends gather to toast the memory of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a blues musician murdered just as he was about to make it big. Wound up after their pal’s wake, two of Floyd’s sidemen suddenly begin to argue, only half in jest, over a leftover piece of sweet potato pie. Intruding on the quarrel before it escalates, Floyd’s bereaved lover Vera admonishes the men to stop: “There’s plenty to go around.”

Before the end of this long, sprawling tragedy, more than one man will die fighting for “a piece of the pie.” Structured as an extended flashback recounting the events leading to Floyd’s slaying, Seven Guitars offers a series of poetic variations on an elemental theme: the quest for affirmation, reflected in the pursuit of financial success and love. Women and money are the desires that preoccupy Floyd and his pals in their daily lives and in the songs they sing. Thwarted in those desires, the men who populate the Hill District of late-1940s Pittsburgh (the setting not only of the play but of Wilson’s real-life childhood) fantasize about escaping from or triumphing over the white bosses who own everything from the blues bars and record companies to the hospital and the police force. But–in a pattern as ancient as the African slave trade and as up-to-date as drive-by shootings and the Malcolm X/Louis Farrakhan controversy–their hopes are crushed by senseless, self-destructive black-on-black violence.

Yet as grim as its subject matter is, Seven Guitars is possibly Wilson’s most lyrical and exhilarating play. A howl of despair for wasted lives, it’s also a celebration of the sung and spoken oral tradition that records those lives. The blues have always been a major influence on Wilson’s work (one of his “four Bs,” along with collagist Romare Bearden, novelist Jorge Luis Borges, and playwright Amiri Baraka), but the music has never permeated his writing as fully as it does here. Even in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, inspired by the 1920s blues star, there was a clear boundary between the music the characters made and the words they spoke. In Seven Guitars, colloquial conversation flows melodiously into the rhythmically charged cadences of poetry and preaching, and finally into true song–hymns, field hollers, and blues refrains–as an inevitable expression of the characters’ feelings.

Like Levee, the doomed hero of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Floyd Barton dreams of making it big in the white-run Chicago blues industry. A record he made in the Windy City a year earlier has turned into a surprise hit; Floyd’s friends are thrilled that they can hear him on the radio–the same instrument that broadcasts the victory of another black hero, boxer Joe Louis. Though Floyd isn’t enjoying financial rewards–he signed away his royalty rights for a flat fee–he’s been invited to lay down some more tracks for the fictitious “Sun Records” (not to be confused with the real-life rockabilly label). First seen brandishing a thick, paper-wrapped 78 of his record, the swaggering, charismatic Floyd is sure he’s found his way out of Pittsburgh and poverty–only he’s got some business to take care of first. He’s bent on persuading Vera to come with him, but she’s been burned by Floyd’s infidelities before and takes two acts’ worth of convincing. Floyd also needs money to buy a shiny new electric guitar (just like Muddy Waters’s) and to put a headstone on his mother’s grave in the local pauper’s field.

How Floyd gets the money–then loses it–constitutes a story as sad and simple as a folk ballad; and, balladlike, the tale is embellished with rhetorical flights that often venture far from the central plot. Floyd delivers a mournful ode to the mother whose sacrifices he never appreciated till she died, culminating in a drawn-out rendition of the Lord’s Prayer; his wiseass buddy Canewell holds forth hilariously on the similarities between women and watermelons, and the differences between Alabama roosters and Mississippi roosters. Hedley, a moonshine-addled chicken butcher from the West Indies, proclaims the greatness of dead heroes like Marcus Garvey, Toussaint-Louverture, and New Orleans jazzman Buddy Bolden; Vera, normally plainspoken and reserved, unleashes a riveting soliloquy on the agonies of love and loss. These characters are just some of the “seven guitars” whose solos–alternately bawdy and beautiful, anguished and angry, comic and romantic–provide the music in this operatic, even Homeric exploration of African American language.

Crucial to the group’s identity is the sense of dislocation felt by African Americans transplanted to the industrial urban north from the rural south; in Seven Guitars, Vera’s backyard is a transitional landscape, part city and part country–a brick apartment building with high rises towering on one side and a chicken coop huddling on the other. (The sound of a neighbor’s rooster is a running joke that turns sickeningly sour at the end of act one.) The tension between southern and northern, rural and urban, old and new is reflected in numerous ways, including a continuing debate over acoustic versus electric guitars and knives versus guns. A deeper and finally deadlier perspective is provided by Hedley, whose homemade one-string instrument makes a haunting music guitars can only hint at–and whose huge machete, not Canewell’s switchblade or Floyd’s .38, brings the action to its shocking climax.

As with the earlier entries in Wilson’s cycle of plays dramatizing black American history–including Ma Rainey, Fences, The Piano Lesson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, and Two Trains Running–the key to Seven Guitars isn’t plot but texture. Under the direction of Walter Dallas–whose strong, formalistic visual sense is supported by Scott Bradley’s evocative set, Christopher Akerlind’s lighting, and the period-perfect costumes by Wilson’s wife Constanza Romero–this is a richly remembered and imagined tapestry. The production’s superb cast seem to have just the right vocal and gestural inflection for each moment, which is essential to the script’s heightened sense of language and image. Jerome Preston Bates is compulsively watchable as Floyd, moving with the courtly flamboyance of a born showman and bred street fighter; Viola Davis is a perfect partner for him as the wary but passionate Vera; Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s street-corner charm as Canewell makes his creepy bitterness in the play’s twist ending all the more effective; Albert Hall smartly avoids going overboard as the eerie Hedley; Rosalyn Coleman is right on target as Ruby, the small-town sexpot whose visit injects new erotic tension into the group dynamics; Tommy Hollis is expansively entertaining as Floyd’s drummer Red; and Michele Shay brings both off-kilter humor and poignancy to Vera’s blowsy, sarcastic friend Louise.

Sure to undergo revisions following this debut engagement, Seven Guitars could use some trimming. It’s too long, too willing to stop the action for yet another flight of rhapsodic or raunchy story telling. The blues form embodies the dictum that less is more, and Wilson would do well to consider that precept. A tauter, leaner script could help Seven Guitars achieve the cathartic power it aims for as well as the haunting eloquence it so luxuriously and unforgettably possesses.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Y. Exit.