Seven Guitars

Congo Square Theatre Company

It’s a good time to revive an August Wilson work, now that his decade-by-decade cycle examining 20th-century African-American life is complete: Yale Repertory Theatre opened Radio Golf, set in the 1990s and dealing with gentrification, in April. Derrick Sanders’s rich, careful staging of 1995’s Seven Guitars for Congo Square Theatre Company is set in the same place as Radio Golf and most of the other plays in the series, Pittsburgh’s Hill district. But the time is 1948, just a few years before the murder of Emmett Till and Rosa Parks’s rebellion. And these seven characters don’t wheel and deal–they wait, whether it’s for inconstant lovers to prove themselves true, for white managers to make good on their promises, for the pawnshop to open so an electric guitar can be reclaimed, for the ghost of pioneering jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden to show up with redemption in the form of cash.

Seven Guitars was in fact famously attacked for its slow-moving style by critic and director Robert Brustein in 1996. Earlier that year Wilson decried the lack of support for African-American companies in a speech delivered at the conference of a national theater-services organization, Theatre Communications Group, and published in American Theatre. Among other things, he charged New Republic writer Brustein with “a presumption of inferiority of the work of minority artists.” In a heated response, Brustein suggested that Wilson attacked him because he’d shown a lack of enthusiasm for the playwright’s work. The critic noted that he’d seen but hadn’t reviewed Seven Guitars (“I left after four guitars”) and argued that “a conventionally realistic play needs an animating event, and that, however colorful its subject matter, it cannot ramble willy-nilly for two-and-a-half hours before establishing a line of action.”

It’s true that Seven Guitars, like most of Wilson’s work, is talky–especially the early scenes. But to suggest that talking isn’t action is to badly misread the play and its world. Wilson’s characters tell stories about themselves and a host of colorful offstage characters as a way of keeping life’s bitter realities at bay.

Seven Guitars is structured as one long eulogy for the central character, a rising blues guitarist, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, who made a hit record in Chicago, then returned to Pittsburgh: in the scenes that bookend the play, his friends reminisce about him after his funeral, and the rest are flashbacks to Floyd’s final days. The play unfolds in small but meaningful moments as the characters dissect their world. A loopy discourse on the differences in crowing style between various breeds of southern roosters is a window onto the ways that blacks of the great northern migration kept memories of rural life alive. And when a neighbor’s rooster meets an untimely end, it’s not only a portent of Floyd’s demise but a reminder of how northern whites exploited the talents and dreams of men like him. The humor, defiance, anguish, and buoyancy of the blues run throughout the conversations onstage, as Floyd begs his onetime lover, Vera, to return with him to Chicago. But she’s wary: Floyd abandoned her for another woman, and as Vera’s acerbic neighbor Louise points out, he’s “the kind of man who can do the right thing for a little while, but then a little while runs out.” As each character tries to find his or her place in a world that denies black citizens their essential humanity, Floyd ominously declares that he’s “going to Chicago if I have to buy a graveyard and kill everyone I meet on the way.”

Chicago serves the same function for Floyd that Moscow does for the wistful siblings in Chekhov’s Three Sisters. One of the joys–and heartbreaks–of seeing this production staged on the near west side is the theater’s proximity to what used to be the Maxwell Street market, whose street musicians are sometimes mentioned in the play. Seven Guitars–which hasn’t been produced in Chicago since its Goodman world premiere ten years ago–has a lot of resonance for local viewers because of its Chicago connections. And in some ways Congo Square owes its existence to Wilson: when Sanders met the playwright in 1998 and told him he wanted to start an African-American company, Wilson offered his financial support (he’s still on their advisory board). He also helped the company take off with its first production, a revival of his Piano Lesson in 2000.

Sanders has assembled a terrific ensemble. Though Will Sims II could be a bit more cocky as Floyd, he reaches great emotional depths with a heart-stopping gospel rendition of the Lord’s Prayer sung in memory of Floyd’s mother. Ann Joseph’s Vera is a model of girlish yearning tempered by clear-eyed womanly disappointment, and TaRon Patton nearly steals the show as Louise, a woman with an outsize bullshit detector and a voice to match. Aaron Todd Douglas as expansive harmonica player Canewell and Javon Johnson as drummer Red Carter are in comfortable sync, and Alexis J. Rogers has a saucy, dangerous charm as Louise’s niece from the south, Ruby (a character who returns in King Hedley II, staged at the Goodman in 2000). Kenn E. Head as Hedley, a teched West Indian immigrant, mostly finds a balance between the baleful and pathetic elements of his role: ruminating on Bolden, Toussaint-Louverture, and his own troubled relationship with his father, he has the sometimes thankless task of delivering Wilson’s most overwritten passages.

This production’s intensity and immediacy prove that Wilson’s plays, rambling though they may be, don’t require the infrastructure of Broadway or the high-profile regional theaters to succeed. What his works need is the sort of artistry Sanders and his adroit Congo Square ensemble provide here in such abundance.

Seven Guitars

When: Through 6/12: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2 PM

Where: Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, 1001 W. Roosevelt

Price: $25

Info: 312-421-7800

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Zoe McKenzie Photography.