Written by August Wilson. Directed by Lloyd Richards. Performed by the Huntington Theatre Company.
Many playwrights can tell a story, but to tell it with poetry, humor, and compassion is a rarity. August Wilson has achieved that rare combination with his new work, "Seven Guitars."
The play's unmistakable quality ensures Wilson's place among the major playwrights of the 20th century. "Seven Guitars" tells of the trials of being black in 1940s America, but its message extends further. And the ideas revealed in the play are elevated by Wilson's rhythmic and sassy street dialogue.
The thread running through all Wilson's work is the attempt to find one's own value in the face of oppression. His characters are southern blacks who have moved to a northern city, Pittsburgh, to build a life away from the remnants of slavery. But as they struggle to redefine themselves, both the hostility of the white community and their own doubts keep them down. Each character responds to the struggle in different ways. Some try to fit into white culture, altering their personalities and expectations. Others take what life deals out. Still others refuse to forget the legacy of slavery and will not compromise their African heritage.
In "Seven Guitars," blues musician Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton has made a hit record in Chicago, but, as he says, he "ain't got no hit record money." The year is 1948. He returns empty-handed to the girlfriend he left in Pittsburgh. Floyd is determined to "be somebody" and to go as far as the white record company will allow him. He doesn't notice that he's losing his soul in the bargain.
His friends see the world differently. They and their Hill District neighbors cling to values from a rural southern past, when blacks sang the blues and united against a common oppressor. This viewpoint is given voice by Hedley, a feisty old man who insists on raising chickens in the backyard of the boarding house, and who quotes from the Bible and Marcus Garvey. His friends think he's a little addled in the head, but Hedley is their conscience.
"Seven Guitars" is a morality tale about what happens when Floyd's version of reality bumps against the life view represented by Hedley. It's also a murder-mystery, in a conventional sense, because the play opens after the funeral of one of its lead characters. As the action unfolds, audiences learn how the murder came about.
"Seven Guitars" is the sixth play in Wilson's ambitious plan to document each decade of black life in this century. He has not stuck to a chronological order, but set "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" in 1927, "Fences" in 1957, "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" in 1911, "Two Trains Running," in 1969, and "The Piano Lesson" in 1936. Each of the plays wound up on Broadway, and two ("Fences and "The Piano Lesson") earned him Pulitzer Prizes. All of them were directed by Lloyd Richards (see interview below).
The characters in "Seven Guitars" are completely real and believable. Audiences embrace these likable people, with their everyday flaws and oddities. And while the anecdotes and speeches of Wilson's earlier plays might have seemed forced or overtly political, the storytelling of his characters in "Seven Guitars" is genuinely funny and endearing.
Two standout speeches belong to Canewell, a young harmonica-playing friend of Floyd's. He goes off on a long, delightful spiel about how to tell a Mississippi rooster from an Alabama rooster by its crow. In the second act, Canewell opens his heart to Vera, Floyd's woman. He knows she doesn't love him, but he tells her with quiet conviction that even a love that goes one-way is still love.
The jokes are pretty good, too. At the start of the play, two men argue over the last piece of pie. Canewell: "Why you take my pie? I had my eye on it." Red Carter: "Well, I had my hand on it. That go to show you the hand is quicker than the eye." Later on, Red learns that he's a father. He passes out cigars. Canewell protests: "Hey, this cigar is stale." Red: "It oughta be, I been carryin' it around for nine months."
Credit goes to the superb cast assembled by the Huntington Theatre here in Boston: Ruben Santiago-Hudson as Canewell, Viola Davis as Vera, Michele Shay as Louise, Keith David as Floyd, Tommy Hollis as Red, and Zakes Mokae as the soothsaying Hedley. The play, which had its premiere at Chicago's Goodman Theater earlier in the year and is slated for a Broadway run in March, is still a bit rough around the edges.
On opening night in Boston, barely 10 minutes into the play, a door on the stage set refused to open, and the production was halted while a new doorknob was installed. In addition, two of the actors were still struggling with their lines. The director and playwright also need to continue honing the play, which runs 3-1/2 hours.
But the sheer glory of "Seven Guitars" outweighs these small quibbles. The heroes are ordinary black men and women, but they symbolize the human search for wholeness and a sense of belonging.