August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” Explores the Post-WWII African-American World

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August Wilson's Seven Guitars
Photo by Joan Marcus

By Karen Isaacs

 Seven Guitars which is now at the Yale Rep through Dec. 17 is one of the few August Wilson plays that did not debut at the Rep. Six of the plays that comprise The Pittsburgh Cycle or The Century Cycle as it is sometimes called, had their initial performances in New Haven.

Wilson wrote ten plays that reflect the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century. Nine are set in Pittsburgh, and in particular, the hill neighborhood. Wilson died shortly after the completion of the cycle, Radio Golf which was set in the 1990s and which premiered at Yale.

While Seven Guitars, the 1940s play actually debuted in Chicago, Wilson worked on the play at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford which had a staged reading.

Music and spirituality play major roles in Wilson’s works and Seven Guitars is no exception. Floyd Barton, the protagonist, is a musician on the verge of “making it.”  His friends Red Carter and Canewell are part of his group. A recording they made (a break-up song, “That’s All  Right”) has been getting air time, and the producer has contacted Barton about returning to Chicago to make additional recordings. But first, he must get his guitar out of hock.

The spiritual elements are reflected in the character of Hedley – the elderly man who rents a room from Louise and who is suffering from TB – and Vera, Barton’s ex-girlfriend. But all of them talk about religious subjects even arguing if God was right in sparing Lazarus.

Again, the play is similar to most of Wilson’s work, focusing mostly on the hurdles that African-American men face in our society.  This play is set in 1948; World War II has ended, large numbers of African-Americans have migrated from the South to the industrial centers of the North and society is still highly segregated even in the North. The changes that are to come in the ‘50s and ‘60s are just dreams.

The casual discrimination is reflected in what happened to Floyd and Canewell in Chicago; each was picked up by police, arrested for vagrancy and jailed. Floyd spent 90 days in the workhouse and in the first act is trying to get the money he “earned.”

The play begins with Louise, Red, Canewell, Vera and Hedley having been at Floyd’s funeral. Vera swears she saw angels at the cemetery and Hedley agrees. We then flashback to Floyd’s return from Chicago and the workhouse. He tries to woo Vera again who was hurt when he took another woman to Chicago with him while he and his band mates seek to redeem their pawned instruments and prepare for an up-coming Mother’s Day gig at the Blue Goose. We also meet Ruby, a relative of Louise’s who is sent to Pittsburgh from Alabama after two men fought over her.

August Wilson's Seven Guitars
Andre de Shields as Hedley. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Wilson’s plays are often less about plot and more about the language and the ideas. He provides each character with extended, jazz-like riffs on life, love, hope, dreams and more. At times these are poetic. You can find dozens of memorable lines. Certainly many of the views the characters express, particularly Hedley, about the relationship between African-Americans and white reflect the views that Wilson discussed during his lifetime.  He really did not want white directors for his plays and rejected the filming of Fences because of that; finally the film has been made and released this month.

This production directed by Timothy Douglas, who directed the world premiere of Radio Golf and productions of many Wilson plays, has an innate understanding of the rhythms of Wilson’s writing. If I were to quibble with anything it would be the staging idea. This production opens with the six characters standing high on a platform and then coming down into the set. Do they represent the angels? I wasn’t sure.

Billy Eugene Jones plays Floyd as the brash young man he is though Wayne T. Carr as

August Wilson's Seven Guitars
Wayne T. Carr as Canewell and Billy Eugene Jone as Floyd. Photo by Joan Marcus

Canewell seems more savvy (or unrealistic?) about business. Jones’ Floyd is almost a man-child; full of dreams with a casual sexuality and charm as well as hope for the future.  Canewell in Carr’s portrayal seems more grounded yet he still has a streak of idealism. He believes that Floyd can negotiate a better deal with the record producer.

But it is André de Shields as Hedley who seems at the core of the work. His Hedley is a mixture of the wise fool as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, a man with deeply held observations about how the black man has been treated in American society, and the spiritualist.

Rachel Leslie as Vera is very good. You see how she fights her attraction to Floyd; Leslie lets you see her internal battle: she is attracted to him and enjoys him, but she also realizes on some level that he is rash and unreliable. His ego needs boosting, which she may not be willing to do.

August Wilson's Seven Guitars
Photo by Joan Marcus

As in common in many of Wilson’s play, the three women characters – Vera, Louise (a fine Stephanie Berry) and Ruby (an equally fine Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) are more realistic and practical than the men. The men are more caught up in fantasies and dreams and hopes that the world will change. The women want to survive and know that heart-break and hard work are all that will be their lot in life.

This is in many ways an ensemble piece and Douglas has put together a fine ensemble.

As much as I love Wilson’s works and admire his genius, I often find myself wishing he had edited himself a bit more.

A major contribution to this piece is the music by Dwight Andrews though there is not as much music as you might expect given the play’s title.

Seven Guitars is a fine play but it may not rank in the top of Wilson’s work. Still it is well worth seeing this excellent production.

It is at the Yale Rep through Dec. 17. For tickets contact Yale Rep or call 203-432-1234.


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