Review of Seven Guitars, Yale Repertory Theatre
August Wilson’s Seven Guitars is a powerful, questioning play. It introduces us to a cast of characters in Pittsburgh’s Hill District who mostly seem well inured to life there. But it opens with words about one among them who has just been buried, and some who attended his funeral claim angels were present to carry him off. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the deceased, was bent upon leaving Pittsburgh for Chicago where he had once recorded a song finally getting airplay and where he hoped to record more and make his name.
For our introduction to Floyd (Billy Eugene Jones), we see his homecoming to his estranged lover, Vera (Rachel Leslie), who upbraids him for abandoning her for another woman, earlier. Floyd is contrite, and Jones lets us see the pride of Floyd, his charm, and also his deep need for Vera’s love and support. He’s a man confident in his talents but also still trying to prove something. As the play goes on, we get a better sense of how this close-knit world of friends can bind and impede. “Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be,” mad Ophelia says, and Wilson’s characters in Seven Guitars make gestures toward what they may be, but with only one another to give a sense of what they are.
Vera, who has good cause to doubt Floyd’s affections, if not his talent, vacillates about making the return trip to Chicago with him. Floyd’s band members have their doubts about Floyd’s follow-through and are also reluctant to make the trip. Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) is easy-going and can most likely be persuaded—all he needs is a harmonica anyway. Red Carter (Danny Johnson) is quite willing to leave his drums at the pawnshop until he really needs them. Only Floyd believes in music as a true identity, something that distinguishes him from the run-of-the-mill, and his thwarted need to be distinguished is what makes him a tragic figure.
A figure key to Wilson’s vision is Hedley (André De Shields), a Haitian vendor of chicken sandwiches, cigarettes and sundries, who makes the yard outside the house where many of the characters live or stay his place of production. His given name is King Hedley and he holds a mythopoeic view of the world in which “the black man is king.” His musings, often trenchant and full of an Old Testament feel for the prophetic mode, add symbolic associations to the mix of jokes, songs, rhymes, old stories, anecdotes, grievances and hopes that comprise Wilson’s wonderfully compelling dramatic language. These are people it’s simply fun to hang out with. But Hedley keeps before us the troubling sense of their place in the world, where slavery is something to be joked about—by Canewell—but harassment by white police is an irritating given.
Wilson’s plays are usually staged with naturalistic verisimilitude, putting onstage detailed settings that feel lived in, and that generally equates to a kind of genteel poverty. Director Timothy Douglas’ production eschews that tendency in favor of a much starker and stripped down staging. Fufan Zhang’s scenic design is unattractively harsh and, with a high-rise of stairs that would only exist on a stage, deliberately theatrical. On a high platform sit seven chairs, one for each character or “guitar.” And the production begins there with cast members speaking to one another as though in proclamation. The deeply lived naturalism we tend to think of as part of Wilson’s mode gets a firm shock, and entrances and exits throughout the play keep us focused on an unusually amorphous dramatic space.
It’s as if a great wind of change has swept through and left this little unit of fellowship grasping at a memory of more familiar times. In the play’s own setting—1948—the great force of change was World War II, an event that began to crack the racial barriers of the U.S. somewhat. But for us, watching in 2016, the starkness seems to align itself with Hedley’s apocalyptic views. And that makes for a final scene that is breath-taking in its power.
Wilson’s play is very well structured, letting the relation of one scene to another create a forward thrust that is usually the job of plot. The most obvious correspondence is between Hedley’s shocking act at the end of Act 1 and his even more shocking act late in Act 2, but more subtle elements are constantly at work as well, as for instance the refrain about Buddy Bolden, or structural features like the “three ages of woman” enacted by the trio of Louise (Stephanie Berry), the elder, Vera, in her prime, and Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), in her youth. This trio is matched by Hedley, Red Carter, and Canewell—though all three men, characteristically, take a shine to Ruby upon her arrival. This doubling of triads isolates Floyd as the unique individual he wants to be and which racial oppression makes it difficult to become. The promise of Chicago is the promise of a kind of cross-over success, difficult for these characters to imagine
The cast is excellent, ensemble style, which means all contribute in striking ways. Highest praise goes to De Shields’ staggering shifts in the role of Hedley, a man who can go from matter-of-fact comments to a kind of personal language whose significance often perplexes the others; to Rachel Leslie’s deliberating Vera, who delivers the “he touched me here” speech as though being ignited by a candle; and to Jones’ Barton, a high-strung ball of conflicts trying very hard to walk the walk. He’s never entirely graspable, and our uncertainty about him keeps our interest.
Written the year Wilson turned 50, and set in the year he turned 3, the play has a full command of a formative moment in his cycle of 10 plays, completing, chronologically, the first half of the 20th century. The child that Hedley still hopes for would be of Wilson’s own generation, making us feel more fully the portent of what’s to come.
Most plays are entertainment, with some shades of depth. Seven Guitars has the nerve to be great literature. Timothy Douglas’s production gives us access to the play that is both intimate and epic. It’s a memorable event to see this play done so well.
Directed by Timothy Douglas
Music director: Dwight Andrews; Scenic Designer: Fufan Zhang; Costume Designer: An-Lin Dauber; Lighting Designer: Carolina María Rodríguez; Technical Director: Ian Hannan; Dialect Coach: Ron Carlos; Fight Director: Rick Sordelet; Casting Director: Tara Rubin Casting, Laura Schutzel, CSA; Stage Manager: Helen Irene Muller
Cast: Stephanie Berry; Wayne T. Carr; Antoinette Crowe-Legacy; André De Shields; Danny Johnson; Billy Eugene Jones; Rachel Leslie
Yale Repertory Theatre
November 25-December 17, 2016