We know from the start that Floyd Barton (Keith David) got a bum hand: The play opens after his funeral, as his friends gather to hash out the meaning of his death. It then jumps back to a week before, when Floyd arrived at ex-girlfriend Vera’s backdoor, hoping to spirit her away to Chicago with him, where he has an open invitation to make a blues record. Floyd already has a hit record on the radio, but as his buddy and harmonica player Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) never tires of repeating, Floyd doesn’t have a dime to show for it.
August Wilson’s strengths are everywhere on display in “Seven Guitars,” the newest in his cycle of plays about the African-American experience in the 20th century. Set in the backyard of a low-rent apartment house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1948, the play is a brilliant evocation of a particular time, place and mood — the mood in this case being fatalistic — and a vibrant portrait of seven men and women and how they play the hands life has dealt them. And Floyd needs more than a few dimes to get his electric guitar out of hock before he goes to Chicago. His only financial prospect is collecting the 30 cents a day the government owes him for a 90-day stint in the workhouse.
As he scrambles to get his girl and his guitar, the play unfolds amid the comings and goings of the apartment house, also inhabited by the goodhearted, blase Louise (Michele Shay), who thinks Floyd is bad news for Vera, and Hedley, an ailing, addled old man who runs a makeshift market in the yard. His violent distrust of white men keeps him from getting medical attention for his tuberculosis.
Wilson has a poet’s genius for making vernacular speech lyrical. The rhythm of the play’s language drives it forward under longtime Wilson collaborator Lloyd Richards’ fluid direction. The cast makes music out of the casual contours of conversation: Canewell’s speech about his unrequited love for Vera has an almost Shakespearean elegance; Hay speaks in a tone of singsong disbelief that wrings every laugh from her lines (and there are many; she comes close to stealing the show); and when Floyd, Newell and Red Carter (Tommy Hollis) swap stories and share laughs, they have the exuberant air of jazz musicians riffing.
David himself is a veritable one-man band: In his natty blue suit (Constanza Romero’s costumes are handsome and period-perfect), he gives a marvelously charismatic performance. We see clearly in David’s expressive turn that the fire that drives Floyd, a belief that he deserves more than life looks likely to give him, is also his undoing.
But much of the play’s music is dirgelike. Floyd has a sad soliloquy about his mother’s death (and, in addition to his other goals, he’s desperate to buy a good headstone for her). A neighbor’s death offstage is casually discussed as an unremarkable event, and the everyday nature of death in the lives of these characters is symbolized by Hedley’s killing of chickens onstage. The funereal tone is, of course, set from the start, and is enhanced by the somber colors of Scott Bradley’s naturalistic set, lit by Christopher Akerlind, who expertly evokes the passing hours of the day. It’s certainly a courageous — some would say foolhardy — notion to greet an audience at a three-hour-plus play with the news of its protagonist’s death. It’s a decision that’s aesthetically unimpeachable — it fits the play — but it’s a tough sell, dramatically.
The play’s chief fault — and it is not a small one in a play of this length — is that the characters unfold rather than evolve. Theconflict between Floyd and Vera at the play’s opening — he walked out on her and she won’t forgive him — is repeated an hour and a half later (he may win her over, but he doesn’t change her mind). Hedley’s descent into lunacy toward the play’s end isn’t particularly moving; he was touched from the beginning. (Saddled with much portentous language spoken in a gruff Caribbean accent, his is the only character who wears out his welcome.)
That Floyd is undone more by the circumstance of his being a black man fighting tremendous odds stacked against him may be the author’s point, but it makes for a gradually deepening feeling of stasis. Wilson’s art is more pictorial than narrative, and the length of the play works against his strengths.
But if the narrative distance traveled isn’t very great, the journey is certainly an entertaining one. August Wilson gets life, with all its rich particularity, up onstage, and that is no small thing.