It’s become something of a commonplace that, with two Pulitzer Prizes, five New York Drama Critics Circle awards and one Tony, August Wilson is the only playwright working regularly on Broadway these days. But that’s really backward, as any reading of the credits leading this review will attest. Wilson writes plays not for Broadway, but which Broadway simply must have — even if it means getting them last.
“Seven Guitars” arrives, lean at three hours (having dropped an hour over the long route here since its unveiling in the summer of 1994 at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center) but rich with exceptionally vivid characters eager to tell their stories and spin their tales.
The seventh in Wilson’s decade-by-decade plays exploring the experience of black Americans in this century, it’s also one of the most accessible, enjoyable as the folklore it emulates and musical as the blues that suffuse it.
Even the name of the central character, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Keith David), suggests the subject of a talking blues from Leadbelly or Woody Guthrie, as do the time (1948), the setting (the Hill District of Pittsburgh) and the circumstance.
“Seven Guitars” opens with the five people closest to Floyd gathered in the yard behind a roominghouse just after his funeral. There is no quiet reverence here — the opening lines are delivered by Louise (Michele Shay), tipsy on a back-stairway platform, singing, “Anbody here wanna try my cabbage, just step this way/Anbody here like to try my cabbage, just holler Hey” accented with the appropriate movements, followed by two men bickering over a slice of sweet potato pie.
Only when Floyd’s girlfriend Vera (Viola Davis) describes the six angels she saw carrying Floyd up to heaven does the scene change in tone. It ends with the voice of Floyd singing “That’s All Right,” setting up the flashback to his recent return home after 90 days in the workhouse on vagrancy charges (or, as he puts it, “worthlessness”).
It may be 1948, but little has changed for black musicians since the 1920s of Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” which is to say that they create the hits and white producers steal the money those hits earn.
In this case, Floyd and his harmonica player, Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) and drummer, Red Carter (Tommy Hollis) have been to Chicago, where they recorded “That’s All Right” for a company that held back its release until the musicians had returned home. Though it became a hit, they remained penniless.
Floyd tries to rekindle his romance with Vera, unsurprisingly miffed that he went to Chicago with another woman. The men spin out riffs on themes ranging from the wisdom in Jesus’ raising of Lazarus from the dead, to the various types and characters of Southern roosters and the relative merits of Chesterfield and Old Gold cigarettes.
An old man, Hedley (Roger Robinson), operates a market out of the yard and is dying of tuberculosis because he will not be treated by white doctors. The circle is completed with the arrival of Louise’s niece, Ruby (Rosalyn Coleman), a wiggly seductress whose wiles have resulted in the death of a lover.
Floyd is determined to return to Chicago with Vera to record more songs, and his ambition drives the action of the play.
“Seven Guitars” may be less about plot than the filling out of a canvas to represent what happened in a certain time and place. But it lives in the details represented richly as the Romare Beardon collages Wilson reveres, and which director Lloyd Richards lovingly creates in scene after scene.
The tone is established in the brown-grays of Scott Bradley’s brooding set, leavened somewhat by Christopher Akerlind’s muted lighting and Constanza Romero’s period-perfect clothes. The color here is in the characters.
If Floyd’s ambition drives the play, it is the slow destruction of hope in him that makes “Seven Guitars” so haunting. In a shattering monologue that David delivers with heart-stopping sadness, Floyd recounts the ways in which opportunity has slowly been leeched from his life.
“I am going to Chicago,” he says, finally. “I don’t want to live my life without. Everybody I know live without. I don’t want to do that. I want to live with.”
There may be too many direct parallels between “Seven Guitars” and Wilson’s 1960s play, “Two Trains Running,” but this a much better play, less heavily reliant on symbolism, stronger on character.
And what an ensemble Wilson and Richard have gathered, with David at the center in a fiercely moving performance. Shay draws all the humor and sass out of Louise, while Davis makes Vera’s forlornness and self-knowledge a potent mix. Potent, too, is the word for Coleman’s slinky Ruby.
Santiago-Hudson and Hollis cover very different kinds of cockiness and hunger as Canewell and Carter, while Robinson’s Hedley is unerringly poignant. In all, they play the seven guitars of the title; their voices and songs are the confident creations of a writer at the very top of his form.