The only way to describe playwright August Wilson's Seven Guitars is with superlatives: Wilson's writing is inspired, and Israel Hicks's casting and direction is nothing short of brilliant. The night I saw the show, it received a standing ovation from an audience that seemed floored and fascinated--and distinctly grateful for the experience.
The seventh play in an ambitious ten-play series, Seven Guitars revolves around the African-American blues scene of the 1940s, in particular one shooting star who burns out too soon. Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, the story opens with a gathering after a funeral. Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton has died, and his friends have gathered to mourn him. The rest of the play is a flashback to the events leading to his death: Floyd coming home from Chicago to win Vera back, retrieving his steel guitar from a pawnshop, and spiriting Vera back to Chicago, where a recording contract waits. But he needs a little money to make his dreams come true, and that's where he runs into trouble.
Wilson's simple, realistic story is set against a musical backdrop, but it's really all about people; the seven guitars of the title refer to the seven characters, each of whom "plays" variations on his or her own theme. Vera, who loved Floyd and was terribly wounded when he left her for another woman, takes him back--but warily, and with enough self-respect to warn him that she'll be the one who leaves if he misbehaves again. The unforgettable Mone Walton conveys vulnerability and resilience with equal grace; Vera, this performance implies, has had a painful life, but one that hasn't dented her humanity.
Vera's friend and landlady, Louise, has a great heart and a clear eye; she tries to protect Vera, reading Floyd's character as if it were printed on his face. Gammy L. Singer is hilarious, genteel and motherly in the role. The lovely Joy DeMichelle Moore combines innocence and earthiness as Ruby, who quickens male pulses like some kind of natural force. "Ruby has something men take to," is Vera's amusing understatement.
Stephen Henderson lends weight to the humor of the piece as Red, a drummer in Floyd's band, and Harvy Banks is impressive as the harmonica player, Canewell. It is Canewell who truly loves Vera and who understands from his own suffering heart why she gives Floyd a second chance. And it is Canewell who stands up to Floyd, challenging him and yet supporting his artistry. Banks's style of acting is usually so subtle as to be positively cinematic, but he can also blow your socks off with big gestures and broad comedy.
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Wilson's most prophetic character is a madman named Hedley, whom Lou Ferguson plays as part voodoo priest and part seer. This tragic Haitian reminds us of the grievous humiliations African-Americans have suffered in a predominantly white society and of the rage and frustration many still feel. But Hedley also foresees a more noble destiny for black America, and the character's ironic fate is classically cataclysmic.
Finally, there's the smooth-talking Floyd himself, a handsome and funny man who can charm birds out of trees and Vera off the pedestal of her convictions. John Wesley plays on Floyd's strengths and his weaknesses, rendering a complex man who's able to take the disparate elements of his turbulent life and distill songs from them.
Seven Guitars is a rollercoaster ride--one minute you've got the blues, and the next you're laughing. The source of these emotions is always Wilson's wonderful dialogue, which, though it's the language of the street, is delivered with the precision of the most formal English. No one since Eugene O'Neill has used words so precisely in the American theater, and no American playwright in recent memory has attempted a project of this scope. Wilson's ten-part attempt to explore black life in America is ambitious, but so far, he's pulling it off.
Seven Guitars, through February 15 at the Space Theatre, in the Plex at 14th and Curtis, 893-4100.