Following the critical and popular successes of Fences and The Piano Lesson, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson once again captures the music and the mood of Pittsburgh's Hill district with Seven Guitars.
Wilson's last six plays have all emphasized the lyricism of his characters' lives over their historical types while at the same time integrating the music of the particular period. The result is a kind of cultural history for the American theater.
Wilson's latest installment to the anthology takes this marriage of music and cultural history one step further by focusing on one promising blues star, Floyd Barton (Keith David), his truncated aspirations and his social life, and by framing the play itself with music ascribed to him (composed by Dwight Andrews).
The product is stunning, not in its scope but in its intensity. A rigorous depiction of Floyd and his six entertaining, engaging friends underplays the "blueness" of the blues. Their voices become a paean to the humor, song and spiritualism of everyday life's true survivors.
The friends are assertive and stylish. They blend tales, jokes, and bold assertions, ranging from shrewd to superstitious, more for entertainment than edification. Whatever boredom and immobility they feel in their lives--stuck in the cramped and cobbled lots of urban Pittsburgh (elaborately and meticulously rendered by set designer Scott Bradley)--they don't complain about it to each other.
The year is 1948 and though there has been no civil rights movement, the younger characters pay less attention to racial politics than the elder Hedley (Zakes Mokae). They are independent and proud, concerned more with integrity and poise than with the endless denouncement of the white devil.
The audience knows from the start that Floyd is going to die, but the play focuses on his life, rather than the surprise of his death.
The death itself, murder for money, is too commonplace a story among Floyd's friends to be entirely tragic. They simply miss the man, the power of his presence, his pageantry and showmanship. Living amidst violence, Wilson's characters display nothing like dismay or loathing, but a shared air of acceptance of their dangerous existence.
Portraying the commonplaces more concerns Wilson than critiquing the problems. "I happen to think," Wilson has written, "that the content of my mother's life--her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips, her thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter--are all worthy of art. Hence Seven Guitars."
And hence Floyd's demise and the events which lead directly to it are subordinated to the warm backyard evenings, the bourbon and bare light bulbs on the back porch, Joe Louis fights followed on a scratchy radio and celebrations of his victory with dance and romance.
Wilson resolutely refrains from any moralizing on murder. The most captivating tale Floyd tells his friends is the vengeful murder of a man who dodges his debts all his life and naturally ends up gunned down in the end.
Floyd doesn't just relate the tale, he performs it. He works himself into the role of the dying man, jerking and grimacing with each hollow pop, then polishes off the narrative with a punch line. The dead man never actually fell. He walked outside with five bullets in his back and sat down on the curb where rigor mortis set in.
With a proud grin Floyd then pulls out his own 38, Red (Tommy Hollis) shows off his, and Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) wips out his switchblade, each arguing half in jest about whose weapon is best. Their playful posturing merely conceals what is ready to explode from within.
Wilson is compassionate without romanticizing, melancholy without moping, and triumphant without boasting. Supported by an outstanding cast (most of whom have appeared in feature films or prime time TV) and Tony award-winning director Lloyd Richards, Seven Guitars reaffirms Wilson's recent successes and secures his place among America's greatest living playwrights.