There are plenty of reasons for celebrating Seven Guitars, August Wilson's latest play (directed by Lloyd Richards), now in its pre-Broadway run at ACT. There's the significance of the event itself — any new work by the author and director of Fences, The Piano Lesson, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, and Joe Turner's Come and Gone, to name four, is cause for excitement. There's the cast, as luminous an ensemble as I've seen. And then there's the play, possibly Wilson's best to date, which takes the playwright to yet another level of artistry.
Wilson has set as his task the chronicling of 20th-century African-American experience, decade by decade. His intent is not docudrama, but rather the synthesizing of the black experience: to re-create the fabric of individual lives, with their varied textures and passionate concerns, by setting those lives within specific time periods. Wilson is an American Chekhov, an eavesdropper with an unerring ear for human speech; a poet and philosopher who interweaves monumental themes with ordinary concerns; a dramatist whose characters' lives are shaped by historical trends and events over which they are largely powerless.
Many of Wilson's plays are rooted in music, with jazz and the blues providing background for the black experience. But in Seven Guitars the play itself is music, the dialogue its lyrics that both set the tempo and create the poetry. It's a marvel of structure, blending solo voices against the chorus of the larger community. Each character's story rises and falls in perfect harmony with the others', yet each is distinct unto itself.
Set in 1948 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, a poor black neighborhood, the action takes place entirely in the back yard of a rooming house. It begins with a tableau that seems like an extended beat or a musical rest. Three men and two women are poised as if suspended in time. Louise (Michele Shay) then sings a fragment of slow, bawdy ballad: “Anyone here want to try my cabbage?”
The event from which they have just returned is the funeral of bluesman Floyd Barton (Keith David). The scene is an overture of sorts, a prologue to introduce us both to Floyd and to the people he left behind. It serves as a framing device for an extended flashback covering the previous days, during which Floyd, having learned of the death of his mother, has returned home from a stint in jail. Prior to that piece of bad luck, he was in Chicago, where he made what has turned out to be a hit record.
He's come back for Vera (Viola Davis), whom he abandoned for another woman who has since left him. He's also back to gather his band: Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), a virtuoso harmonica player, and Red Carter (Tommy Hollis), a drummer. Floyd's got a firm offer to record again, but no money to get to Chicago. There are other obstacles as well: Vera is holding her ground and refusing to go with him. She's clearly in love, but knows that Floyd is incapable of the sort of fidelity she needs. She's managed to regain her equilibrium in the year and a half since he's been gone, and wants to avoid the pain of dependence on him, or any man.
Canewell and Red are hesitant but willing. However, Red's drums are still in the local pawnshop, as is Floyd's guitar. The gap between dreams and reality seems impossibly wide as they try to scrape together the money to redeem their property. (As Canewell observes wryly, the three balls that hang over the shop's sign mean the pawnbroker “is betting 3-1 you're never going to get your stuff back.”)
If Floyd and his band represent the dominant melodic theme of the piece, the other residents provide harmony and counterpoint. Louise, who owns the house, is expecting a niece, Ruby (Rosalyn Coleman), who's had “man trouble” in rural Alabama. Louise is carrying on a long-term affair with Red (married and a new father), but she has no interest in relinquishing her independence for a man.
Hedley provides the dissonance, the voice of the mystic, the anger of the oppressed black man. Hedley “ain't right” in the head and is known to his tolerant neighbors as someone who is liable to go off at the slightest provocation. This could mean ranting alone in the dark of night, or it could mean violent assault — it is Hedley who kills Floyd.
Wilson is always interested in things spiritual and in how the mystical intersects with real life. Here, as brilliantly rendered by Zakes Mokae, Hedley is Wilson's most deeply symbolic character. Hedley once killed a man who refused to call him by the name his father gave him, which was King. “After that,” he tells Ruby, “I don't tell nobody my name is King.” Everyone considers him crazy, he says, because he knows “the people is too small.” They need a leader, “somebody to be the father of the man to lead the black man out of bondage. Maybe,” he suggests, looking pointedly at young Ruby, “I'm the father of the messiah.”
Wilson's extraordinary way of distinguishing characters one from another is triumphantly realized in Lloyd Richards' direction and in the actors' flawless performances. Shay makes Louise sexual, provocative, and fiercely independent. As Vera, Davis simultaneously radiates pain and passion, vulnerability and strength. She and David make a sexy, romantic, and ultimately doomed couple.
David's Floyd manages to strike a balance between the charming dreamer and the man who will stop at nothing to get what he wants. Not only has Floyd come back to get Vera, he's also after the .38 revolver he left hidden in her room.
Hollis creates a Red who is both a talented musician — time seems to stop in the theater when Red, Canewell, and Floyd give us a brief sample of their wares — and a practical man. Hollis is a big man with a huge range, both vocally and emotionally, who can communicate as much by what he holds back as by what he expresses.
As Canewell, Santiago-Hudson is the little guy whose dream is to stop drifting and find three rooms and a woman to share them with. Canewell acquires nothing of any import that he can't carry with him, which is why he plays the harmonica; it's too easy for the white authorities to confiscate whatever they want, to disrupt a poor black man's life by throwing him in jail. Santiago-Hudson is eloquent in his insistence on getting everyone's facts straight, as though he feels he can control the world with accuracy.
Coleman's Ruby is the least complex of these characters, but she has a sweet warmth she shares with Hedley when he suggests that maybe she's the mother of the messiah-to-be. Mokae's performance as Hedley both focuses the play and gives it its driving power. Soft-spoken and kindly when unruffled, Hedley becomes a force of nature when provoked.
Scott Bradley's suggestively realistic set (lighting by Christopher Akerlind, costumes by Constanza Romero) creates a cramped outdoor environment surrounded by dark, looming tenements. At center is the warmly lit and inviting window of Vera's room. Directly below is Hedley's cellar — he keeps and butchers chickens — whose gaping open door seems like the entrance to the underworld. It's as though the designers were creating a microcosm of heaven and hell.
I kept wondering about the title as I watched the play. Seven, which to many is a mystical number — the seven days of creation, etc. — figures all through the text. Red sees “seven birds sitting on a fence”; Hedley prophesies about seven generations leading to a messiah; Vera sees seven angels lifting Floyd into heaven. I think the seven guitars are the seven characters through whom playwright, director, and actors have created extraordinary music.
Editor's note: After this review was written, Zakes Mokae left the production “for personal reasons.” Steven Anthony Jones has replaced him.
Seven Guitars runs through Dec. 23 at the Marines Memorial Theatre in S.F.; call 749-2228.