August Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’ takes place in the predominately black neighborhood of Red Hill in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1948.
The play opens with six friends reminiscing after attending the funeral of their chart-topping, blues guitarist friend, Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton. The body of the play is a flashback to the days leading up to Barton’s death.
Barton (Daren Herbert) is first seen trying to convince his ex-girlfriend, Vera Dotson (Angel Laketa Moore), to take him back after spending time in jail after being arrested for loitering.
Dotson is reluctant to take him back because of the pain she experienced when Herbert left her for another woman.
Moore delivers a moving performance as she conveys the suffering a woman experiences when she is abandoned by the man she loves.
Dotson’s neighbor is Louise (Michelle Cowin), a headstrong woman who possesses nurturing, motherly qualities. Her boarder is Hedley (Omar Ricks), a West-Indian butcher who kills and sells chickens right from his backyard. Ruby (Talia Thiesfield), who comes to live with Louise, is the sex-pot that every man is drawn to.
They are all friends with Canewell (Windell D. Middlebrooks), who plays the harmonica, and Red Carter (Charles Maceo Thornhill IV), who plays the drums. Both helped Barton produce his number-one hit, ‘That’s All Right.’
It is revealed that Barton is left penniless after his white producer swindles all the profits from his hit song. Meanwhile Barton tries to convince Canewell, Carter and Dotson to go back with him to Chicago to record more songs.
Although it is unclear why, everyone is against going back because they don’t want things to happen ‘like they did last time.’
Wilson, who was born Frederick August Kittle in 1945, has won two Pulitzer Prizes for drama. Directed by Eli Simon, this is the first of Wilson’s plays to be produced by the Claire Trevor School of the Arts. His work is known to chronicle the lives of African-Americans throughout the 20th century; ‘Seven Guitars’ represents their lives in the 1940s.
‘Seven Guitars’ is a musical play in a nontraditional musical way. Nearly every character has a chance to show off the talents of their vocal pipes through bits and pieces of song throughout the play.
Herbert performs a version of ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ so beautifully simple, sweet and sentimental that the audience hangs onto every note that comes out of his mouth.
With the snippets of music in each scene and the certain repeated phrases in the dialogue between characters, the play becomes a metered blues jam session.
With plans of demanding his share from his producer, Barton heads off to Chicago alone and reappears with more money than he can handle. Dotson then agrees to marry him and everything appears beyond perfect for Barton until his untimely death.
Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’ examines the struggles of African-Americans in a white man’s world, where life seems so hopeful and hopeless at the same time.
Ricks gave a riveting performance as Hedley, who gives insight into how a black men can be filled with so much bitterness, resentment and hate toward the white men who oppress him.
Through the characters of Hedley and Barton, Wilson shows how desperation to escape the white world can push a man beyond his limits.
Along with the racial conflicts, ‘Seven Guitars’ examines the conflicts and fluctuating dynamics between men and women.
Each character in the ‘Seven Guitars’ has an important story to tell, each revealing the struggles of the human spirit.
Not only were the actors convincing, but the set was just as authentic. The entire play takes place in the yard of the building where Louise, Hedley and Dotson live. If they weren’t real, like the live chickens or the meager dirt-filled garden, then they certainly seemed real, like the rusted tools and the crooked, wooden gate.
Just like a blues tune, the play had it’s own high and low points. It was filled with emotionally charged moments, where the audience was stunned silent at the superb acting. There were some light, humorous moments, which filled the theater with laughter. At the same time, there were some stagnant, lagging moments, which could have been cut or executed in a way that would not have audience members peeking at their watches to check the time.
Nonetheless, the audience seemed to be swept away as the second half of the play took speed, unfolding the actions that led to Barton’s death. But in the end, audience members forgave the actors for the uneventful moments and awarded them with a standing ovation.
Wilson’s ‘Seven Guitars’ opens one’s eyes to the conflicts of race, more specifically, it offers a glimpse of the struggle between white and black in the 1940s through the eyes of the African-Americans.
‘Seven Guitars’ will continue to run from Feb. 3 to Feb. 5.