If August Wilson's plays feel like jazz, "Seven Guitars" is like a muted trumpet in the wee hours. Unlike some of his other plays, where the riffs are dazzling and the energy explosive, this one is full of quiet truth.
One reason the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner's play has a musical quality is that several of its characters are musicians. Set in 1948 in a poor black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, "Guitars" reflects the great postwar migration of country people into the urban North.
We watch the last few days of Floyd (Schoolboy) Barton, who recently had his first hit record. After doing the recording in Chicago, Barton has come back home to Pittsburgh in time for his mother's funeral spending all of his money (he even hocked his guitar) for flowers. Arrested on trumped-up vagrancy charges, he has spent three months in the workhouse.
When, however, we first see Barton, played with tremendous flair by Keith David, he leaps onto the stage with so much swagger, so much disarming charm that we can't doubt he will make good.
The first act is pure talk. We meet his sassy girlfriend Vera, beguilingly played by Viola Davis. We meet his harmonica player, portrayed with pure magic by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose eyes constitute a play in themselves. Barton's drummer is played by Tommy Hollis, whose rousing bass voice thumps as if being plucked by a virtuoso, which it is.
Michele Shay plays Louise, Vera's sultry neighbor, with understated sexiness. There is also Hedley a poignant scripture-quoting prophet lost in his own fantasies. He is played with deep resonance by Roger Robinson. The last character is a newcomer, Ruby, who acts as a magnet for the unattached males. Rosalyn Coleman handles the role splendidly.
As the characters chat, the tone is tangy blues except when Hedley injects the sound of spirituals. The conversation meanders, but the effect is mesmerizing. A high point is Santiago-Hudson's dizzy riff on the different characters of Southern roosters Wilson at his comic, poetic best.
In the second act, Wilson decides things have to happen, and the play becomes forced. The violence that brings Barton down seems entirely artificial.
What makes the characters so involving is Wilson's unmistakable love for them. Those he doesn't love, the villains, he keeps offstage. The onstage conflicts are merely the bluff sparring of true friends. The only way Wilson brings tension onstage is by having his men play with weapons, which have unavoidable but predictable consequences.
Scott Bradley's set, with its artful blending of the rough materials of the architecture of the poor, hauntingly lit by Christopher Akerlind, makes a powerful backdrop. Constanza Romero's costumes capture the poignance and comedy in equal measure.
It is hard to imagine the play being better performed than it is under the direction of Lloyd Richards. It was Richards who detected Wilson's inchoate talent in a few pages of dialogue a dozen years ago and who has been instrumental in making it a major voice in our theater. Their collaboration is unusually powerful in "Seven Guitars."
You might think of August Wilson as a kind of black Chekhov, with the sadly angry poetry of the blues replacing any plainstive echoes of Pushkin, and the conversation steeped in the argot of the embattled black working class rather than the literary despair of Chekhov's dispossessed Russians looking to their future.
But whether it's Wilson's Pittsburgh or Chekhov's Moscow, we seem to be dealing with people on the edge, or on the eve, sitting around talking, waiting for life to happen to them.
The latest play in Wilson's avowed grand design of a cycle commemorating and particularizing the African-American experience during the 20th century - one play per decade - is "Seven Guitars," which, after an eventful if not exactly bump-free out-of-town passage, arrived last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
I first saw Seven Guitars last season in Chicago, in a rather different version, with a slightly different cast and a different director, it now being staged by Wilson's usual Broadway interpreter, Lloyd Richards, who, I believe, was ill when the play was originally given.
This is the sixth August Wilson play to reach Broadway - two of them have won Pulitzer Prizes and all five of its predecessors have received a Tony nomination, with one of them, "Fences," winning the Tony Award. It's a formidable record.
These - again like Chekhov - are works of atmosphere rather than action, of symbols rather than facts and, here much less like Chekhov, of characterizations rather than characters.
Earlier, in Chicago, I felt "Seven Guitars" needed work, particularly with its ending. And now, although the play appears a lot tighter and cleaner, it still seems to need work. Its motivation and structure remain shaky - it's like a session number with great rifts but a less than interesting melody.
Jazz is a major artistic influence on Wilson's writing - particularly the great blues singers. But apart from his early play "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," this "Seven Guitars" is the first time he has made blues and blues players integral to his theme.
The hero of this tragicomedy, Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Keith David) is a blues guitarist whose career seemed on the point of taking off. While in the workhouse-jail on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy, a recording he had cut earlier in Chicago became a hit, and the Chicago studio had asked him back for a further session.
But on the spring day in 1948, when the play opens in the backyard of a Pittsburgh rooming house - persuasively realized in a setting by Scott Bradley - Floyd is already dead, and his mourning friends have just returned from the funeral.
Now "Seven Guitars" moves into fast rewind, and, starting again, Wilson describes the last few days of Floyd's doomstruck life and his death. And his derailed dreams.
The eponymous seven guitars are apparently the seven characters in the play, Floyd, his sidemen, harmonica player Canewell (Ruben Santiago Hudson), drummer Carter (Tommy Hollis), Floyd's sometime (and sometimes not) girlfriend Vera (Viola Davis), neighbor Louise (Michelle Shay), and Louise's pregnant yet, flightily nubile niece Ruby (Rosalyn Coleman).
Completing the seven is a strange, half-nutty old man, Hedley (Roger Robinson), who believes that when the ghost of the legendary cornet-player Buddy Bolden brings him his father's money, he will buy a big plantation.
Floyd tries to persuade both Canewell and Red, together with Vera, who has warily reconciled with him, to accompany him to Chicago. But first Floyd is to have a triumphant club date at a local dance hall.
The events of the play - Floyd trying to get his electric guitar out of hock and to buy a funeral memorial for his dead mother, or them all listening on the radio to Joe Louis knocking out Billy Conn, or the slaughter of a noisy rooster - take on a kind of mythic patina from the conversation.
And the complete ensemble performance (the two newcomers since Chicago, a vibrant David and a confused and menacing Robinson, are outstanding additions) as orchestrated by Richards, is extraordinarily effective, making misty poetry out of Wilson's ornately verbose vernacular.
Yet while Wilson's general themes of loss, unentitilement, and simple bad luck, together with a bawdy life-asserting force, are firm enough in concept and purpose, the magic symbolism of "Seven Guitars" is never quite magic enough, nor is its symbolism ever remotely clear.
As a result this exquisitely acted play wanders on with its disconsolate workaday poetry, but unlike Joe Louis, it lacks a knockout punch.
A little more than a month before it officially ends, the Broadway season begins. That's the joyous sense of things with the arrival of August Wilson's big, invigorating if unruly new tragicomedy, "Seven Guitars," which opened last night at the Walter Kerr Theater.
Here's a play whose epic proportions and abundant spirit remind us of what the American theater once was (before amplified glitz became dominant), and still is when the muses can be heard through the din. Not since Mr. Wilson's own "Two Trains Running" and Tony Kushner's "Angels in America" has Broadway seemed quite so alive.
Seven Guitars" is technically a straight play, meaning that it's not a musical. Yet its seven characters, three of whom are professional musicians, play off one another like the members of an improvising septet, each being used as an instrument to create the distinctive Wilson sound of the blues: angry, self-mocking, sorrowful and defiantly unrepentant.
In this play, the latest report on his explorations into the African-American heritage, Mr. Wilson focuses on the Hill district of Pittsburgh in the spring of 1948. The particular location is the backyard of a tenement where the friends of Floyd (Schoolboy) Barton, a ladies' man, musician and recent resident at a house of detention, have gathered for a wake following his funeral.
Floyd is being mourned in this first scene; at the end of the play, he's reported to have ascended into heaven, lifted by six men in black who might be either angels or employees of the funeral parlor. In the extended flashback that's the substance of "Seven Guitars," we pick up the story of the sweet-talking Floyd (Keith David) when, just out of jail and broke, he comes back to his No. 1 woman, Vera (Viola Davis). For the several days that precede his unnatural death, he seems to have everything to live for.
Vera takes him in, though without fully committing herself. A recording he made in Chicago months before has become a sudden, unexpected hit. The record company wants to sign him to a new deal and, for the first time in his life, he has a manager, a Mr. T. L. Hall who sells insurance. Floyd is the center of the narrative but not of the play.
"Seven Guitars" is so full of recollected tales, off-stage characters (like Mr. T. L. Hall), bewitching language and seemingly random riffs that you don't immediately realize what a tightly constructed ensemble piece it is. The play is about a community in which Floyd is briefly the pivot. A mythic figure with feet of clay, he's defined as much by the characters around him as by anything he says or does. That's Mr. Wilson's singular gift as a writer, and why his plays appear to have almost a novelistic sweep.
"Seven Guitars" teems with characters, onstage and off, whose lives ricochet from the play's contemporary events back to the past and into the future. Among the characters we see are Floyd's two sidemen: Canewell (Ruben Santiago-Hudson), an edgy, quick-tempered harmonica player, who's tired of playing back-up in life for Floyd, and Red Carter (Tommy Hollis), a drummer by profession, an expansive, laid-back fellow who can identify a rooster's birthplace by the sound of his crow.
Also: Louise (Michele Shay), a hearty, buxom woman who, years earlier, allowed her man to walk out peacefully in exchange for his pistol; Ruby (Rosalyn Coleman), Louise's sultry, Salome-like niece, sent up north to Pittsburgh after a scandal down home, and the play's staunchest character, Vera, who, though badly treated by Floyd and, you assume, by other men before him, somehow clings to the possibility of change for the better without ignoring reality.
Acting as the play's ferocious conscience is Hedley (Roger Robinson), an old man, not altogether right in the head, who has turned his back on the white world he loathes. He's a believer in saints, spirits, prophets and the ghost of Charles (Buddy) Bolden, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter who died in an insane asylum. More than anything else, Hedley would like to sire a messiah. For reasons of her own, Ruby might be talked into sharing his bed.
"Seven Guitars" ambles with deceptive ease as the friends laze around, eat, drink and spin tales in the Hill district backyard (beautifully evoked in Scott Bradley's sets). They dance, remember nonsense rhymes, agonize as they listen to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn title match on the radio, make love and quarrel. They throw rocks at the noisy rooster in the adjoining yard. In one lovely sequence, Floyd, Canewell and Red Carter offer an impromptu concert.
Then events off stage begin to impinge: Mr. T. L. Hall is arrested for selling fake insurance, which puts Floyd's trip to Chicago in doubt. A pal of Floyd's is killed during a pawn shop robbery. Repressed fury erupts in violence. As if he were exacting God's wrath on the stupidity of friends, Hedley shows up with the offending rooster from next door and cuts its throat. He's punishing not the bird but them.
Lloyd Richards, Mr. Wilson's long-time director, has given "Seven Guitars" a mostly splendid production with five of the seven actors I saw last year in the play's premiere production, directed by Walter Dallas, at the Goodman Theater in Chicago. There are not enough good things to say about those five: Ms. Davis, Ms. Shay, Mr. Hollis, Ms. Coleman and especially Mr. Santiago-Hudson. Mr. David, who has taken over the role first played by Jerome Preston Bates, is also admirable as Floyd. Mr. Robinson, who replaced Albert Hall, would appear to be playing Hedley exactly as the author and the director see the role.
Yet it's this character, the idiot savant who turns up so often in Wilson's work, that is most troublesome in New York. He rambles with more heavy significance than I remember in Chicago. Since the Goodman production, Mr. Wilson has done a lot of tinkering. The result is a second act that now seems slightly out of balance, though it's difficult to tell whether this has to do with Mr. Robinson's performance or with the rewriting. The play's ending is now less stunning than muffled.
That's no serious matter when the rest of the work is of such grand design. Maybe Mr. Wilson will go on tinkering. Though still rough around the edges, "Seven Guitars" is as funny as it is moving and lyrical. It's the highlight of what now seems to be a brand-new theater season.
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.