Like bands of black on the windows of a house in mourning, respectability and death are the two ends of a spectrum in Seven Guitars, the 1940s segment of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle of 20th-century African American life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In between them, life itself rages in every form: passion, creativity, ambition, romance, greed, love of pleasure, affection, memory, tradition. And with them, equally raging, come delusion, disillusion, evasion, resentment, dishonesty, violence, and finally, murder. The life of Seven Guitars is, in other words, the life of any community striving to hold itself together by custom, mutual dependence, and fellow feeling; battered by outside forces it can neither control nor understand; falling prey, on the zigzag vector mapped by these twin influences, to its own human weaknesses and limitations. In black communities, seasoned with the bitter taste of social oppression, this story is called the blues. The hero of Wilson’s play, who is also its villain, is a blues singer, Floyd Barton (Lance Reddick), a young man whose idol is Muddy Waters and whose recording career is on the verge of exploding.
But this is 1948. Floyd’s music is not country blues but r&b, which is itself on the verge of morphing toward rock and roll. The nation is in the period of economic hesitation that preceded the ’50s boom, and the economic life of the Hill District is iffy. Old patterns or segregation and discrimination have been chipped away at but are still in place; the very phrase “civil rights movement” is still in the future. Floyd, who passionately hates injustice, has never learned to see slights to himself as part of a larger social pattern. Instead, he allows his hotheadedness to get him into trouble: When we first see him, he has just returned from 90 days in jail, on a trivial charge made worse by his angry response to the police. Since the play opens with his funeral and flashes back, we can already follow Floyd’s trajectory. One of Wilson’s rebel-artists, with many similarities to the brilliant, self-assertive trumpeter Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, he will die with his creative promise unfulfilled. Much of Wilson’s cycle is dedicated to mourning the unfulfilled lives, not solely of artists, with which black America’s history is crammed, and Seven Guitars, a play loaded with musings on death and adumbrations of death, has a particularly elegiac tone. It’s always there. Call it the blues.
Not that death stands alone on the hilltop of Wilson’s panoramic vision. The scene is the backyard of a home where three of the characters live. Vera (Roslyn Ruff), Floyd’s on-again off-again true love, lives downstairs. Upstairs, in separate apartments, live her vivacious friend Louise (Brenda Pressley) and Hedley (Charles Weldon), a mentally unbalanced food peddler—he vends chicken sandwiches, raising, slaughtering, and cooking the chickens himself—whose actual first name is King. The name extends the play’s musical motif into another genre: Hadley’s father, who dominates his recollections as Floyd’s hardworking, poor-but-proud mother dominates his, named him for the great Dixieland trumpeter King Oliver. Brutalized at home in childhood and mocked at school for his name, Hedley has become a part prophetic, part delusional man, who preaches black superiority, through a mad hash of Bible verses and Marcus Garvey doctrines, and believes that another great New Orleans jazzman, Buddy Bolden, has stolen his inheritance, which he will someday appear to return. Between Hedley’s chickens, which he coops in the building’s basement and grills on one side of the backyard, and Vera’s garden, which dominates the other side, the place is full of animal and vegetable as well as human life. There is mineral life too: knives and guns, displayed and then hidden away, which will play a role in the story’s bitter climax, and that other metallic substance, money, which is the core of the action and a topic of conversation occurring almost as often as death. And where there’s death, in a Wilson play, there’s also birth, since the arrival from down South of Louise’s country cousin Ruby (Cassandra Freeman) precipitates another story, which will culminate in the next-to-last play of the cycle, King Hedley II, centered like this one on an unfathered, ambitious son whose deep confusions over his heritage will lead him to grief. It’s a cycle. Call it the blues.
On a brief visit to Chicago, Floyd, with his pals Canewell (Kevin Carroll) and Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson) serving as sidemen, has cut a few records, one of which has started to attract attention. The record company wants him back in Chicago; he doesn’t want to go without Vera, who is reluctant to give up her dull but reliable Pittsburgh life for an unknown city and Floyd’s proven unreliability. Floyd’s desire to prove himself to Vera ends, ironically, by his proving just the opposite, and the tragic downfall that ends his life follows quickly, by way of a bitterly absurd coincidence: It is the story not of what happens to a dream deferred but of what happens when two dreams collide. A comic squiggle in the play’s prologue virtually sums up its tragedy, when Canewell and Carter, in the aftermath of the funeral meal, squabble over a slice of pie. “That’s my piece,” says Canewell. “I had my eye on that piece.” “You had your eye on it,” says the shrewder Carter, “and I had my hand on it.” Along with his gift for conveying big themes through small, simple actions, Wilson’s ability to create a language that is at once both soaringly poetic and close to the earth was never richer than in this play.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who made a memorably rakish Canewell in the first New York production of Seven Guitars a decade ago, clearly understands the doublefold nature of Wilson’s talk. He has directed this revival, the first production of Signature Theatre’s three-play Wilson season, with colloquial ease and speed, steering carefully past the temptation, ever present in Wilson’s scripts, to turn oratorical. Even Hedley’s oracular pronouncements are managed by Weldon in an incantatory-obsessive style that makes them personal remarks rather than lectures to the audience. The atmosphere, set up by Bill Sims Jr.’s subtly chosen music, is always right. The bright-toned, energetic Pressley makes a wonderful match for Carroll’s quirky blending of the snakily sly and the wistful; Henderson’s skill and humor, in his third New York outing with a Wilson play (creating a portrait very different from the last two), are no surprise. Reddick’s Floyd starts stiffly, seeming ill at ease with the language and the place, but quickly improves; his last scenes are powerful. He must be much aided by the warmth emanating from Ruff’s Vera, a gem of a performance by an actress who has to rank as a major discovery. The sight of her beautiful round face, laden with sadness for what might have been, is the main memory I’ll take away from this production.