Sweet Sorrow

'Seven Guitars' Is A Beautifully Written Play About Longing For Love And Happiness.
By Margaret Regan

THE HERO IS already dead when August Wilson's Seven Guitars opens. Fresh from his funeral, the friends and fiancee of the flamboyant Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton are gathered in a gritty city backyard in the black Hill District of Pittsburgh to mourn his passing. Vera (Erika L. Heard), the fiancee, is silent, almost catatonic, as her friends pass around some pie and some half-hearted jokes. She's oblivious to all their efforts to connect with her.

Suddenly, she speaks.

"Did you see those angels at the cemetery?" she asks.

Her down-to-earth friend Louise (Tonye Patano) rolls her eyes. Canewell (Kim Sullivan), eager to please, swears he saw them too. But their opinions don't really matter to Vera. Angels, she says, came down to carry the young blues guitarist to heaven. She saw them herself. Something grand and beautiful has happened to Floyd at long last.

The rest of Wilson's poetic play, the final entry in the Arizona Theatre Company season, re-creates the last desperate week of Floyd's life, a life in which the grand and beautiful were in notably short supply.

Drenched in the pathos and the rhythms of the blues, this wonderful production is at once mournful and exuberant. Even though we know Floyd is destined to die, and soon, we hope right along with him that Vera will take him back, that the white guys running the record company in Chicago will really come through on their promises, that one day he'll be a blues hero like his idol Muddy Waters.

Played loose and desperate by Marcus Naylor, Floyd has a hit record out, but he needs another. He's fresh from 90 days in the workhouse, locked up by white cops on vague charges of laziness, and he's frantic to get his electric guitar out of the pawnshop, his band back together and his girlfriend back in his good graces. He's a tragic, doomed figure, who flails mostly ineffectually against a world that's solidly against him.

He has moments of high-flying optimism, when he swears he'll make his dreams come true, and other moments of pure rage, as when he recounts that if he had seven things in life, the white world would push him down to six. And if he rejoiced in those six, they'd slap him down to five. If he wanted five, they'd give him four.

But Floyd's is not the only story. Each of the other characters is also beautifully drawn, and so wonderfully do the actors live these parts, it's hard to single out a best performance. Besides the complex female leads, the pained Vera and the stoic Louise, there's Canewell, the harmonica-playing, Bible-quoting, woman-chasing preacher manqué ("God called, but the devil shouted," he says). Red Carter (Charles St. Clair) is the cheerful drummer who never again wants to see the inside of a Chicago jail. The strange and mysterious Hedley (David Downing), a half-deranged Caribbean visionary who shares the yard with Vera and Louise, longs to be the father of a black Messiah who will lead his people to freedom. Louise's niece Ruby (Kalimi A. Baxter) has fled a murderous boyfriend back in Birmingham.

Wilson, the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, for Fences (1987) and The Piano Lesson (1990), is probably the premiere African-American playwright writing today. Born in the Hill District in 1945, Wilson says the new play, from 1996, has some resonance with his mother's life. It's set in 1948, when American blacks were in the full force of their exodus from the rural South, when African-American servicemen coming back from the war were made freshly aware of the insults their own country heaped on them, when the first rumblings of the civil rights movement were just beginning to be heard. And it was a time when the blues were igniting Chicago, when black musicians were wailing out the pain of lives circumscribed by poverty and oppression and violence. You can feel the weariness of the men as they talk about routine arrests: A black man can be sent to the joint for having too much money on him or too little, for walking too fast, for walking too slow. In short, he can do time for just about anything the cops care to charge him with.

Seven Guitars is enriched and enraged by its specific historical references, but it also goes way beyond them. This beautifully written play is about universal human longing for love and happiness.

The play's language is the musical, metaphorical African-American idiom of country people newly arrived in the big city. The bantering dialogue back and forth among the seven characters is like a never-ending musical riff that twists and turns in an unstoppable rhythm. The only criticism possible of Wilson's work is that he's been unable to stop that language from coming: Each of the scenes is wonderful, each a set piece in itself, but assembled together they make for a very long play.

Director Benny Sato Ambush has done a superb job with this material and this cast. The scene where Floyd and Vera reconcile is one of the most powerful I've seen on a stage. Naylor's body actually trembles as he begs Vera to love him again. Heard's Vera holds herself back in fear for a long, long moment before she allows herself to become vulnerable to love once again.

Coached by local choreographer Barbea Williams, all of the players move their bodies beautifully, twisting and boxing and lunging through the lyrical prose like grace notes in a melody. The blues soundtrack put together by sound designer Brian Jerome Peterson slides each scene into the next. The fine urban street set by Ken Ellis, all dirty bricks and sheet metal, gets a lovely light treatment by Stephanie A. Johnson: This city dead end glows by turns with the rosy optimism of dawn and the sweet melancholy of twilight.

August Wilson's Seven Guitars continues through Saturday, May 3, at the Temple of Music and Art, 330 S. Scott Ave. Tickets range from $18 to $27. For reservations call 622-2823. For information only call 884-4877. TW

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