It’s hard to know where to begin praising the production of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” by the Actors’ Shakespeare Project.
From the effective urban backyard set to toe-tapping sound design, the audience is immediately transported to a 1948 rooming house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Director Maurice Emmanuel Parent elicits a natural rhythm from the cast of seven first-rate actors who coalesce as an ensemble without diminishing their unique bright lights. And then, of course, there is Wilson’s brilliant music-infused drama, with its dazzling dialogues and weighty messages.
This is the stuff of must-see theater.
The play opens right after the funeral of its main character, Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a young blues guitarist who was killed just as his dream of stardom was about to come true. His murder remains unsolved.
Wilson had a knack for gathering strangers, putting them under the same roof, and creating a convivial family unit through which a complete social picture materializes. Small talk is never small from this playwright. There is living power that pulses with every word.
The solemn scene of mourning quickly turns playful, as we meet the residents and witness the warmth and ease with which they address each other. “He almost makes it where you want to die just to have somebody talk over you like that,” says Canewell, one of Floyd’s sidemen, about the Reverend’s eulogy.
Vera, Floyd’s girlfriend, observes she saw six angels dressed in black carrying Floyd away into the sky. But the number seven appears as a special and mystical number throughout the play – there are seven guitars, angels, characters, and more. Likewise, seven is Judaism’s most sacred number, illustrating the idea of completeness, beginning with the creation of the world.
Louise, the lively boardinghouse owner, her tenant, Hedley, a Bible-thumping elder, her niece Ruby, and Red Carter, another of Floyd’s musician sidemen, round out the group. From the get-go, these characters’ quirks and reflections on life, loss, and the history and burden of being Black in white America pepper their conversations, bonding them in a natural and kindhearted way. Family, in all Wilson’s plays, is not defined by biology; but by fate and choice.
The rest of the play is seen through flashbacks that retell the story leading up to, and including, the murder. The second act opens with Floyd exploding onto the stage, freshly released from a 90-day stint in workhouse detention and ready to kickstart his paused career and love affair with Vera. All sinew and kinetic energy, Anthony T. Goss brings a riveting physicality to the charismatic, angry Floyd. In his hands, even a hat becomes punctuation. His plans to return to Chicago and pursue celebrity hinge on convincing Vera and sidemen Red and Canewell to come with him.
Floyd has an uphill battle. He left Vera for another woman when he went to Chicago the first time, and convincing her that he’s on the up and up will take all the swagger and charm he can muster. Likewise his bandmates, who were burned by their first experiences in the Windy City and the wily ways of the white record industry.
While “Seven Guitars” satisfies its audience with its plot-driven narrative, it is through its characters that Wilson’s underlying messages surface. These seven are a microcosm of the ways in which racism and its oppressive economic and legal system has stacked the deck against the Black people. Yet, despite these shackles, they manage to celebrate common bonds of folklore, family traditions, and shifting dreams, painting a broader, deeper social picture.
The play interweaves big-ticket topics – relationships, police brutality, the danger of being Black – organically through its characters’ conversations and monologues, giving each their moment in the spotlight. Even the occasional soapbox existential riff, thanks to a light and shrewd pen, blends naturally with banter about recipes and family histories.
It’s possible that Wilson’s aspiration to create a body of work inspired by the tragedy and endurance of Black reality was influenced by his attendance at a Passover Seder in 1986. In a 2005 article in the Jerusalem Post reflecting on Wilson’s death that year, author Samuel G. Freedman quoted Wilson’s reflections from that Seder. Wilson said that the Jews focused on remembering their enslavement while Blacks wanted to forget its stigma and shame. “The Pittsburgh Cycle,” 10 plays set in a different decade of the 20th century (“Seven Guitars” is fifth), may be his historical Black canon, his version of the Haggadah.
Though “Seven Guitars” clocks in at 2 hours 45 minutes (with one intermission), the pace and quality never lag. Wilson remains one of the most important voices in modern American theater, his life-size dramas drawing audiences wherever they play. Don’t miss the chance to see this flawless production of an infrequently staged play. It is a bases-loaded home run. Θ
Presented by Actors’ Shakespeare Project through March 5 at Hibernian Hall, 184 Dudley St., No. 200, Boston. For tickets, visit actorsshakespeareproject.org.