Capturing the Sprit World: Seven Guitars at Yale Repertory Theatre

By Brooks Appelbaum

Yale Repertory Theatre’s stunning production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, which runs through December 18, begins its story the moment we see the barren, grey-tinged, surrealistic set, which brings to mind the blasted hill of Beckett’s Happy Days. On one side of the stage, rickety wooden stairs lead down into the ground, and on the other, a metal staircase leads to an upper level that is sometimes obscured by a scrim. The dirt floor variously suggests a sloping patch for planting, a backyard, an interior, and a workshop, of sorts. While the Signature Theatre’s 2006 revival took realism as its visual keynote, Director Timothy Douglas and Scenic Designer Fufan Zhang instead set myth and symbolism boldly center stage, while keeping each character specific and grounded.

Like all but one of Wilson’s ten-play Century Cycle, the events take place in the Pittsburgh Hill District. The time is 1948. Seven characters live in and around a creaky boarding house; at the opening, six of them sit in chairs on the upper level, speaking directly to us. They are attending the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, and each has something to say about Barton and his burial. We don’t learn what he meant to each of these people and how or why he died. During the flashback that is the action of the play, we find this out, and we find out, too, how fear, love, rage, and tenderness unite this community.

This flashback traces an achingly familiar plot, since once again we witness the inevitable fall of a black man’s ambitions, largely at the hands of white men. After having been picked up for so-called vagrancy (Floyd more accurately calls it “joblessness”), and sent to a workhouse for ninety days, Floyd has returned to claim his workhouse money and his guitar, and with his guitar to return to Chicago, where he has been offered a record deal after his song, “That’s All Right,” has become a hit. He’s also determined to bring the lover he abandoned, Vera, and the two friends who made up his band—Canewell and Red—to the city, a plan all have their own reasons to resist.

The difficulties between Vera and Floyd are private and poignant; those between Floyd and his male friends always circle back to the dangers they face in a white man’s world. Floyd and Red carry pistols as a matter of course; Canewell carries a knife and claims that “cutting will never go out of style.” Considering how many knives populate the stage (albeit mainly for cutting meat), this is a chilling statement.

For the women, black men present their own peril. Vera has known the agony of abandonment and sexual jealousy at Barton’s hands; Louise, who manages the boarding house, long ago gave up on love after her man walked out; and Louise’s young niece, the alluring Ruby, is running to her aunt for safety after her hot-headed lover killed his supposed rival. Ruby is aware of her affect on men, but this doesn’t dilute her rage at being treated like a pawn in a violent game.

Hedley, an old man who rents a room from Louise, brings to these realistic and personal conflicts the mythical dimensions that always infuse Wilson’s drama. Occasionally, Hedley speaks sense, but much of the time his words are of another world. Partly this is because he suffers from TB and refuses help, but his dreamlike language and his determination to be the king of a plantation also reminds us that the experience of the black man has its genesis in slavery, where rage, powerlessness, and longing made up every moment of every day. Hedley is so in touch with his origin story that at times he seems the sanest character of the group: the one best able to see what is really happening to them all.

Each of the other actors also gives beautifully nuanced performances. Female characters do not always escape stereotype in Wilson’s plays, but here, under Douglas’s sure direction, every woman is entirely unique. Stephanie Berry, as Louise, grounds the play with humor and a kind of off-handed maternal quality, while Rachel Leslie creates a strong but weary, and wary, Vera. As Ruby, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy captures the mysterious quality of a young woman on whom men (and other women) project their own fantasies; it’s no accident that much of the time we see her outlined behind the scrim.

Wayne T. Carr is funny and sweet as Canewell, though we don’t forget that he carries a knife. His speech about the overlooked beauty of unrequited love is one of the most touching moments in the production. Danny Johnson gives a wonderfully lived-in quality to Red; this is a man you want on your side.

As Floyd Barton, Billy Eugene Jones brilliantly gives us a version of Hedley, younger and far more earth bound. Both actors play a huge range of emotions. Barton’s ambitions are self-absorbed, based on worldly fame, and filled with bravado, while Hedley’s derive from shame, the desire for forgiveness, and a furious fantasy of a world in which black men are kings.

Wilson’s language, of course, gives these actors their varied and poetic words, from powerfully quiet scenes, to wild celebrations, to terrifying other-worldliness. And in addition to Douglas’s bold, unconventional staging, Fan Zhang’s Sound Design and original compositions and the lighting by Carolina Ortiz Herrera, support and enhance this vision of Seven Guitars.

You may have seen the play before, and you may see it again, but you’ll likely never see a production in which the personal and the mythical entwine so seamlessly and the Black experience, as Wilson evokes it, is so tragically in our midst.
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