By Tom Nissley
Yale Rep has mounted a superb production of “Seven Guitars,” part of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, directed by Timothy Douglass. An ensemble team of seven powerful actors brings to life a complicated and touching story of dreams interrupted and survival on the edge of Pittsburgh’s Hill District where Wilson had lived and about which he wrote eloquently as he traced the African-American migration from South to North in the twentieth century. “Seven Guitars” takes place in Pittsburgh, around 1948. Louise (Stephanie Berry), Vera (Rachel Leslie), Hedley (Andre de Shields), and later Ruby (Antoinette Crowe Legacy) share rooms in the boarding house on the Hill, and Floyd Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) returns there when he comes back to Pittsburgh after time in Chicago. Floyd has recorded a successful record, with Canewell (Wayne T Carr) and Red Carter (Danny Johnson) providing musical back-up. He is famous in the neighborhood and has plans to continue his career when he goes back to Chicago with a new guitar, and, he hopes, Vera, his long-time live-in girlfriend. But first he must convince her to forgive him for going off the last time, without telling Vera, with Pearl, who was more ready to believe in his dream.
So, everybody is connected, in this intriguing family-system-like group. They play Whist together, and share in each other’s personal dreams and memories, with few secrets. Hedley [to whom Mr. de Shields gives definition with amazing depth], sells sandwiches on the street, using meat from chickens he has fresh-killed and cooked in the alley way. He treasures a rich inheritance of pride and purpose from his father, and an expectation of a place within the saved persons who will inherit the world after God’s final judgement. His buddies don’t put great stock in that theological position, but they generally do what they can to respect his fragile temperament. And fragile it is. Hedley is the crazy old uncle in this bunch.
But, thanks to Wilson’s brilliant construction, you can find something unique and precious about each of the characters, and each of their hopes -- their goals -- their secret personal targets for happiness. Ruby, who is pretty enough to stimulate all the men to walk proud, is doing her best to stay away from the troubles she had with men in Alabama. Vera, burned by Floyd, but still in love with him, so grieving. Louise, whose concern for Hedley transcends her being upset by his erratic behavior, and whose wisdom extends to guidance for the whole group.
It’s unlikely that you won’t be reminded of something in your own journey as you watch and listen to the passion for meaning and success in the lives of these seven, who like all of us at some time are asking ‘what could I do if the clouds opened for me, and what can I do to get that to happen?’ Or the double edge of resistance to and adoration of your mother’s memory. And it’s also unlikely that you will not be reminded of the stress of inequality that has been the forerunner of the Black Lives Matter and similar movements of protest, when you hear Floyd recount being arrested and beaten just for being black while he was in Chicago.
The set (Fufan Zhang) -- in this production an abstract high stairway, with seven diverse chairs on the landing above and space representing the “backyard of a house in Pittsburgh in 1948“ below, works beautifully to accommodate the play’s action, and a host of technicians in sound and lighting and music also support it. Costumes (An-Lin Dauber) reflect the period and the culture perfectly.
I am so glad that I got to share this play with the loving team that presented it, and I simply urge you to try to share it too. It’s an astounding part of the Wilson legacy. Tickets and information at www.yalerep.org, or by phone at 203-432-1234. Do it now.
Tom Nissley, for the Ridgelea Reports on Theatre