Seven guitars
Joy Jones and Roderick Lawrence in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars at Arena Stage; Credit: Ryan Maxwell Photography

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Seven Guitars opens after one of the main characters, blues musician Floyd Schoolboy Barton (Roderick Lawrence), is already dead and buried. Two men, Canewell (Michael Anthony Williams) and Red Carter (Eden Marryshow), both musicians who had  played with Floyd, and two women, Vera (Joy Jones) and Louise (Roz White), are gathered in a backyard, still dressed for the funeral. Sitting apart from them is King Hedley (David Emerson Toney) an older, Afro-Caribbean man, wearing overalls. Playwright August Wilson has begun his story with a promise that despite the joy and laughs offered in the scenes to come, recounting Floyd’s final weeks, it will end in tragedy. 

Taking place in 1948, Seven Guitars is the fifth in Wilson’s 10-play sequence, alternately called the Pittsburgh Cycle or the Century Cycle. Each of the plays is set in a different decade of the 20th century and, with one exception, in the predominantly Black Hill District of Pittsburgh. While there is no overarching storyline, there are recurring themes and, occasionally, recurring characters (another play, King Hedley II, picks up the story of some of Seven Guitars’ characters decades later).

In the next scene, the doomed Floyd has just been released from a 90-day stint in the workhouse for vagrancy, after returning from a year-and-half sojourn in Chicago, only to learn that the song he recorded in the Windy City is now a hit record. (The track is based on Little Walter‘s “Ora-Nelle Blues.”) Floyd wants his ex-girlfriend Vera to take him back; he wants to put his band back together, and bring them with him to Chicago to continue recording. But first he has to retrieve his electric guitar from the pawn shop and play a Mothers’ Day gig at a local night club. 

Wilson wrote Seven Guitars imagining a proscenium, but the arena of the Fichandler Stage from which Arena Theater derives its name necessitated that set designer Donald Eastman reinvent the world of the play as an uneven concrete and tile courtyard, accessed from the back staircases and an alley. In this courtyard, cards are played, local news is spread, Louise, the landlady, demands rent from tenants, and Hedley engages in his business of selling hardboiled eggs, cigarettes, and chicken sandwiches. All through the first act Louise waits for her niece, Ruby (Dane Figueroa Edidi), to arrive from Alabama. Seeking a new start after one of her suitors murdered a rival, Ruby is soon considering the options the Hill District offers. In a story where fate dominates, she is the only one who chooses a future. 

Life goes on in the courtyard, but even as Floyd schemes to cash in on his newfound fame, the specter of his violent end  looms over the proceedings: There are debates over the advantages of guns and knives (Floyd’s position is clear: he often has a .38 tucked into his pants), and multiple offstage killings, by both cop and criminal, are recounted.

Wilson is an acute interpreter of social and cultural history and nothing that happens on stage doesn’t connect to a larger world. Though he respects what came before, Floyd is a proponent  of the new electric blues popularized by Chicago-based artists like Muddy Waters.The characters live in an era of mass media. It isn’t just that Floyd has a hit record—radio carries major sporting events. This is dramatized in a wonderful set piece choreographed by Ron Piretti in which the courtyard’s denizens listen to a broadcast of a fight by heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis, “The Brown Bomber,” in which each pantomime their version of the announcer’s narration of yet another victory.

With the exception of Hedley, who often wears  a practical leather apron whether for his carpentry work or the slaughtering chickens for his sandwich side hustle, the characters make a point of being fashionably dressed city-dwellers (Harry Nadal takes great pleasure in recreating men’s fashions of the era—giving each of the  musicians their own distinctive style). They’re disdainful of those who have yet to abandon rural ways of life, including Hedley, though they rely upon him for both building and bird-meat. Hedley also suffers from tuberculosis, and, much like the anti-vaxxers and anti-maskers of today, he refuses to go to the recently desegregated sanitorium for treatment, preferring the herbal remedies brewed by a neighbor.

But Hedley is not just a foolish outsider, he’s Floyd’s foil. A traditionalist and a prophet to Floyd’s modernist schemer.  He expounds on his idiosyncratic reading of the Book of Revelations and admiration for Black revolutionaries such as Marcus Garvey and Toussaint Louverture. He tells all who prefer not to listen about his recurring dream of his father and New Orleans jazz musician “KingBuddy Bolden (practically legendary, in that much is said of his role but he left no recordings behind)—promising he will receive a fortune to buy his own plantation and that he will father a messiah of Black liberation. Because it’s a tragedy, the fates of the would-be prophet and the doomed bluesman are bound together in the end—even if Wilson has already let us know the prophet survives. 

There may not be seven guitars in this play, but there are seven characters, and perhaps Wilson likened the script to a musical score, in which case, director Tazewell Thompson is a fine conductor of this first class ensemble.

August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, directed by Tazewell Thompson, runs to Dec. 26 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. $56–$105.