August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” is now playing at Arena Stage on the Fichlander Stage and directed by Tazewell Thompson. Wilson is one America’s foremost playwrights and his plays have won multiple Pulitzer Prizes and Tony Awards. This play originally opened in March of 1996 and is part of Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle which includes “The Piano Lesson” and “Fences.” This play focuses on characters and events in 1948.
The play actually ends where it begins, starting with flashbacks ending at the beginning. After the death of Wilson at a relatively young age (60), the play had an eerier feeling of foreboding as it makes many references to the dead and grief.
…you won’t find one better acted, directed, and designed than this production at Arena Stage. It is a masterpiece from beginning to end.
The play opens around Mothers’ Day with the funeral of Floyd Barton (Roderick Lawrence). Present in the yard of a rooming house in the Hill District are his friends, Canewell (Michael Anthony Williams), Red Carter (Eden Marryshow), and Louise (Roz White), who was Floyd’s woman. Sitting off to a side is Hedley (David Emerson Toney), a local character who sell eggs and other sundries and is a little “tetched.”
The plot then takes us back a few days when Floyd Barton had been recently released from 90-day jail sentence for “worthlessness.” Wilson uses his writing to show us how incarceration for petty or non-existent crimes is so much a part of everyday life for black men even in the North. Both Canewell and Red have also been in jail for crimes that white men would probably have only spent a night in the local lockup, if that. Not only do the men have to lose their freedom, but they are forced to labor in workhouses where the pay is not even a subsistence level. This whole cultural background in the shadow of the more recent George Floyd killing makes it even more frightening to think how little we have changed since the late 1940s. August Wilson saw life as a painful place where, according to Hedley, “Everybody got a time coming.” He was probably right, especially for most oppressed people in this country and worldwide. Most live until the pain—physical and mental—stops at death.
Floyd is a musician and singer. While in jail, a record he made in Chicago was released and became a big hit. He is being offered a big contract to record more, but he has to get back to Chicago and he wants his long-time girlfriend, Vera, to go with him. The last time she refused and Floyd had a relationship with another woman so Vera is not sure she wants to rekindle the romance. Red and Canewell are Floyd’s sidemen and he wants them to come with them as well they are also a little reluctant. To get there, Floyd needs money to get his guitar out of hock and money to buy bus tickets. The plot has many twists and turns which would be unfair to reveal but the story revolves around how Floyd tries to overcome all the obstacles society puts in his way to reach his goal.
About halfway into the play, Ruby (Dane Figueroa Edidi) arrives. She is Louise’s niece and fleeing a situation involving murder and two men in her life. She is a woman who uses her sexuality to get what she wants but, like all the other characters, we wind up liking her. She is not all that she seems. All of Wilson’s characters have great depth and each of his plays are a revelation of their souls.
Lawrence is clearly the lead, but every character is someone we want to know better. As Floyd, Lawrence carves out a man we will clearly remember. He has talent, passion, and a strong desire to pull himself out of the cycle of poverty he now finds himself. He is a good man with flaws and we want him to succeed—Lawrence makes us strongly feel those reactions.
Jones’s captures Vera and her insecurities. Her love for Floyd is clear, but her distrust remains throughout the play. Jones also shows the sensual side of Vera during her dance with Red.
Toney’s Hedley is brilliant. Hedley not only is delusional, but he also has a speech problem due to an injury he had as a boy. Wilson’s Hedley, as characters in Wilson’s other plays, reflects the rage that black men have, especially in the south had at the time. This often turned inward, lashing out by beating their wives and children and often turning to alcohol because of the horrible racism and fear they faced daily. Hedley’s father kicked him in the mouth, and probably his head, when he was a child. Hedley has turned his back on white society. However, it is hard not to have great empathy with this man who lives on the edge.
Marryshow’s Red Carter has the suaveness of Cab Calloway. The actor allows his character become the comic relief, as when Red tries to show off his machismo by eating a hot pepper. However, Marryshow does not permit him become a caricature. (Note: This character will be played by Kevin E. Thorne II December 24-26, 2021.)
Canewell is also played with great warmth and finesse by Williams. He seems to be the easiest character to read until even he reveals a surprising history.
White is a seasoned performer. Her Louise at times almost steals the show, but White keeps her controlled. For me, due to White’s performance, Louise is the character I personally would love to delve into even more. I felt there was much to be discovered about this very strong and independent lady.
Edidi’s Ruby is simmering. She unabashedly allures all the men, including Hedley. Edidi makes Ruby more than just sexy, she also shows us flashes of vulnerability and kindness. (This character appears in a later Wilson play, “King Hedley II.”)
Thompson’s direction in the Fichlander Stage theater in the round is beautifully choreographed. I felt like I was viewing a ballroom as the actors smoothly moved around the stage, never staying in one position too long which allows every audience member to see their faces, hear their voices, and feel their emotions. The scene where the characters listen to a Joe Louis fight broadcast on the radio is like a slow-motion video of the boxing match. Every motion is counterpointed with another. Thompson does this with equal precision during the scenes of violence and love.
The set is minimal due to the venue. Set designer Donald Eastman hints at most of the scenery except for the outdoor table and chairs. A garden is just a few potted plants, Hedley’s “store” is just a board, and two doors lead us to Hedley’s shed and the rooming house.
Costume designer Harry Nadal has done a remarkable job mirroring the clothing of that time and place. He also emphasizes Vera’s litheness and Edidi’s shapeliness which tell us about the characters.
The lighting design by Robert Wierzel also hints at Wilson’s themes. “You rejoice when somebody dies and cry when they come into this world.” It is dark and dangerous and switches to bright and cheerful just when we think it should be the opposite. I appreciate how perfectly Hedley’s areas were lit.
Fabian Obispo is the sound designer and the background music and rooster sounds are an important part of the play. Obispo helps tell the story well.
My biggest holiday wish is for everyone, who is able, to have the opportunity to see Arena Stage’s “Seven Guitars.” If you miss this, try to see it another time, but you won’t find one better acted, directed, and designed than this production at Arena Stage. It is a masterpiece from beginning to end.
Running Time: One hour and 55 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Adult themes, graphic violence and implied sex. Not for children under 12 and even older children should be prepped before they go.
August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” runs until December 26, 2021 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth Street, SW, Washington D.C. 20024. There will be no shows on Christmas Day. There are several matinees and evening performances available. There is an open-captioned performance on December 15th and 23rd at 7:30 PM, and there is a audio-described performance on December 11th at 2 pm. Some parking available at Arena Stage and valet parking for those who have accessibility needs if you call beforehand. For tickets, go to this link. For more information on Arena Stage, go to their website. Arena Stage requires you must be vaccinated before attending and bring proof and identification. Masks are required throughout the performance.