At the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Angus Bowmer Theater, August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" is essentially a slice of life in the black ghetto in 1948, before civil rights. The single set is a tenement in the hill district of Pittsburgh. There are dilapidated stairs, brick buildings, and broken sidewalks. An old fence with some missing slats closes off the left rear side. It's all in browns, and is definitely a scene of abject poverty. There's a carefree happiness to the people, though. They really have nothing to lose, so they may as well enjoy the little that they do have. At least, that's what's on the surface. Everyone has just come from the funeral of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a blues singer/guitarist. After remembrances, Floyd in his white suit, appears in a flash of light at the top rear of the stage. We are then transported back a little in time to the events leading up to it.
Floyd has just gotten out of jail for vagrancy. He has a hit record, and is going to Chicago to record another. He's trying to persuide Vera to come with him, along with his harmonica player Canewell, and drummer, Red Carter. He left Vera once to run off to Chicago with Pearl Brown, and she's skeptical. His electric guitar is in the pawn shop. When he goes to get it back, the ticket has expired by a couple days, and they want to sell it to him for fifty dollars that he doesn't have.
Hedley is a big man with a Carribean Island accent. He has two chicken cages, and tuberculosis. He's fifty-nine years old and ready to go. Louise wants Old Golds, but Hedley only has Chesterfields to sell. There's a funeral tonight, and he's going to sell a lot of chicken sandwiches. In a good of sleight of hand, he appears to dramatically slice the head off one of them as the stage goes dark. As the play progresses we learn much mnore about him.
"Seven Guitars" is not about any particular event, but rather about the daily life and routines, the food, music, frustrations of the black ghetto culture of 1948. Derrick Lee Weeden's Hedley is a supertitious man. He won't go to the doctor for his TB. He sees Sara, who's got big power with her roots, herbs, and magic. He hums about Buddy Bolden and how he'll soon be a big man. His name is King, but he doesn't use it because he had to kill a man who mocked him, saying no black man could be named King. The black man's place is to be subservient to the white man. It's like a mantra with him, and he almost chants it. He has been beaten down so much that his only dream is to father a son who will be like Marcus Garvey or Moses and lead his people out of bondage. He's a very intense and decisive man. Everyone complains about a neighbor's rooster. Joe Carter goes into a humorous disclourse comparing Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi roosters. Hedley simply goes to the neighbors, takes the rooster, kills it, and spreads the blood around the stage in a voo-doo like ritual, to the horror of everyone else.
Hedley symbolizes frustration of being black in America in 1948. They all gather to hear Joe Louis fight Billy Conn on the radio. When the Brown Bomber knocks him out they all do a dance around the stage. Floyd observes that if he "hit a white man with no witnesses, he would go to jail for a long time. When Joe Lewis knocks one out in front of a hundred-thousand people they give him a million dollars." Floyd wants something in life. He sees no reason why he should have nothing. He wants a marker for his Mother's grave. She didn't even have two sticks and he at least wants some warmth that she never had. He "takes a chance" and we are swept along to the tragic finale.
For those who saw "Seven Guitars" at The Ahmanson a couple years ago on out KDB bus trip, the last act has been rewritten and tightened up considerably. The character of Hedley, especially, has been condensed and it flows like a volcano to it's final eruption. August Wilson's "Seven Guitars" continues at The Angus Bowmer Theater at Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Ashland through September 19.