Slice of Life
Watching M Ensemble's production of Seven Guitars is like sitting in your neighbor's back yard on Sunday: Although there's not a lot going on, simply being invited generates a feel-good sense of belonging.
But after spending an hour listening to strangers jabber about their lives without any real story line, you may begin to wish you were someplace that offered something exciting that is unless watching women stem a bowl of collard greens does it for you. You may also begin to wonder what, exactly, is the purpose of your being there.
Written in 1995 by the late, great August Wilson, Guitars is one work of an epic ten-play cycle that chronicles the twentieth-century black American experience. Inevitably some of his works turned out better than others. Wilson devoted his creative life to exploring America's buried history and is considered one of American theater's most acclaimed writers. He strenuously avoided being sucked into the mainstream and refused to succumb to Hollywood glitz, reportedly declining offers to pen plays about Muhammad Ali and Louis Armstrong. Instead he created easygoing scripts that brought and continue to bring to life a people's soul through its unsung heroes. Although Guitars is rife with dialogue that easily ebbs and flows like the ocean, the dull and shallow plot dilutes the play's overall success.
As with many of Wilson's works, Guitars is staged in a tenement in Pittsburgh's notorious Hill District. The play opens at the wake of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton, a blues guitarist/singer. After his mourners briefly contemplate the loss of a friend, the audience is transported back in time to witness the events that led to his unnatural death. But the play is not about any one particular occurrence; rather it provides a glimpse of the daily life, routines, meals, music, joys, fears, dreams, and frustrations of the ghetto culture circa 1948. Despite their dreary and dilapidated surroundings enhanced by a rickety-looking set painted in drab colors most of the characters exude carefree happiness rather than the desperation associated with abject poverty.
In another of Wilson's works, King Hedley, the title character is faced with similar hardships, and by the end of Act One, he is belting out a breathtaking monologue fueled by anger, bitterness, and hatred toward life's injustices. Guitars features few such impassioned rants and little sense of pent-up rage. But to the credit of the slow-moving plot, the characters are some of the most well developed ever to step onto a stage. Rich language that is executed with polished ease makes it difficult not to leave the theater with a certain fondness for each player in the seven-member cast.
Though the action is often banal and ordinary, the performances are anything but. Led by the mesmerizing Herman McGloun in the role of Floyd, the play traces the musician's return home after a brief stint in jail for vagrancy. More than a year before his incarceration, he walked out on his former flame Vera played with flair and panache by Lela Elam for another woman. Now he's out and desperate to get Vera back. A song he recorded before doing time has become a hit single, and he has been invited to record a second in Chicago. Though he wants Vera by his side, she resists his seductive advances. Louise, played with deft dramatic sensibility by Brandiss Seward, is Vera's larger-than-life buxom friend who advises her to drop the playboy/would-be lover faster than a hot tin pan. Harmonica player Canewell (Chat Atkins) and drummer Red Carter (Herman Carabali II) are also unconvinced by their former bandleader's big plans. Tired of playing backup in life and onstage, the pair is wary about the jaunt to the Windy City and their rapid-fire dialogue is spit out with fine deadpan comedic timing.
The playwright, however, largely focuses on Hedley, a butcher who suffers from tuberculosis and is not entirely sane. Played by William Barnes, the middle-age character seems to symbolize the frustration associated with being black in America during the post-World War II/pre-civil rights era. Hedley offers an almost apocalyptic vision of the black man's plight and dreams one day of owning his own plantation.
Almost invisibly directed by John Pryor, the troupe sits and spins yarns, recounts irrelevant rhymes, and generally does as ordinary people do. There are, however, a handful of memorable scenes. One of them plays out as the crew gathers around the radio to hear the mythical Joe Louis-Billy Conn boxing title match. At the end of the fight, after the cheering dies down, Floyd slyly points out that if he were to "hit a white man with no witnesses, [he] would go to jail for a long time. When Joe Louis knocks one out in front of 100,000 people, they give him a million dollars."
Although the lives of Wilson's characters are bleak, and their fate is often predetermined by circumstance, his genuinely likable figures always seem to balance frustration with a certain sense of hope. By piecing together the fractured history of a people onstage, the playwright humanizes their loss and rejection, and by cleverly weaving language and wisdom in a unique thread, he reclaims some of the lives seemingly shattered by diaspora.
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