By Jill Gilmer
Who would believe that backyard banter could capture the soul of an entire people struggling to realize their dreams in the wake of economic and political oppression? This was the ambitious goal of August Wilson’s elegantly-written Seven Guitars, which opened University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s fall season Tuesday night. Seven Guitars is part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s 10-play series, “The Pittsburgh Cycle.” The series explores the African American experience by peeking into the hearts and minds of working class blacks in Pittsburgh during each decade of the 20th century.
Seven Guitars takes place in 1948 in the backyard of town gossip Louise following the funeral of Floyd Barton, a charismatic guitarist and ladies’ man. Floyd’s freshly-successful musical career was cut short when he was imprisoned for a minor offense and later mysteriously murdered. Through a 3-hour flashback, Louise and her neighbors recount Floyd’s life through his relationship with the other six cast members. The most significant of these characters are Hedley, a West Indian chicken sandwich vendor who appears to be teetering on insanity; Vera, Floyd’s plain-Jane girlfriend whom he abandoned to run off with a woman he claims believed in his dreams more deeply; and Canewell, Floyd’s fellow band-member and friend.
The Generation Y ensemble may have had difficulty connecting with the language and lifestyle of the 1940s. A notable exception was David R. Weaver, Sr., who plays Hedley, an older character. Hedley’s nearly constant state of rage offers a bridge between the frustrations that blacks faced in the 1940s and the anger beneath the violent crime plaguing many inner city neighborhoods today. The younger male characters were most convincing when they described their encounters with the justice system. When one of them stated, “I was arrested for being worthless,” he seemed to be giving voice to the agony of the current generation of African American males, which is experiencing grossly disproportionate rates of incarceration. Other notable performances were Leandra Renaa Williams as Ruby, Louise’s frisky mantrap niece, and Stephanie Roland as a nicely underplayed Louise. Louise’s deadpan lines might tempt many an actress to become a scene robber.
The play’s shortcomings are partially corrected by a warm and inviting set, lovingly crafted by Bruce Brockman, and dramatic lighting by Stephen Roby White. Director Bill Watson may have missed an opportunity to soften the dialogue through greater use of music, as some other productions of Seven Guitars have done. Music would have tapped into the underlying sensuality of this play and encouraged it to sing.