His voice flows from his chest like a resounding strum bouncing off the walls. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Desean K. Terry) is drenched in light and sits with his guitar tucked under his arm. He looks like an angel. He is an angel. And just like that, he’s gone and all that remains is his voice playing off his one and only hit record. Those who loved him remained after his funeral, dancing and harmonizing to Floyd’s music like they used to.
“Seven Guitars,” directed by Gregg T. Daniel and produced by A Noise Within, beautifully depicts the world of one of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays. The play follows a group of friends, family and lovers in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, all of whom have a dream to chase and a song to sing. Floyd just returned from serving a 90-day sentence at a workhouse and has come to make amends with his ex-girlfriend Vera (Cherish Monique Duke), promising a prosperous future in Chicago where he has been invited to create a new record. His new mission is to find the money to get him there. The only thing holding him back is the racist reality he lives in, filled with abusive law enforcement and limited opportunities.
Surrounding Floyd is a group of people who easily mesh and harmonize together: his close friends Red Carter (Amir Abdullah) and Canewell (DeJuan Christopher) who also play music with him; his ex-girlfriend Vera who can’t seem to leave him; Vera’s neighbors Hedley (Kevin Jackson) and Louise (Veralyn Jones) who have stuck by each other through it all; and Vera’s niece Ruby (Sydney A. Mason) who makes a surprise visit under unexpected circumstances.
Each person in the group carries their own qualms yet continually returns to the role a man and a woman have in a relationship. The men harp on how “a man needs a woman” to care for them. And the women share the opposite side about how “a woman needs a man.” The conversation comes off co-dependant, but represents the time of the play in 1948. The only character that defies these expectations is Ruby who knows what she wants and will only falter to a man’s demands when it’s in her best interest to do so. We see it through Mason’s confident strides and performance. Even when her decision to help Hedley get closer to his dream by giving more of herself than expected, the look on her face and direct action reveal that she was helping for her own benefit.
It’s easy to forget about the outdated gender roles when Floyd and Vera are alone.
Their scenes are entrancing and depict a couple pushing to make the relationship work, simultaneously fighting with and for each other. Daniel’s direction depicts a tug and pull across the stage that completely transforms the stationery set designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz. No matter where they are, the world moves. He fights for her love and pushes to have her come along on his journey to Chicago. Despite his status as a player,, you can’t help but see the unconditional love he has for her and the unconditional love she has for him. It’s embodied all the way to Terry and Duke’s eyes.
However, it would be remiss to ignore Floyd’s jealousy. Even in the most fun moments where we are learning a dance, moving our hips and hopping together, there is an undertone of chaos rumbling at each breath, laugh and shout. Floyd is seconds away from blowing. Some moments are unexpected and remove the viewer from the world of the play, but Terry’s performance never fails to pull you back in. Although Floyd’s flaws are all out for display, it’s impossible to root against him.
The same can be said for Hedley. Jackson portrays the chaotic character in every part of his body. When he laments the beauty of God’s work, his arms continually raise higher and higher, stretching in the sky as if grasping onto his dream. You can see heaven in his eyes. Even after he murders a rooster, he returns as a ticking time bomb that Jackson avoids through his ability to humanize the character and show his abrupt rants are not unwarranted. Hedley revisits his dream throughout the play, saying that King Buddy Bolden will come down and give him the money he needs to buy a plantation so no white man could tell him what to do. He dreams of liberating Black people.
In each cry for help and liberation, the lighting changes from an afternoon sky to powerful hues of sharp colors. The lighting design by Derrick McDaniel makes use of the space to highlight rooms and emotions. The set depicts the outside of an apartment building, with screens hiding the inside of the rooms. When the lights interact with the screens, we can see the characters inside or hide them. As moods change, the sky changes and the world evolves from a literal representation of the day to a figurative depiction of it. It’s a playful and poignant collaboration between the designers to help silhouette the characters’ physical and mental being.
The parts when the set and lighting are idle are purposeful and powerful just the same as a sharp red light painting the sky. When the characters share stories of discrimination and racism, there is no need for theatrics to display the weight of what is being said.
“Seven Guitars” displays moments when characters like Floyd, Canewell and Red Carter share their experience with the police. Canewell describes how he played his harmonica in Chicago on the side of the street and was taken in for loitering and disturbing the peace. One story explains how they didn’t do anything, but the police took them in because the officer assumed he was going to do something. Even as the actors deliver these lines nonchalantly like old friends gathering to reminisce on the trouble they got into as kids, each scenario hits harder and contextualizes Floyd’s behavior.
We deeply understand each aspect of his struggle and want him to get to Chicago, even when we know some of his actions are destructive. These actions come from the pain he’s experienced. He loses his patience and says he only has seven chances and they’re almost all used up. Floyd does everything in his power to make it to Chicago in order to create the life he’s always dreamed of. He gets caught up in trouble in his chase for funding to make his dream happen. It eventually leads to his demise.
“Seven Guitars” mirrors the difficult reality for Black people that is still felt today. The play takes place in the ‘40s, and despite dated conversations and the world, the oppression feels the same in 2021. Black Americans still push to work ten times as hard as their white counterparts to follow their dreams, law enforcement is still laced in racism and sustains its roots of discrimination and there is still a desire to do whatever it takes to make it all end.
Hedley’s dream of owning a plantation rings, echoing from scene to scene. Although it seems like a subtle characterization at the beginning, it is intentional. He harps on what all are thinking. He wants freedom. He awaits Buddy Bolden, a famous jazz trumpet player who can solve all his problems. Hedley groans in joy, seeing it all before him. It’s close. He can see Bolden already reaching out, saying “here go the money!”
And suddenly, his dreams feel possible.
“Seven Guitars” runs now until Nov. 14 at A Noise Within. For more information, click here.