August Wilson once told the Paris Review about his short story “The Best Blues Singer in the World.” Here’s the whole thing: “The streets that Balboa walked were his own private ocean, and Balboa was drowning.”
“That says it all,” Wilson declared. “I’ve been rewriting that same story over and over again. All my plays are rewriting that same story. I’m not sure what it means, other than life is hard.”
That explains why “Seven Guitars,” the seventh play of 10 in his Pittsburgh Cycle, seems authentic yet familiar, dramatically powerful yet long and repetitive. (It lasts almost three hours, including an intermission.)
It employs many devices Wilson used across the cycle: a kind of holy fool who speaks hard truths, a man who regrets but can’t help sexual infidelity, sudden violence among people who take each other for granted, omnipresent blues music, acts of white racism offstage that pay off in tragedy for black characters onstage. If it’s not on the level of his most affecting work – “Fences,” “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” “The Piano Lesson” – it’s still potent.
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It needs a firm, shrewd hand at the helm, and Lou Bellamy supplies it. On Q Productions imported this Wilson expert from Minnesota’s Penumbra Theatre, and he maintains tension throughout the circular progress of the play at Duke Energy Theater.
It begins and ends at a wake for Floyd Barton (Nicholas Johnson), a guitarist who’d wanted to go back to Chicago after a short stint in prison to try for another hit record. He’s mourned by Vera (LeShea Stukes), whom he abandoned and tried to get back; Louise (Shar Martin), their cynical neighbor; Red (Quentin Talley), a philandering drummer; and Canewell (Sultan Omar El-Amin), a harmonica player quick who’s with a knife, drink or loud opinion.
We’re never sure until the end what Hedley (Ron McClelland) thinks of Barton; he works ominously in a corner of the courtyard designed by Joseph Fry. With his penchant for outbursts, proclaiming himself the potential father of a Messiah for black people or announcing he’ll someday inherit money from his father – and receive it from long-dead jazz trumpeter Buddy Bolden – he’s the wild card Wilson places in almost every deck.
The play takes place in 1948, when African Americans who fought in World War II came home to the lack of opportunity and second-class status they knew before the war. This tension sometimes simmers and sometimes seethes; liquor and lack of money intensify it. When a neighbor’s sultry sister (Janalyn Moonie Walton) sashays into the courtyard, we expect her to turn up the heat; oddly, Wilson makes little use of her. (She sets up the next play he wrote, “King Hedley II,” in which Canewell appears under another name.)
Bellamy and his actors produce the right performances, from Johnson’s pent-up rage to Marlin’s blunt honesty. McClelland does especially well by a character who could easily seem unreal or comical, a man from the Caribbean who has never fully adjusted to urban life. Johnson’s bitter restlessness, Stukes’ wistfulness, El-Amin’s bonhomie and Talley’s lazy lustfulness create an atmosphere of distress. If these people aren’t drowning yet, their heads aren’t much above the water line.
August Wilson’s drama runs through June 6 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Duke Energy Theater, Spirit Square, 345 N. College St. $28. 704-372-1000, youarenowonq.com.