Talking the Blues

When two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner August Wilson began writing Seven Guitars, the play had four characters in it, all of them men. But then a woman appeared in Wilson's imagination, saying, "I want my own space."

The woman turned out to be Vera, the central female character in his narrative about black American life in the 1940s. He responded to her demand by giving her the Pittsburgh back yard in which the play is set. The author tells us that he then went back to her and said, " 'Okay, now you have your own space,' and there was a knock on the door, and there was a guy standing there with a radio under one arm and a chicken under the other, and he had come courting. His name was Canewell."

In the final draft, Canewell does not court Vera. He becomes, instead, a man who loves Vera from afar and the best buddy of Floyd Barton, the blues-playing guitar man who actually wins Vera's heart. The chicken, which turns out to be a rooster, is relegated to the role of next-door nuisance, constantly bothering Canewell's neighbors by crowing at all hours of the day. The characters, Wilson says, drove the changes; he merely listened.

That enigmatic, almost mystical-sounding creative process provided both the strength and the weakness of Seven Guitars. The strength of the play resides in the wondrous characters, in the lyrical yet colloquial speeches that capture Wilson's boyhood memories of the Pittsburgh tenements in which he grew up. These speeches are also often the play's weakness. At some points during the play's three-plus hours, one wishes that Wilson had stopped listening to his characters and simply told them, "All right, already. I get your point. Now shut up."

The play tells the tale of Floyd Barton's drive to get back to Chicago and his blues-singing success, after spending 90 days in the workhouse on a trumped-up charge of vagrancy. Floyd's story, like any good blues song, ends in desperate measures and his own demise, but not before he has exhausted all reasonable means of returning to the good life that awaits him. His is, ultimately, the story of a man trying to mature in a world that blocks him at every turn.

While stuck in Pittsburgh, Floyd returns to Vera's back yard in an effort to woo her, and there encounters all his old friends: the upstairs neighbor Louise; his band's harmonica player, Canewell; drummer Red Carter; and the Jamaican sandwich-maker Hedley. This tenement back yard, so gorgeously evoked by Scott Bradley's set of old stone, red tulips, weathered wood and long, creaky stairways, is the site of all the speechifying -- some of it terrific, some simply redundant.

Curiously, both the powerful and the endless speeches often come from the same character. Hedley, who espouses the beliefs of Marcus Garvey, gives repeated voice to one of the play's central themes: black men struggling to find their own power, their own voices in a world that refuses to hear. Because Hedley is not quite right in the head, much of what he says meets with rolled eyes and knowing glances between the other characters. Thus, Hedley keeps talking, and talking and talking. The point that's dramatic and powerful in Hedley's initial speech quickly loses steam. And though Wilson's theme is reinforced by the way in which Hedley's repeated speeches fall on deaf ears, there is only so much that actor Lou Ferguson -- who does a fine job as the thin, bent-backed old islander -- can do to make the repetition dramatically powerful.

On the other hand, some of the seemingly extraneous dialogue -- for instance, the backyard rhyming games that occur between Floyd, Canewell and Red Carter -- serves the narrative well by establishing the relationships among the characters and the colloquial sounds of the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1948. Indeed, the strongest moments of the play and of this production are the ensemble moments, when the characters give up making speeches and actually talk to each other.

But not all the speech-making problems are the playwright's fault. Some of the difficulties during even the more lovely monologues reside in the direction. For though Jonathan Wilson gets terrific energy out of the interaction between his actors, many of the solitary moments fall flat, with the characters left standing in vague pools of light, their hands hanging like stones at their sides as they stare into space. Many of these moments feel contrived and stilted. At least during Hedley's endless talking he moves, swinging his machete or slapping together his chicken sandwiches.

Still, the cast is strong. Ken LaRon's sensitive and nervous Canewell is powerful, and the actor's fine singing and harmonica playing make him believable as a sidekick musician. Cynthia Jones is often hysterically funny as Louise, the headstrong upstairs neighbor. Jernard Burks, as the big-bellied, finely dressed ladies' man Red Carter, does well with his role. During last Thursday night's performance, Alice Gatling filled in for an ailing Gwendolyn Mulamba, who normally plays Ruby, the sexy siren visiting from the South; Ms. Gatling's substitute performance was in many ways one of the finest of the evening -- and was especially impressive since she was still reading her lines from the book. Leslie DoQui, who plays the tenderhearted, guarded and earth-bound Vera, the woman who cooks good greens and tends her garden well, is too ethereal, too birdlike for the role; but when she dances, the stage lights up.

The casting of the lead, Floyd Barton, is somewhat puzzling. Alex Allen Morris, as the bluesman, can't play guitar and doesn't really sing the blues, though the role, as directed, requires him to. Thus, when Floyd pulls out his guitar and begins to pluck it tentatively rather than hammer out the plaintive, driven music that is the blues, the moment is strange indeed. This point may seem small, but Floyd's central desire is to be a great bluesman, to find and hear his own voice in the world. That Morris is not able to add that dimension to the play undercuts the work's central metaphor.

The seven main characters of Seven Guitars are each struggling to find a voice, make his or her own music and be heard in the unreceptive world of the 1940s. And despite some off-key moments, the actors often make beautiful music together.

Seven Guitars plays through March 14 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421.


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