August Wilson was a great chronicler of human behavior, one who worked on a wide canvas in subtle colors but always with a sharp eye on the goal that informed all of his plays: To chronicle the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th century.
Wilson allowed himself maximum creative freedom and did not create the plays in chronological order. “Seven Guitars,” now onstage at the Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre, premiered in 1995 and functions as a kind of prequel to “King Hedley II,” which was actually written earlier.
Set in 1948, the play unfolds in the backyard of a rooming house in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. “Seven Guitars” functions on one level as a murder mystery but ultimately becomes a meditation on the inevitability of death. That may sound depressing, but this play brims with life.
Wilson opens and concludes the piece with a post-funeral gathering of friends, but most of the story is told in a sustained flashback. The narrative follows the homecoming of bluesman Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Keenan Ramos) after serving a 90-day stretch in jail. He’s eager to patch things up with his ex-girlfriend Vera (Shawna Pena-Downing) and, with one hit record under his belt, to jump-start his recording career in Chicago.
Other characters: Floyd’s sidemen, drummer Red Carter (Robert Coppage III) and harmonica player Canewell (Theodore “Priest” Hughes); the acerbic/maternal Louise (Sherri Roulette-Mosley) and her sultry niece Ruby (Alexis L. Dupree), who arrives from Alabama midway through Act 1; and Hedley (Granvile O’Neal), a Haitian chicken farmer who earns money as a sandwich vendor.
Floyd’s immediate real-world problem is how to get his electric guitar out of hock, which he can only do after he collects the meager sum the county owes him for the work he did behind bars. Of even greater importance to him is winning back Vera, who, traumatized by his inconstancy, keeps him at arm’s length. Hedley, a sort of crazed mystic who has counterparts in several Wilson plays, is waiting for deliverance: He believes the great New Orleans trumpeter Buddy Bolden will, sooner or later, reappear and gift him money to buy a plantation.
Wilson’s greatest literary gift may have been his ability to write mesmerizing dialogue. The rhythms and imagery are so compelling that I always get a little annoyed when intrusive plot elements interfere with the conversation. And he wasn’t afraid to inject rich humor into a fundamentally serious play. At one point, Canewell embarks on a fine-tuned monologue about how to tell the difference between roosters from Alabama and Mississippi. Hughes performs the comic passage wonderfully, but the humor coexists with a heavy theme: The rooster symbolizes the black man, as Hedley tells us, and when a rooster in the adjacent yard meets a violent end — well, you can draw your own conclusions.
The plot mechanics become belabored in the final third of the play, possibly because Wilson was manipulating story elements to set the stage for the already-written “King Hedley II.” As a result, there is at least one glaringly implausible event late in Act 2.
Criticisms aside, this is one of my favorite Wilson plays. The show runs about three hours with intermission and director Karen Paisley explained in pre-show remarks that the Sunday matinee was only the second public performance. (An earlier scheduled preview had been done in by the weather.) So it wasn’t surprising that some of the actors didn’t have their lines down 100 percent, as evidenced by the pauses and stammers that occasionally interrupted the flow. Yet, it’s hard to fault them because Wilson wrote lots and lots of words.
Ramos delivers a deeply felt, sometimes volatile performance as Floyd. The charismatic Pena-Downing gives us an absorbing, detailed reading of Vera, delicately balancing her anger, sorrow and deep love for Floyd. Coppage plays Red as a good-natured lady’s man with dazzling charm. Hughes seems to inhabit Canewell effortlessly and can easily command attention, sometimes by doing nothing more complicated than sitting in a chair. Roulette-Mosley brings her experience and formidable talent to Louise, often making the most of her acerbic observations. Dupree effectively captures Ruby’s seductive ways and impatience with men. And O’Neal, a veteran character actors, dominates the second act with his riveting — and disturbing — embodiment of Hedley.
This is a non-Equity cast that demonstrates total commitment to the material. Their common goal seems clear enough: To honor Wilson and his play. That they do, and the effect is inspiring.
“Seven Guitars” runs through March 10 at the Warwick Theatre, 3927 Main St. Call 816-569-3226 or visit www.metkc.org.