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Floyd Barton, the hero of August Wilsons Seven Guitars,
longs for Chicago almost as passionately as Chekhovs three sisters long for
Moscow. Floyd (Lance Reddick) has no more likelihood of getting there than
Chekhovs people did, but his desire is no less compelling. Whereas the Russians were
fixed in a provincial life of mind-numbing smallness, Floyd feels caged in the Hill
District of Pittsburgh in 1948, not quite a rural backwater. Chicago, to him, symbolizes
all the undefinable and unattainable opportunity he craves: social mobility,
escape from poverty, from victimization by police on the alert for some crime he might
commit, though he cannot articulate any of this. They want to throw any black
man back in the workhouse, where he recently did time just for walking
down the street, he protests.
Floyd Barton wants nothing less than out of a diffuse bondage to his race and class, all the more forceful for being inescapable. At a best estimate of personal assets he may call upon, he is vain, illiterate, cocky, a womanizer with an appealing sense of humor who carries a thirty-eight along with bus fare to his mecca of $13.60. A mix of sexuality and barely suppressed violence permeate the atmosphere around him cutting through his fantasies of escape.
Bartons attributes and situation contribute to the plays pervasive sense of fatalism, more articulate in the philosophical attitude of Wilsons women. Chicago is just a city like Pittsburgh, where you are, one of the women tells Floyd, more to pacify than instruct him. That role falls to Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll), something of a know-it-all who comments indirectly on the action throughout, though not to any grand effect. Place dominates: the backyard of a ramshackle house whose ground borders on a henhouse run by an older, slow moving neighbor, Hedley (Charles Weldon). Surrounding talk remains low-keyed until the plays masterstroke of including highlights from the broadcast of the Joe Louis world championship fight. Boxing represented permissible violence to these people almost as fully as the actual match of black man against white expressed a racial triumph. From a dramatic perspective, the formal fight works against the inevitable outbreak of hostility between Floyd and Hedley, as if the slow, seething anger and discontent in all the characters suddenly overreached its limits.
The play is Wilsons most recent in the monumental ten play cycle beginning with Ma Raineys Black Bottom (1984), where he staked out his peoples psycho-social territory. Place remains the Hill District of Pittsburgh, beginning in 1904. Fences, second in the cycle, set in 1957, may be Mr. Wilsons most widely known work. Ultimately the seductive power of Seven Guitars, like that of the entire set of plays, lies in its poetry, deceptively simple and lucid. There are a few long speeches, though most wind their way around a subject, cumulatively expressing a kind of steady, stubborn will of these people to endure despite their rage and deprivation. Most of the dialogue of Seven Guitars further typifies a similarly relentless quality of these people, a sense of living at the edge of danger postponed, yet always threatening. Their situation keeps them shifting between patience and a primitive level of emotion always ready to become explosive. Words repeat in a seductive rhythm, each time adding another shading to their emotional content. At the climax, for instance, Floyd challenges his older rival Hedley at gunpoint for possession of a large sum of stolen money, long (literally) buried and unearthed by Floyd. Hedley says:
"Buddy...you come. You come Buddy. Oh, How I wait for you. So long I wait for you. I think to myself many times 'Maybe I die before Buddy Bolden bring me my fathers money.' Maybe Im not going to be a big man after all. Maybe my father dont forgive me, but I see you have the money. Give it to me.
The speech echoes with themes developed throughout the play: the long time of waiting for opportunity;" a frustrated desire for importance; the weight of unforgiven sins; even the idea of heroism and being a big man, endlessly alluring, though never satisfied. Flat on the page, the words emotional impact dissipates; they recede into their meaning rather than standing out. But the opposite effect happens on stage: the words speak marvelously both in their function and as the plays distinctive rhetorical element. Herein lies Mr. Wilsons gift and the performances lived up to it. But for language, characterization might have fallen into cliche; these people after all are familiar, though still unassimilated into the cultural main stream: strong practical women and weak flighty men. More particularly, Wilsons people express a unique mixture of idiom, dialect, local lore, domestic event, and long memory, of their journey out of the south yet stretching back to slavery and its indelible legacy of hopelessness and failure.
New York, September 2, 2006 - Nina daVinci