The actors march onto the stark stage in silence. They turn and face the audience and still don’t say anything, not until all have taken their positions. Then August Wilson’s language — incantatory and rich with life — bursts into the theater.
We learn that the five people on stage are returning from a funeral, reconvening in the backyard of a house in Pittsburgh. As they keep talking, it seems clear that they could be doing something else, or anything at all, dressed in their funereal finest. Maybe one could be loosening his tie. Maybe someone could be putting up coffee, or getting out beers.
But they don’t do anything; they just stand there. And it works.
So begins the Yale Repertory Theatre’s effectively minimalist production of August Wilson’s Seven Guitars, the 1940s installment of the celebrated playwright’s Century Cycle of ten plays — one for each decade of the 20th century — about the African-American experience, as chronicled mostly by focusing on the Hill District, a neighborhood in Pittsburgh.
In Seven Guitars, it’s 1948, and blues musician Floyd Barton (Billy Eugene Jones) has come back from making a record in Chicago and doing time in jail. The song he recorded, “That’s All Right,” has become a hit, and Floyd has an invitation to do another record. Problem is, he doesn’t have a proper guitar, or a proper band. He’s looking to enlist his musician friends, Canewell (Wayne T. Carr) and Red Carter (Danny Johnson) to play with him, and he’s hoping to rekindle things with old flame Vera (Rachel Leslie), even though he ran out on her before. He also must face the skepticism of Louise (Stephanie Berry) — Vera’s landlady, who’s seen his kind before — and contend with Hedley (André De Shields), an older man who rents a room from Louise. Things get even more complicated, in unexpected ways, with the arrival of Ruby (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), fleeing romantic entanglements in Alabama and hoping to start a new life farther north.
Floyd knows he can record another hit song if he can just get out of Pittsburgh and back to Chicago. But we in the audience know that Floyd is already a dead man walking; at the beginning of the play, Floyd’s the one his friends are burying. The question is what, or who, kills him, and why. As the play progresses, we learn that each of the characters have their reasons, their fatal passions, and there are enough guns and knives to go around to make it happen. So the easy camaraderie at the beginning of Seven Guitars curdles mesmerizingly into resentment, conflict, and in the end — sure enough — death.
The actors in this ensemble play are nearly perfect. Jones plays Floyd as a man exploding with charisma, talent, ambition, and desperation, as if he seems to know deep down that he’s not going to make it. Carr and Johnson give nuanced portrayals of Floyd’s would-be bandmates, men who are easy to get along with but could turn on a dime if crossed. Playing smart women living in a man’s world, Leslie, Berry, and Crowe-Legacy infuse their characters with all the conflicting emotions that their positions create for them. They all know they deserve better than they’ve got. But in the end, De Shields steals the show as Hedley, a character who could easily be a symbol or a stereotype, but in this seasoned veteran’s hands becomes a fully realized human being, brimming with humor and menace.
The interesting choices in direction and staging, however, might be what make this Seven Guitars unique. Wilson’s specificity in time and place — the entire play takes place in a backyard in Pittsburgh, in 1948 — would suggest staging and acting the play in a hyper-realistic mode, stuffed with period details and featuring people acting, well, naturally. Instead, the scenic design (by Fufan Zhang) is sparse and almost entirely unornamented, like something in a Beckett play. Likewise, under Timothy Douglas’s direction, the actors seem to move only when absolutely necessary. There are moments of naturalism, such as when the band rehearses a song, or when the friends sit down to play cards. But just as often, the characters are barely moving, or standing in one spot.
This makes the actors almost into orators, which makes a lot of sense. Seven Guitars is full of speeches, on subjects ranging from race relations to roosters, and the lack of movement makes you pay more attention to the ideas — and more important, to Wilson’s incredible writing, which can swing from hilarious to wrenching in the space of a couple minutes and is so evocative that it conjures scenery in the mind’s eye where there is none on the stage.
The stillness of the production also serves a thematic purpose, showing physically how all the characters are, in a broader sense, stuck where they are. Floyd talks all the time about how he’s going back to Chicago, but he’ll never get there. Hedley talks in sweeping terms about black liberation, about the rise of the Ethiopian nation, but even if it happens, he’ll never take part in it. The more grounded characters hedge their bets against their dreams. They know that their ambitions have to be tempered against a reality too hard to overcome in one lifetime.
In this production of Seven Guitars, the characters’ words make the world around them, and they can’t escape it.
August Wilson’s Seven Guitars runs at the Yale Repertory Theatre, 1120 Chapel St., until Dec. 17. Click here for tickets and more information.