‘Seven Guitars’: jazz riffs on August Wilson’s tenement tragedy

The music's in the language in Artists Rep's new rendition of a ferocious and funny American play

Victor Mack, Gayle Samuels, Mujahid Abdul-Rashid. © Owen Carey 2012

I sandwiched a stage play between two nights of dance over the weekend and walked away from the experience thinking about … music.

On Thursday night it was the Doppler effect of the Oregon Crusaders marching band’s outside-the-theater performance for Trisha Brown Dance Company’s “Foray Foret,” a hush that became a shout that became a hush again. Brown is such an exquisitely musical choreographer that the music’s evident even when it isn’t there.

On Saturday night it was Thom Willems’ jangling, witty and exhilarating electronic score for “The Second Detail,” which in concert with William Forsythe’s breathlessly broken speed-demon choreography seemed to catapult Oregon Ballet Theatre’s dancers into a new and emancipating territory of rhythmic sophistication.

And on Friday night, at the opening of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars” at Artists Repertory Theatre, it was … well, music all over the place, even though the actual music as ordinarily defined was confined to a few offhand chord-strums on a guitar and some quick songs sung mostly as laments.

McQueen as Floyd. © Owen Carey 2012

Ah, but the word-music. Like the first great American playwright, Eugene O’Neill, Wilson structures his plays the way a composer writes music: in motifs, repetitions, variations on the theme, all the while with a forward thrust. It doesn’t much matter that O’Neill’s models tend to be symphonic and operatic, and Wilson’s come from jazz and the blues: with both writers, it’s tough to fully understand the plays unless you’ve dialed in to their innate musicality. Think about them literally and they can seem repetitious and overstuffed. Think about them musically and you start to feel their rhythm, to understand that repetition and variation are cumulative expansions on a grand theme.

“The blues,” Wilson told me more than 20 years ago, when I visited him in Seattle shortly after he’d moved there from Minneapolis, “is the best literature that we as black people have.” His plays, I noted then, are big stories, filled with little stories along the way: the parable, the joke, the recollection, the pungently twice-told tale. “It’s one of the African traditions,” he explained. “It’s Old Country. If you’re passing something along orally, you want to make it memorable. If a story isn’t repeated, it dies.”

So it is with “Seven Guitars,” the fifth play chronologically in Wilson’s 10-play cycle of African American life in the 20th century (it takes place in 1948) and the seventh in order of appearance (it was premiered in 1995). If the play seems a little more loosely structured than such classics as “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” and less astonishingly sweeping and mythic than “Gem of the Ocean,” it’s still a richly rewarding work that fuses appealing (and sometimes bracingly hilarious) character sketches with trenchant analysis of the harsh pressures at work both inside and outside American black culture.

“Seven Guitars” is bracketed by brief scenes from the aftermath of a funeral, and as the main part of the play rumbles forward it becomes clear that someone’s going to end up dead, and quite possibly not for any particular reason except that an explosion’s due. It’s one of Wilson’s recurring themes: in a society built on racism, poverty and thwarted opportunities – a society with few genuine safety valves – violence is an uneasy and inevitable companion. In Wilson’s universe, personality flaws and virtues alike have a way of growing to mythic proportion. One misunderstanding, one moment of unchecked frustration, one accidental step into the line of fire, and it’s lights out, Jack. Meet your maker, ready or not.

This play works like a jazz septet, and director Kevin Jones seems to fully understand that. The piece has its own internal integrity, but within its structure the players are free to step in and out, to echo one another, to drop into the background, to step up for extended solos. And solo they do. This production’s most virtuosic breakout may well be the slyly staccato Gayle Samuels’ extended burst of comic frustration as Louise, a middle-aged regular at the tenement gatherings where the play takes place, whose high-pitched riff sounds like Ornette Coleman taking over the room. As I write this I can’t remember what she actually said – only that it was sharp and rhythmic and caustic and jubilant, and it brought the house down.

Alexander, McQueen, Asberry, Mack, Samuels, Abdul-Rashid. © Owen Carey 2012

The play is built around a few turns in the life of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, a genial ladies’ man and blues guitarist who’s cut a record that surprisingly became a hit, although he hasn’t seen any of the profits from it. (“Ma Rainey” plays a similar theme: black talent, white profits.) Now the record company wants him to come back to Chicago from Pittsburgh, where he lives, to cut another one. He’s eager to go, but a recent stretch in the slammer for a minor infraction, and the unfortunate matter of having pawned his guitar, are getting in the way. Plus, he’s on understandably troubled terms with his main squeeze, Vera, who irritatingly points out that the last time he headed to Chicago he took a different woman with him, so what’s he think he’s doing trying to slide back into her nest now? Lance McQueen gives a smooth and stately turn as Floyd, sweet and insinuating with the capability of turning hard at the flick of a blade. Ramona Lisa Alexander is wonderfully vulnerable and steely-strong as Vera, who provides the emotional fulcrum of the play. Floyd’s sidemen – flip, sideways-seeing harmonica player Canewell and down-home, laid-back drummer Red – get vibrant and appealing performances from Victor Mack (Canewell) and Michael J. Asberry (Red). Ashley Williams is a flirtatious sparkplug as Ruby, Louise’s little bundle of trouble of a niece from down South. And Mujahid Abdul-Rashid, in the pivotal role of Hedley, the mentally damaged handyman, a sort of prophet-back-from-the-wilderness character, a speaker of uncomfortable truths, brings a necessary ferocity and hint of unstableness to the proceedings. Taken together, these seven “guitars” make up a rich but unsettled community. Or a band.

“Seven Guitars” doesn’t seem to me the best of Wilson’s plays – it strikes me as a little loose compositionally, and it can telegraph its intentions – but that’s like saying “The Iceman Cometh” isn’t on the same level as “Long Day’s Journey Into Night”: It’s still a damned fine play. The standard’s exceptionally high, and Wilson not at his greatest is still head and shoulders above most of what hits the stage. Jones and his actors have created a wonderfully appealing and sometimes heartbreaking extended family here, and I expect the production will only grow richer as its run progresses. Artists Rep’s design team – Jeff Seats’ ramshackle tenement set, Peter West’s sensitive lighting, Rodolfo Ortega’s sound and Jessica Bobillot’s stylish costumes – give the show the professional atmosphere it deserves. And the theater space itself, intimate but not cramped, allows the production to be intensely personal and grandly scaled at the same time. Sort of like an Ornette Coleman solo.

Abdul-Rashid, Asberry. © Owen Carey 2012


“Seven Guitars” continues Tuesdays-Sundays through November 11 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 Southwest Morrison Street in Portland. Ticket information here.













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