Review: Heartache Overshadows Black Lives in Milwaukee Rep’s Seven Guitars

Black history month may be over but, in Milwaukee, a perspective of Black lives is offered this month in August Wilson’s Seven Guitars. Milwaukee Repertory Theater, in conjunction with Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, offers a stunning production of Wilson’s play on the largest of its three stages. For three hours, the play vibrates with the sound, color and movement of its time, casting its spell on the audience.

Set in 1948, Seven Guitars is one of ten plays in Wilson’s Century Cycle. In this collection, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright chronicles the history of Black lives and the impact of racism. Each of the ten plays is set in a different decade of the 20th century, and almost all are located in Wilson’s hometown of Pittsburgh.
This is the eighth of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be produced by Milwaukee Repertory Theater. In Chicago, the Goodman Theatre has completed the entire 10-play cycle, with the most recent production being Gem of the Ocean (2022). Incidentally, Wilson’s Seven Guitars had its world premiere at the Goodman.

Seven Guitars begins with a sobering scene. An extended family sits quietly in the backyard of a rundown Pittsburgh home. There is a chicken coop on one side of the yard, and a vegetable garden on the other (set by Shaun Motley). All of the characters are dressed formally in black, so we assume there has been a funeral service.

The deceased is Floyd Barton, a young musician on the cusp of fame after he recorded a hit single record. Vera (Chicago actor Kierra Bunch), a petite, attractive woman, is Floyd’s fiancée. Vera’s friend and landlord is Louise (Chicago actor Marsha Estell), who lives upstairs. Louise also rents an upstairs room to an older, single man, Hedley (Kevin Brown). Floyd’s best friend, Canewell (Chicago actor Vincent Jordan) is reminiscing about their good times, along with another friend, Red (Bryant Beckley). Canewell and Red often played as part of Floyd’s back-up band.

Louise (Marsha Estell) listens to Hedley (Kevin Brown) as Ruby (Saran Bakari, in pink shirt) and Vera (Kierra Bunch) watch from upstage. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Capturing the Rhythm of a Time and a Place

Wilson’s plays have a certain rhythm, one that blends music and dialogue in a poetic way. Chicago-based director Ron OJ Parson knows that rhythm well. He has directed every play in Wilson’s Century Cycle and, in this case, he leads the cast fluidly through Wilson’s world. Before the play even opens, the audience hears a lively riff from a guitar, harmonica and drums. It becomes the signature sound that reappears during scene changes (sound by Andre Pluess).

Throughout the play, characters discuss their big dreams that seem forever out of reach. Vera wants only to marry a faithful man, settle down, and have children. Hedley reveals a recurring dream in his sleep of someone handing him enough money so he can build a plantation. Even Floyd (Milwaukee’s Dimonte Henning), who comes alive after the initial flashback scene, shares his dream of becoming a recording star in Chicago. Floyd envisions himself going from Pittsburgh to Chicago on a bus, and then driving himself back home in a Buick, or even a Cadillac.

In the second scene, Floyd finally appears. He is returning to Pittsburgh after an 18-month absence. He knows he is in trouble, especially with Vera. When Floyd left for Chicago, he took another woman with him. His reason? Because she “believed in me.” He tells Vera about recording a song that wasn’t immediately released. When the money ran out, so did the woman. To make things worse, the dead-broke Floyd is picked up by Chicago police on a vague vagrancy charge. He spends 90 days in a workhouse before being released.

While in the workhouse, Floyd’s record (which eventually is appropriated by white artist Elvis Presley), has become a hit on R&B stations everywhere. Canewell, who also left for Chicago with Floyd, abruptly leaves during the recording session and heads home. Now Canewell derides Floyd for not following his advice to negotiate a share of the music rights. Floyd had eagerly accepted a flat fee that was paid up front.

By the way, the song was, “That’s Alright (Mama).” Henning eventually sings it onstage, displaying a fine voice and guitar-playing skills.

Reaching Towards Stability, But Falling Short

n Wilson’s world, Black folks cannot seem to get a break, no matter how talented or skilled they may be. Their dreams are always just out of reach, and this lends a poignancy to Wilson’s stories.

As Floyd attempts to make things right with Vera, he also describes the Chicago night when he saw famed musician Muddy Waters. Floyd expresses a desire to be as well-known as his musical idol. However, Floyd’s electric guitar sits in a nearby pawn shop. He has only a battered acoustic guitar left at home. He also has a pistol at home, which he retrieves from the house. He feels that leaving it behind was a lucky break. He says that if the Chicago police had found a gun on him, he would have faced a much stiffer sentence.

Floyd continues to sweet-talk Vera, asking her to return with him to Chicago. He shows her a letter from the Chicago record producers, who seem “enthusiastic” about setting up another recording session.

Miss Ruby (Saran Bakari). Photo by Michael Brosilow.

One of the play’s most pivotal scenes involves the broadcast of a boxing match between Black champion Joe Louis and a white rival. Since this is 1948, the characters gather round a radio to listen to the fight. As the announcer recounts the fight’s play-by-play, the male characters imitate Louis’ moves in the boxing ring. It seems as if Louis is fighting for all of them. When the fight concludes, everyone cheers when Louis emerges as the winner.
Hedley, seen in Seven Guitars as a supporting character, becomes a main focus in one of Wilson’s later works, King Hedley II. In Seven Guitars, one is not quite certain whether Hedley lives in this world, or another one. He talks about dreams, spirituality, and some nonsensical things.

A latecomer to the neighborhood is the young Ruby (Sarah Bakari). She arrives with a suitcase to stay with her aunt Louise. Ruby has gotten into some kind of trouble in her hometown, and needs to “stay low” for a while. Judging from her sexy appearance (costumes by Yvonne L. Miranda), all the men are invariably drawn to her. She encourages this behavior.

The manipulative Ruby then sees how to get herself out of a jam with Hedley’s assistance. The unfortunate Hedley, who vows never to live “at the white man’s boot,” falls for Ruby’s trap. He also suffers from a case of tuberculosis, which he refuses to treat inside a white man’s sanitarium. He prefers to visit a Black healer for his ailment.

The success of any Wilson play lies in the interaction among the entire ensemble. This production delivers an excellent example. In Seven Guitars, well-known local actor Dimonte Henning represents the play’s main character. But Henning never draws focus from other characters onstage. As a result, he creates a flawed but sympathetic character who tries to do right and make amends, whatever the cost.

As Vera, Kierra Bunch creates a memorable portrait of a woman who fears being burned by the men in her life. Her close friendship with Louise (Marsha Estell) provides some of the play’s most moving moments. As Hedley, Kevin Brown gives a distinctive performance of a man who always keeps one guessing whether he lives in reality or fantasy. And Saran Bakari does a fine job with a minor role. Ruby's presence creates a great deal of humor as the men practically fall over themselves to do her bidding.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of August Wilson to the American theater. Recently, a Broadway theater was named after him, and Wilson’s work often appears on Broadway (most often, in revivals of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom). A successful Broadway production of Wilson’s The Piano Lesson, starring Samuel L. Jackson, just closed in January.

Milwaukee Rep’s production demonstrates Wilson’s effectiveness is in creating a time, a place, and a mood. At times, Wilson reveals elements of social injustice done to America’s Black population, with a whisper instead of a shout. (The most egregious examples have been white artists appropriating elements of Black origin and culture—and white-owned record companies cheating Black artists out of royalty payments, as portrayed in the film Cadillac Records about Chicago's Chess Records.) At other times, Wilson shows how repression leads to aggression between Blacks (such as the violent scene between Floyd and Hedley). Wilson’s work is always worth watching, and theatergoers won’t want to miss this fine production.

Seven Guitars continues in the Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s Quadracci Powerhouse at 158 N. Broadway St., from March 7 through April 2. It then travels to Ohio. Running time is 3 hours, 10 minutes, with one intermission. Mask-wearing is not required, but encouraged. For tickets and more information on this and other productions, see www.milwaukeerep.com.

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Anne Siegel

Anne Siegel is a Milwaukee-based writer and theater critic; she's a former member of the American Theatre Critics Association, where she served for more than 30 years. Anne covers a wide range of Milwaukee theater for the city’s alternative newspaper. Her work also appears on several theater-related websites, including Third Coast Review.