Lance Reddick, Kevin T. Carroll, and Stephen McKinley Henderson iin Seven Guitars
(© Carol Rosegg)
Lance Reddick, Kevin T. Carroll,
and Stephen McKinley Henderson iin Seven Guitars
(© Carol Rosegg)
Music meant the world to the late August Wilson. And the more you study his plays -- as you can watching Ruben Santiago-Hudson's vital revival of Wilson's 1996 Broadway play Seven Guitars at the Signature Theater -- the more you realize something specific about the playwright's music preferences. He resonated like a guitar string to the blues. It's as if the 10-work cycle to which Seven Guitars belongs -- in which he sought a universal depiction of the African-American experience through intense concentration on Pittsburgh's Hill District -- was the result of both a throbbing need to get to the roots of the blues and a need to probe the tragic depths of heart, soul, and guts from which the blues emanated. From this conviction, Wilson produces bittersweet music himself, literally and figuratively.

The song resoundingly sung in Seven Guitars concerns Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Lance Reddick), a guitarist who's getting radio play for a recently recorded cut, and King Hedley (Charles Weldon), a religion-instilled itinerant who has no time for the white man. Both men populate the large, grassless yard behind the house that Floyd's girlfriend Vera (Roslyn Ruff) and pal Louise (Brenda Pressley) share, and where they frequently host neighbors Red Carter (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Canewell (Kevin T. Carroll), both of whom play in Barton's band.

Over the few days during which Wilson unfolds his verses and choruses, Floyd returns from Chicago angling to reunite with Vera after deserting her for another woman. He wants to take her back to Chicago with him, but needs the between-sessions wherewithal to do so -- a financial pickle that puts him at odds with Hedley, who has only a touch-and-go relationship with lucidity. Also adding drama to the drama is Louise's visiting and pregnant niece Ruby (Cassandra Freeman).

Actual music darts through the action of Seven Guitars, some of which has been composed for this production by blues great Bill Sims. The play begins with a song and then includes one character flaunting a traditional guitar. Another hammering together a makeshift one-string guitar, and one playing the harmonica. Others raise their voices in song and then, in two sequences, dance. There's even a cappella rendition of "The Lord's Prayer."

Figuratively, Seven Guitars comes with spoken arias, as do all Wilson dramas. (It can't be long before at least one of them is turned into an authentic opera.) There's no mistaking that these lengthy signature speeches are Wilson's blues. Often, the plays seem to stop while an unseen spotlight hits the speaker for a cabaret-like solo. Cumulatively, each of the plays expand into one long blues number; one can consider his now-completed Hill-District collection (with its final installment, Radio Golf, due on Broadway later this season) as akin to a Greatest Hits album.

Without tipping Wilson's sorrowful ending, I'll only say that in the play the dramatist reiterates the burden of his career-long message: that repression's consequence on a community is internecine destruction. In making his dire point this time around, Wilson takes his time getting to it. On Richard Hoover's sprawling and spectacularly-detailed set, these brimming-with-life characters play whist, give and take dance instruction, and tend to a small patch of daffodils and daisies (here's where real roots are introduced). In the play's most exhilarating sequence, they thrill to the Joe Louis-Billy Conn rematch bout. (Boxing historians will note that the historic fight occurred in 1946, two years before the play unfolds.) Only very late in the nearly three-hour play -- and then scanting on some crucial information -- do Floyd's and Hedley's clashing inclinations lead to an irrevocable outcome.

While Seven Guitars is desultory, the lapse can be forgiven here. Santiago-Hudson, who snared a Tony Award for playing Canewell in the original production and wrote the acclaimed Lackawanna Blues, proves to be an inspired choice to direct the revival. The title of his own play indicates he's hip to the spell the blues are capable of casting and craftily casts that spell himself. From the opening tableaux onward -- when five of the characters are caught in mourning attire (Karen Perry's costumes, including some fine 1940s shoes, are quite effective) -- the players are neatly in synch with both the text and each other.

Weldon's Hedley is addled behavior on the hoof, while Reddick's Floyd is a long drink of calculated womanizing. Henderson, an eminent Wilson interpreter, moves like a Slinky as Red. As Vera, Ruff keeps Floyd in his place with forceful aplomb. Chain-smoking Old Golds, Brenda Pressley is a backyard firecracker, and Carroll and Freeman are no less animated. Each of the seven actors is an ambulatory guitar, and -- along with Wilson's words -- they make beautiful music together in Seven Guitars.

Editor's Note: Seven Guitars has been extended until October 7.