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In ‘Seven Guitars,’ blues a way to understand African-American experience

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Floyd and Vera 02LPlaywright August Wilson’s Century Cycle explores the African-American experience in America on a decade-by-decade basis. Collectively expounding on the theme of black alienation in the wake of the great migration north, his dramas are sensual, spirited and spiritual. They are to the stage what the blues are to music, the affirmation and voice of a people. So says Sonya McCarter, who directs Theatre Conspiracy’s production of Seven Guitars, which is on stage now in the Foulds Theatre at the Alliance for the Arts through November 18.

Floyd and Vera 05L“August Wilson loved blues,” McCarter pointed out thoughtfully prior to the final dress rehearsal for the play on November 2nd. “He loved music and it’s an integral part of most of his plays. Blues in particular. He felt that blues was a way for the African-American experience to be told in a way that could be understood. He said that if you truly want to understand what the African American experience is like, listen to the blues and you will get the entire story.”

Floyd and Vera 06LWilson’s own life was a reflection of the blues. His life trajectory was permanently altered by an early encounter in a Pittsburgh’s thrift store he haunted as a young man, where he bought stacks of old albums for a nickel a piece. One day, he came across a recording by Bessie Smith, one of the greatest blues singers of the 1920s and ’30s.

“I put that on, and it was unlike anything I’d ever heard before,” Wilson later recounted. “Somehow, all that other music was different from that. And I go, ‘Wait a minute. This is mine… there’s a history Floyd and Vera 08Lhere.'”

The first song on the record was “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine.” As he listened to it over and over and over again, he experienced a profound epiphany. It occurred to him that he could write in the same street vernacular he heard in the song. It was a defining moment. “The universe stuttered, and everything fell into place.”

Wilson incorporated this very experience into the fabric of Floyd and Vera 11LSeven Guitars. There’s a scene in which the play’s central character is trying to convince his former girlfriend to go with him to Chicago, where a recording contract and promising musical career await his return. It was Chicago where Floyd happened upon a musician by the name of Muddy Waters in a club in the Windy City’s South Side. “I never knew that music could sound like that,” Floyd effuses. “I decided right Seven 11Lthen and there that I want to make music like that.”

If you’re not familiar with Muddy Waters, he was the known as the man who moved the blues north from the Delta and made it electric. “The leading exponent of Chicago blues in the 1950s, Waters came up with guitar licks and a repertoire of classic songs that fueled innumerable rock acts from the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton to the Allman Brothers Band Seven 18Land Led Zeppelin,” notes Rolling Stone in the magazine’s biography of the musician who was born McKinley Morganfield.

Wilson did more than just translate his own experience of hearing Bessie Smith for the first time to Floyd’s encounter with Muddy Waters. He wove bits and pieces of Muddy Waters’ life into the fabric of Seven Guitars.

Waters arrived in Chicago in 1943. The following year, he got an eSeven 20Llectric guitar and began performing at South Side clubs and rent parties. In 1946, bluesman Sunnyland Slim helped Waters get signed to Aristocrat Records, where he cut several unsuccessful singles. But he continued playing clubs every night and finally enjoyed his first hit in 1948, a tune titled “Rollin’ Stone.” Two more songs that same year, Seven 21L“I Can’t Be Satisfied” and “I Feel Like Going Home,” secured his position as a major blues performer. Prominent on these tracks were Little Walter on harmonica and Elgin Evans on drums.

In Seven Guitars, Floyd similarly gets his first electric guitar, and his band consists of his friends, Canewell and Red Carter on harmonica and drums.

Seven 25LWhile this may be interesting backstory for both the characters and the play, it’s the blues that serves as the blueprint or portal for understanding Seven Guitars.

In Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (which Theatre Conspiracy produced and McCarter directed last season), the title character calls the blues “life’s way of talking.” But contrary to the popular perception (at least among Seven 27Lnon-African-Americans), the blues are not defeatist or woe-is-me in tenor or tone.

“It’s very life-affirming, uplifting music,” Wilson insisted. “Because you can sing that song, that’s what enables you to survive.”

At its essence, “Seven Guitars is a love story, a story about betrayal, a story about ambition and pursuing your dreams,” McCarter sums up, tossing her head back and closing her eyes as the plot and characters play across the screen on the back of her eyelids. “It’s a story about life,” she modifies after several seconds.

Seven 29LYou’ll see what Wilson and McCarter mean when you take in Seven Guitars.

It’s a story about life – as told through the lexicon of the blues.

November 4, 2017.

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