Seven Guitars ( #AugustWilson #CenturyCycle, 5 of 10)

August Wilson’s Century Cycle >  Spoiler-free scene breakdown

  • Premiered: 1995
  • Setting: 1948, backyard of a house, Pittsburgh

I.i. (Sunday; right after Floyd’s funeral)

Louise sings a “bawdy song” as Red Carter and Canewell squabble over pie; Canewell admire’s the preacher’s sermon, and Vera reports seeing six angels that came out of the sky; Canewell and Red Carter confirm they saw the group and spoke to a man from the group; Louise challenges their story, but Hedley confirms seeing them; Vera says they carried Floyd into the sky; Vera goes inside, and soon we hear Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton singing his hit song, “That’s All Right.”

I.ii. (flashback)

Vera and Floyd are dancing to his song playing on the radio. Floyd sings along, is amorous to Vera; she brings up “Pearl Brown,” who Floyd briefly took with him Chicago when Vera wouldn’t go with him; Floyd has recorded this song in Chicago which is a hit, and has an offer from the record company to record more songs; his guitar is currently at a pawnshop; he mentions serving 90 days for vagrancy “down there” because he didn’t have five dollars (Canewell was with him but had $5 on him). Floyd recalls meeting Vera when he had in his pockets the money the army gave him when he was discharged and also his gun; Vera encourages him to go to Chicago, but doesn’t want to go with him; he wants her with him.  (I’m guessing she wants him to be successful first, and prove that he really wants her, not just any woman.) When Louse enters, the stage directions say there is “immediate tension” between her and Floyd, but we don’t know why. Vera and Louise talk about Louise’s niece Ruby, who got into “man trouble” in Alabama.

I.iii. (next morning)

Hedley carries crates of chickens; Louise asks him for cigarettes; they discuss money — he owes Louise rent, Louise mentions needing to pay Bella (Bella’s grocery is mentioned in Fences). Hedley mentions getting root tea from Sara Degree (who will be mentioned in Radio Golf as the first black nurse). Hedley suggests that Sarah and Louise need a man. Canewell enters with a healing plant for Vera; he says he forgot his Bible and wanted to debate a theological topic with Hedley;  Canewell says he told Floyd to ask for a cut of profits from his hit recording; Canewell won a radio which he seems to have given to Vera; Floyd mentions how his boss heard the hit record and seems to be interested in sponsoring him, but the record company has already reached out to Floyd directly;  Canewell describes being arrested for singing in public with his hat on the ground for donations; Canewell reports Hedley is expecting Buddy Bolden to give him his father’s money, but Canewell seems to think Hedley is confused.  Vera says Canewell left his hat here recently after staying up late drinking and talking religion with Hedley; Hedley plants the medicinal goldenseal plant Canewell brought for Vera; Floyd says Vera won’t be around to see it grow since she’ll be with him in Chicago, but again she resists; Vera asks how much a ticket to Chicago coasts. Floyd discusses getting his guitar out of hock, Canewell speaks of boxer Joe Lous; by himself, Hedley kills a chicken.

I.iv. (several hours later)

Louise is preparing for her niece’s arrival. Vera breifly mentions Floyd’s expectation that she will accompany him to Chicgo. Louise tells the story of when her man Henry left her. Floyd can’t get the money he earned while in the workhouse because he seems to have misplaced the paperwork, so he can’t get his good guitar out of the pawnshop. Floyd talks fashionably-dressed Red Carter into accompanying him to Chicago; Canewell mansplains how to cook, then tells the women to serve him; he passes out cigars, saying WillaMae has had another baby; Floyd, Canewell and Red happily sing juvenile songs; Red discusses the seven women he tried to keep at the same time; Hedley says the Bible prophecies Ethiopia will rise, but Floyd dismisses him, interested in the here and now; Floyd describes being mouthy with the police who arrested him, and how they beat him; Red speaks in favor of guns, Canewell speaks in favor of knives; (it’s ritualistic posturing, they’re not fighting each other).  Hedley brings out a huge butcher knife, while Floud mentions guns as superior to knives, and bombs. Floyd can manage a hot pepper that Hedley gives him, but Red Carter almost chokes; his drums are in pawnshop, too. Canewell says he feels called to be a preacher. Canewell is bitter that the man who recorded Floyd didn’t pay what he agreed to pay Canewell; the men sing. Hedley sets up a primitive instrument that the stage directions say is really just a wire vibrating, but he tells a story about his departed mother and sings The Lord’s Prayer, apparently well enough that the men listen. Canewell muses that death claims everyone; Red Carter says God don’t give you no chances; scene ends with radio paying Joe Lous fight.

I.v.
As the fight concludes and Louis knocks out Conn in the 8th round. (The play is set in 1948, but Wikipedia places this fight in 1946). In the general celebration, Floyd finds occasion to brood. Ruby arrives, making a striking entrance. Louise teases her for her country ways, and Red Carter expresses interest in her. A rooster in the next hard annoys Floyd. Canewell discourses on roosters. Floyd longs for Chicago, where you don’t have to live next to roosters. At the end of Act 1, tension mounts, trouble lines up, and there’s a shocking incident, in this case involving Hedley. (I won’t spoil it.)

II.i. (next day)

Ruby watches as Hedley sings about Buddy Bolden and makes sandwiches (to sell). Ruby compares the rooster to her lover Leroy (killed by Elmore “for nothing”), and asks about making a mattress. Hedley tells his backstory with Buddy Bolden, about killing a man who would not call him king, and about wanting a baby. Floyd flirts with Ruby; reports he wasn’t able to get his guitar out of the pawnshop (he owes more money than he thought). Hedley says his father appeared to him in a dream and told him Buddy Bolden would give him money. When Hedley sees Ruby and Floyd are going out together, Hedley gives Floyd an urgent, prophetic warning.

II.ii

Lousie asks about getting Ruby a job; Vera says she might go to Chicago; Ruby returns from her outing with Floyd with a letter from Elmore (who killed her other lover Leroy). To Louise, Ruby was lucky that Elmore was very sexually active with her; to Vera, Elmore was abusing Ruby. Canewell and Floyd arrive with good news that the recording company has set a date; Vera seems nominally polite. Hedley arrives with a letter, furious; he pitches a fit and leaves the letter. Louise reads that Hedley has TB and the letter tells him to report for testing. To Canewell, Hedley thinks everything is the white man’s plot against him. Floyd says Hedley is lucky he can choose wether to go or not.

II.iii

Floyd is mad because he has a gig but still no guitar; his would-be sponsor Hall didn’t show up at the pawnshop. Red Carter arrives with news that changes things. (I won’t spoil it, but it should be no surprise it’s bad news.) Floyd monologues about the restrictions he faces, the deprivation his mother suffered, and his determination to go to Chicago.

II.iv.

Red Carver opens with a comic monologue. Vera was up all night waiting for Floyd, but he never came. Canewell returns without having found him in the usual places. Animals in the nearby yard make a lot of noise, and Canewell worries something has happened. Hedley arrives with something in his apron; he sings and dances happily, and shares a memory of learning about Hatian general Toussaint L’Oerture in school, Jamaican political figure Marcus Garvey, and something (I won’t say what) he just received from Joe Roberts, which he says will help him when the white man comes to take him away.

II.v.

Hedley sings and cavorts; Ruby engages with him, and… well, in the 1980s later we will meet King Hedley II.

II.vi.

Floyd shows up, with a new guitar, a new dress for Vera, and a ticket her to join him in Chicago. He won’t tell her where he got the money. Floyd says having the hit record in Chicago with Pearl Brown wasn’t enough — he wanted Vera. She surprises him by showing him she bought a one-way ticket back from Chicago to Pittsburgh — she’ll put it in her shoe and walk around on it, hoping she’ll never need it.

II.vii.

Lousie, ready for the nightclub, monologues. (Realistically this is to give the actress playing Vera time to get changed for the fancy event.) Ruby has attended church with Hedley, but he stayed to visit a friend. Louise suspects he’s getting moonshine, Vera reassures Ruby, and Ruby says Hedley agreed to get himself tested for TB. (So things seem to be working out fairly well for everyone.)  Ruby says she hopes Hedley will live long enough to see the baby born, and she’s going to tell him it’s his. Canewell arrives, praises the women, and reads a news report about a young man shot in the back by police fleeing after a bank robbery; Louise describes the mother of the victim (they call him “Poochie”) mourning; Canewell reads that police are looking for two accomplices. Vera tells Canewell that she and Floyd will be married; Canewell laments that his love for V can’t get any bigger, but concludes “you and Floyd ought to go ahead and see what you can make of it”. Louise gripes that Bella should fix the steps (Bella is the landlord, perhaps?) All get ready to head out to the club for Floyd’s big performance. Ruby shows up in a red dress that stops all the men cold.

II.viii

After the performance, Louise goes back inside; Canewell notices that the goldenseal plant has been disturbed; Vera goes to fix it, Floyd shoos her inside, and turns around just in time to see Canewell unearthing.. well, I won’t say, but it starts the chain of events that leads to the climax.

II.ix

Rare for a Wilson play — instead of ending right at the climax, we have a denouement. It begins with the same line that ended the prologue (suggesting it’s a continuation of the opening scene?). We see the characters reacting, as it is now at least a few days since the end of the flashback we just witnessed. Vera describes her vision from the funeral. Canewell and Hedley share a final moment that… well, I don’t want to give it away.