August Wilson and the Power of Blues

Special Features   August Wilson and the Power of Blues
(L) and (R) Scenes from Seven Guitars  and Center: August Wilson
(L) and (R) Scenes from Seven Guitars and Center: August Wilson Photo by (L) and (R) photos by Joan Marcus


In Seven Guitars, which opens at Broadway's Walter Kerr Theatre March 28, playwright August Wilson tells the story of a blues musician who dies just when he might be on the verge of making it to the big time.

Beginning in 1984 with Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, the first of his cycle of plays to be produced on Broadway dealing with the experiences of black Americans in the twentieth century, and continuing on through Fences, Joe Turner's Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running and now Seven Guitars, Wilson has enriched the theatre with riveting works in which most of the characters are heard singing the blues figuratively if not necessarily literally.

The blues are so much a part of Wilson's soul that they have shaped him as a playwright. The musicality inherent in his work springs, at least in part, from his passion for this art form. "I chose the blues as my aesthetic," Wilson says. "I create worlds out of the ideas and the attitudes and the material in the blues. I think the blues are the best literature that blacks have. It is an expression of our people and our response to the world. I don't write about the blues; I'm not influenced by the blues. I am the blues."

The soft-spoken Wilson is also a lyric poet and consummate storyteller, whose bluesy plays are propelled by language. Most of his vivid characters have the gift of gab, and as they sit around talking and talking and talking their compelling, humorous and honest conversations lure audiences into their world. On the surface very little seems to happen in a Wilson play, which has led many people to conclude that he is not much concerned about plot. But anyone who listens carefully soon realizes that so much is happening, as emotions, ideas, philosophies, outlooks and beliefs tumble forth. "I get it all the time, that I don't care about plot," Wilson says. "That's not correct. The language and conversation are the plot. Some people say my plays are formless. But my plays could not exist, could not work, if they were not plotted. If you are looking for a certain kind of play, then what I write is not a 'real' play. But that's based on what you understand a play to be. I'm sure Picasso came up against the same thing. People looked at his work and said, 'What is that? That's not really art.' It depends on where you're coming from and what your responses are. The conventional play moves along from plot point to plot point. In my plays the plot points are buried in the language, in the development of the characters. But they have to be there; otherwise you'd never arrive at the end."

Wilson also uses language as a way of conveying a sense of the moment in time in which a play occurs. Each of his plays takes place in a different decade in this century, and it is largely through a few well-chosen words, rather than historical details, that the period emerges.

"I don't do any research other than listen to the blues," says Wilson. "That tells me everything I need to know, and I go from there. That's true of every play, even the one in 1911 [Joe Turner]. What do I know about 1911? Not much. I know they had horses instead of cars, so I made sure I had a couple of references to horses. And they used words like 'fella' and 'reckon,' which they wouldn't say in 1948. I'm not even sure they said that in 1911. To my ear that's the way it would be, but it doesn't matter whether or not I'm getting the period exactly. My plays are ultimately about love, honor, duty, betrayal. They're not about 1911 or 1948."

Seven Guitars, directed by Wilson's long-time collaborator Lloyd Richards, takes place in Pittsburgh, the playwright's hometown and the locale for most of his plays. Set in 1948, the play unfolds in the backyard of a rooming house where some friends have just returned from the funeral of Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Keith David). Most of Seven Guitars is an extended flashback recounting Floyd's final days.

The play has been seen in Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and L.A. en route to Broadway. In the Boston Herald Iris Fanger wrote that Seven Guitars "is
ready to be termed an American classic."

Wilson, a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize (for Fences and The Piano Lesson), has had a fascination with words since he began writing poetry as a teen-ager. "It was through writing poetry that I discovered the power of language, that you could make things happen with language," he says. "Language became a way of concretizing thought."

When Wilson was 20 he sent off three poems to a magazine, certain that the editor would be dazzled by his work. "Three days later the poems came back in the mail, no letter, no nothing," he says. "And I immediately said, 'These must not be any good.' So I set out to learn how to write poems. It was nine years before I sent out another poem, because I was determined that they weren't going to come back. I haven't sent out that many since then, but they've always been published."

It was in 1965, the year that Wilson became serious about his poetry writing, that he also discovered the blues. "I was a poor man, and I bought a record player at a thrift shop for three dollars," he says. "It only played 78s. The thrift shop also had 78 [rpm] records for a nickel apiece. I would go there every day and buy maybe ten records. I did this for months and had about 2,000 records. They were a virtual history of thirties and forties popular music.

"One day in my stack of records I saw this odd-looking, typewritten yellow label. I put on this song called 'Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine,' by Bessie Smith. And I heard this woman's voice that was so strikingly different than anything I'd ever heard. I was stunned, and I listened to it again. And I listened to it again. I listened to it 22 straight times. And I said, 'This is mine.' I knew that all the other music I'd listened to wasn't mine. But this was the lady downstairs in my boarding house she could sing this song. And I began to look at the people in the house in which I lived in a new way, to connect them to the record, to connect that to some history. I claimed that music, and I've never looked back."

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