ST. PETERSBURG — Hedley is the elusive one. Every other character in August Wilson's Seven Guitars, which opened over the weekend at American Stage, is vividly, movingly understandable.
First, there are the musicians: Floyd "Schoolboy" Barton (Joshua Elijah Reese), a charismatic blues man (think Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf) fresh out of the workhouse, determined to capitalize on his modest hit record, That's All Right. Floyd is trying to pull together his old band, including harmonica player Canewell (Kim Sullivan) and drummer Red Carter (Alan Bomar Jones), to head to Chicago for a recording session.
And then there are the women: Floyd's long-suffering girlfriend, Vera (Ambe Williams); Louise (Tia Jemison), the tough-minded realist of the play; and Ruby (Brandy Grant), a sexpot in a red dress, newly arrived in Pittsburgh's Hill District from Alabama.
The motivation and behavior of Wilson's musicians and women make sense in the world that we've come to know in the playwright's Century Cycle, 10 plays that seek to explain African-American life in the 20th century, one for each decade. Seven Guitars, set in 1948, is the fifth installment in American Stage's rendering of the cycle.
But Hedley (Ron Bobb-Semple), who spends much of his time killing chickens at a setup in the back yard, is the wild card. He's a shaman, a voodoo priest, a passionate orator of Marcus Garvey's Africanist doctrine. Whenever he launches into one of his mad, Bible-quoting rants — delivered, aptly, in Bobb-Semple's Caribbean lilt — the ghetto turns upside down, taking on a kind of magical realism that makes the six angels who show up for Floyd's funeral seem perfectly normal to some of his friends.
Playwright Tony Kushner (Angels in America), in an essay on Seven Guitars, likens Hedley to John the Baptist, clearing the way for his messiah, Floyd, who is being mourned as the play begins. Most of the rest of the story unfolds in flashback, leaving the audience to wonder until just before the end: Who killed Floyd?
Certainly, one answer to that question is the record labels that ripped off black musicians, or the white men who "walk the earth on the black man's back." But Wilson is after bigger themes than blunt racism. Hedley's unhinged prophecy sounds exactly right, though it is hard to know what to make of his repeated references to the likes of trumpeter Buddy Bolden or Haitian liberator Toussaint Louverture. And that mystery is what gives this tragic play its power.
The title refers to the seven characters, each given at least one sizzling solo, such as Floyd's rendition of The Lord's Prayer, a mesmerizing performance by Reese. In a joyous scene, everyone gathers around the radio in Vera's window to root for the "Brown Bomber," heavyweight champ Joe Louis, as he knocks out Billy Conn. (Wilson is not overly concerned with factual accuracy; the Louis-Conn fight took place in 1946.) Jones and Sullivan have a warmth that complements Reese's edgy Floyd, and the women in the cast are suitably strong, especially Jemison as the experienced Louise.
Bob Devin Jones directed the engrossing production, which features Saidah Ben Judah's impeccable costumes and a set by Frank Chavez that is rich in detail, from the thick telephone wires overhead to the hard-packed dirt yard.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.