UMKC’s “Seven Guitars” is a disappointment

Lindsay Adams

“Seven Guitars,” while filled with talented actors and boasting fantastic production value, ended up being a visually beautiful disappointment. No amount of design could solve problems with the script.  The play goes nowhere, circling around and around issues it never directly handles.

Blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton (Antonio Glass), just out of a 90-day stint in a Chicago prison, is offered a record deal after a song he recorded becomes a hit. He returns to the woman he hasn’t seen in over a year, Vera (Janaé Mitchell), to convince her to go to Chicago with him. She is uncertain, and is advised by her friend Louise (Aishah Harvey) that he won’t change his ways for her. He meets up with his old band members, Canewell (Gavin King) and Red Carter (Petey McGee). They hang out outside of the apartment building where Louise, Vera and their strange neighbor Hedley (Thomas Tucker) live. Floyd wants to right the past wrongs in his life, but goes about the wrong way.


Floyd’s complicated and complex figure is supposedly at the heart of the story, but his character is overshadowed by Louise and Hedley in the second act. Louise’s niece Ruby (Alisha Espinosa) shows up at the end of the first act, but serves little purpose in the show. The characters and subplots are disconnected from each other, and fail to feed into the main plot or purpose, and instead branch out every which way. Romantic triangles are hinted at but not mentioned again until the end, at which point the subplot has lost most of its emotional gravitas.

The men of the show are restless and feel trapped. In an attempt to prove their masculinity, all try to outdo each other. The men’s propensity for aggression starts small, with bickering and comparing their switchblades and guns, but slowly grows. Their anecdotal one-upmanship escalates into violence. Playwright August Wilson’s focus on the men leaves female characters underwritten, passive and used by the men.

However, Wilson doesn’t actually make any clear statement about the issues of racial discrimination and fatalism he brings up in the play. Is Floyd’s tragic end supposed to be martyrdom or a warning? The show starts out as a character dramedy and ends up a violent film noir. It cannot figure out its themes, direction or the impression it wishes to leave.

Harvey as Louise is amazing and sassy. She is believable and entertaining even in her smallest moments and reactions. From lighting a cigarette with her perfectly manicured nails to her comedic line delivery, she commands the audience’s attention.

Tucker as Hedley was great. He was completely committed to the character, delivering a perfect mix of sympathy and disturbance.

Glass was sleazily charming as the philandering Floyd, who just can’t get his act together. Mitchell as Vera was good, but in several pivotal moments the character was lost and she seemed too conscious of the audience.

The dialogue is realistic, lyrical and trivial. It moved from a monologue on how to really make good greens into arguments over whether Jesus was right to resurrect Lazarus, and later to monologues over losing parents. The dialogue gave the feeling of being dropped into the group and hanging out with them, but ultimately the audience gets lost in the repetition. Slow pacing is one of the play’s biggest issues. “Seven Guitars” is a three-hour show and the audience feels every minute of it.

Hedley’s monologue about his relationship with his father and the questions one asks as a child without realizing how much it could hurt your parents is well-written and delivered with penitence and intensity by Thomas Tucker.

There is a propensity for monologues in the show, and the audience tires of them long before it stops using them. Most of them drag on and are done no favors by lighting, which tried to add gravitas by dimming the rest of the stage and blue-lighting the character, instead making them more cartoonish.

The lighting and sound was a bit over-the-top in some of the violent or dramatic moments, but lighting was more functional during realistic moments. The blues fragments of lighting punctuate important moments, providing clearer movement and building to a finish. The sound design was integral to the show and, for the most part, also worked.

The excessive hyper-realism of Wilson’s play, where a sprout is planted into the set during the action and everything attempts to mimic real life, often doesn’t work well theatrically, and is especially jarring coupled with very theatrical moments in the lighting and sound design.

The set created some nice angles and the blocking was dynamic. The costumes by Tyler Wilson were detailed, accurate and are representative of the characters’ journeys.

Acting and design elements in “Seven Guitars” are forceful. Unfortunately, no amount of production values or acting talent can save the muddled plot.