Seven Guitars

Setting:  1948
Written:  1995
Huntington Production:  1995

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  • CANEWELL: He and Red Carter are Floyd’s closest friends. He’s an edgy, quick-tempered harmonica player, who's tired of playing back-up in life for Floyd. He made the trip with Floyd to Chicago the first time and regrets it. He loves Vera.
  • FLOYD: Blues singer Floyd "Schoolboy" returns to Pittburgh at thirty-five years old with a hit song and an opportunity to record a record back in Chicago. In the time since the recorded the initial song, Floyd has squandered the flat fee he received for recording, left his girlfriend (Vera) for another woman, was then left by the other woman, pawned his guitar, and spent ninety days in jail after being arrested while walking home from his mother's funeral. After a year of trials and tribulations, Floyd wants to return to Chicago with Vera, his guitar, and a new sense of self. He is ready to “live with” not “live without.” Unfortunately, the lengths he’s willing to go to, to make his dreams happen, become his undoing.
  • RED CARTER: He and Canewell are Floyd’s closest friends. He’s a drummer by profession, an expansive, laid-back fellow who can identify a rooster's birthplace by the sound of his crow.
  • VERA: Floyd’s ex-girlfriend and eight years his junior. She loves Floyd, but after he left her for another woman she is slow to trust him again. She may have had a relationship with Canewell in Floyd’s absence. She is good friends with Louise.
  • LOUISE: Is a hearty, buxom woman who, years earlier, allowed her man to walk out peacefully in exchange for his pistol. Louise describes herself as, “forty-eight going on sixty.” Although she claims to have no interest in love, she has an attachment to Hedley.
  • HEDLEY: an old man, not altogether right in the head, who has turned his back on the white world he loathes. He's a believer in saints, spirits, prophets and the ghost of Charles (Buddy) Bolden, the legendary New Orleans trumpeter who died in an insane asylum. More than anything else, Hedley would like to sire a messiah.

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The play opens just after the funeral of Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton in the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1948.  Floyd Barton was a talented blues guitarist who was on the verge of signing a deal with a record company in Chicago when he was killed.  A group of his friends—Vera, his former girlfriend; Louise, Vera’s upstairs neighbor; Hedley, a Caribbean immigrant street vendor with radical political ideas; and Canewell and Red Carter, members of his band—sits in the yard outside Vera’s house remembering Floyd in his final days. 

Time shifts to the week before Floyd’s death.  Floyd has just been released from prison, and has come back to the Hill District to find Vera and to put together a new band.  Floyd has just spent ninety days in the “workhouse” after being arrested on a vagrancy charge.  He had pawned his guitar to buy flowers for the grave of his mother, who had recently died.  Because he had no money in his pockets when he was stopped randomly by the police, he was charged with vagrancy and given a ninety day sentence.  While incarcerated, a record he made for a recording company in Chicago has been released and has become a hit.  A letter from the recording company was waiting for him upon his release, saying that they want to talk to him about more recording opportunities.

Floyd finds Vera and begs her to take him back, but she is reluctant.  The last time she put her trust in him he cheated on her.  Floyd promises Vera that he has changed.  He tells her he is going to Chicago to make a record and asks her to come with him.

Louise, Vera’s upstairs neighbor, comes home.  She tells Vera that she has just received a letter from her niece Ruby in Alabama.  She has gotten in “man trouble” back home, and is coming to Pittsburgh to stay for a while. 

The next day, Vera’s upstairs neighbor, Hedley, a Caribbean immigrant who makes a living selling sandwiches and cigarettes, is killing chickens in the yard and preparing to cook them.  Hedley is considered excitable and “not quite right in the head” by those who know him.  He rants to whoever will hear him about how the black man will rise up and overcome his white oppressor.  He believes that destiny has chosen him for a great purpose and that one day he will be a great man.  His father has named him “king” after the great black jazz musician “King” Buddy Bolden.  He thinks that this name holds special meaning and holds Buddy Bolden to have a sort of magical significance in his life.  As he works, he constantly sings to himself a song about Buddy Bolden coming to “give him the money.”  Floyd teases him about this obsession with Buddy Bolden at every opportunity.

Louise comes down from her room and tells Hedley, who is sick with tuberculosis, that he had better see a doctor.  Hedley refuses to go to “the white man’s doctor.”  Louise tells him he is gong to die.  Hedley says he isn’t worried about dying because he is going to be a big man some day.

Canewell, a harmonica player, has heard Floyd wants him to be part of his band and comes looking for him.  He has brought a golden seal plant as a gift for Vera.  He tells Louise that the neighbors have gotten together a committee to decide what to do about the next door neighbor’s rooster, which crows all the time and wakes people up.  Floyd emerges and asks Canewell to go with him to pick up the “thirty cents a day” the state owes him from his time in the workhouse.  He wants to use the money to get his guitar out of the pawnshop.

Floyd and Canewell return several hours later upset.  The state doesn’t want to pay him his money because he doesn’t have the proper paperwork.  Red Carter, another musician friend that Floyd is recruiting for his band drops by.  Red says he’ll go along with the band to Chicago if Floyd agrees to get his drums out of hock.  Floyd doesn’t have any money for that; Canewell suggests he ask his manager—that’s what they’re there for.

Floyd tells the others that this time when he goes to Chicago, he isn’t coming back.  That’s why before he leaves the Hill, he wants to buy a gravestone to mark his mother’s grave so he can be at peace with her and not owe anybody anything when he leaves.

That evening, the mean gather around the radio to listen to the broadcast of Joe Louis fighting Billy Conn.  When Louis knocks out his opponent, the men celebrate.  Red Carter grabs Vera and starts dancing with her.  Floyd, jealous, pulls a gun on him.  The others talk him into putting the gun away and they all sit down for a hand of cards. 

Unexpectedly, Louise’s niece, Ruby, shows up.  She is a voluptuous girl, and clearly aware of the power she has over men.  Canewell and Red Carter cannot disguise their admiration for her.  Back in Birmingham, he boyfriend shot and killed another man who was paying her too much attention.  Now he is in jail and Ruby is pregnant.

As they play, the neighbor’s rooster starts once again creating a disturbance.  Vera and Louise win the hand and Hedley exits abruptly, saying he has work to do.  When Hedley returns, he is carrying the neighbor’s rooster.  In a sudden violent gesture, he wrings its neck and slits its throat with his butcher knife, while the others look on in stunned silence.

Act II:  The next day, Hedley is grilling chickens in the yard when Ruby saunters in, looking for attention, and starts talking to Hedley.  Hedley is clearly excited by her presence.  She asks him why he kills the rooster.  He tells her that he spent many years in jail.  Now he is fifty-nine years old and his time is running out.  He always wanted to be a big man, but now he dreams of fathering a son who would be “big like Moses, somebody to lead the black man out of bondage.”

That evening, Floyd comes home excited.  His manager, T.L. Hall, has booked them a gig at the Blue Goose.  He also promised to meet Floyd at the pawnshop to get his guitar out of hock, and has secured them a date at the recording studio in Chicago on June 10.

The next day, Floyd goes to meet T.L. Hall at the pawnshop to get his guitar, but Hall never shows up.  Red Carter shows up and tells them T.L. Hall has been arrested for selling $50,000 of phony insurance policies.  Floyd sees his dream dissolving before his eyes—without T.L. Hall, he will not have the money to get his guitar from the pawnshop or to go to Chicago to meet with the record company.  He determines that he will not let this set him back, and somehow he will make it to Chicago and make a record.  He runs off without telling anyone where he is going.

Later, Red Carter, Vera, Louise, and Ruby are sitting the yard.  Canewell has gone looking for Floyd but can’t find him anywhere.  Suddenly, there is a lot of commotion in the neighbor’s yard.  Vera looks over and sees Mrs. Tillery kneeling down on the ground.  Canewell and Red Carter run next door to see what happened and learn that Mrs. Tillery’s son has been shot and killed by police.

Hedley comes into the yard singing, in unusually good spirits.  He has just gotten a big order to make chicken sandwiches for Joe Roberts’s daughter’s wedding.  Hedley tells them how he told Joe Roberts all about his heroes, the Haitian liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture and the African nationalist Marcus Garvey.  When they finished doing business, Joe Roberts tells Hedley he has something for him and gives him a gift of an old machete.  “Now Hedley ready for the white man when he come to take me away.”

Later, Ruby comes out of the house to find Hedley grasping his machete and talking madly to himself.  When he sees Ruby, he becomes even more excited, waving his machete and telling her he is a great warrior, and she can be his Queen of Sheba.  He has selected her to become the mother of his children, with her he will father “seven generations.”  Unafraid, Ruby walks over and takes the machete from him.  He grabs her and kisses her violently, feverish with lust.  “I offer you a kingdom.  The flesh of my flesh, my seven generations.  I am the Lion of Judah!”  Ruby slows him down, and speaking softly to him, lifts her dress and gives herself to him.

Later, Floyd returns to the house with a brand new guitar and a new dress for Vera.  He tells Vera he has bought them each a bus ticket to Chicago, and reserved a room at the Delaware Towers Hotel for himself and “the soon to be Mrs. Floyd Barton, that is…if she say yeah.”  When she asks him where he got the money for all of this, he only says “I took a chance. 

That night they get dressed up to go to the Blue Goose.  Ruby has gone to church with Hedley and returns just in time to go to the club; Hedley has gone off to buy moonshine from his friend Jim Breckenridge.  Louise rolls her eyes, knowing that he will come home fired up and ranting about “how Ethiopia shall spread forth her wings.”  Ruby says she has talked him into turning himself into the sanitarium, and that she hopes he lives long enough to see her baby born—she wants to tell him that it is his, so he could die thinking about “his seven generations.”

Canewell comes in with a newspaper.  Vera asks him if it says anything about how the neighbor’s son was killed.  The paper says that he was shot fleeing the scene of a robbery at the loan offices of Metro Finance, and that the police are still looking for two other men believed to be accomplices who escaped with an undisclosed amount of cash.

The gig is a huge success, and they all come home in good spirits.  Louise heads upstairs.  Vera sees that the golden seal plant Canewell gave her is still sitting on the table and is concerned that its roots are going to dry up.  Canewell offers to plant it for her.  Vera goes upstairs and Canewell grabs a shovel.  He begins to dig a hole in the yard when Floyd comes over and tries to take the shovel from him.  When Canewell insists on planting the golden seal himself, Floyd tells him to plant the thing in a different part of the yard.  Surprised at Floyd’s aggressiveness, Canewell looks down where he was digging and sees that he has unearthed a blue handkerchief with $1,200 wrapped up in it.  He stoops to pick it up, and Floyd grabs for it, saying it is his.  Canewell hangs onto it, thinking it is Hedley’s stash.  He knows that Hedley buries his money rather than put it in a bank because he is afraid that the white man is going to steal it from him.  Floyd once again demands his money.  When Canewell refuses, Floyd pulls a gun.  Canewell stares at Floyd in disbelief.  He suddenly realizes that Floyd was the accomplice that had pulled the robbery with Mrs. Tillery’s son, and that’s how he has had the money to buy a new guitar and a bus ticket to Chicago.  Canewell hands Floyd the money and exits.

At that moment, Hedley returns home, drunk.  He sees Floyd in the yard with a wad of cash and stops and rubs his eyes.  He begins to laugh with joy.  In his drunken state, he thinks Floyd is Buddy Bolden who has come to give him the money.  He says to Floyd, “You come, Buddy.  Oh how I wait for you.”

Floyd tells Hedley to go away—he’s not playing any game now.  Hedley tries to take the money from Floyd and Floyd pushes him down on the ground.  Hedley gets up and goes into the cellar.  He returns with the machete that Joe Roberts gave him and in a swift blow strikes Floyd in the throat and severs his windpipe.

The scene returns to the aftermath of Floyd’s funeral.  Louise, Canewell, Red Carter, and Hedley are in the yard.  Ruby and Red Carter go to get a beer; Louise and Vera go in the house to fix some dinner.  Hedley and Canewell are left alone together in the yard.  Canewell is the only one who suspects what really happened to Floyd.  To confirm his suspicion, he sings to Hedley the song about Buddy Bolden and the money.  “What he give you?” he asks Hedley.  Hedley opens up his hand and shows him the wad of bills that Canewell had dug up the night before.

(From the Huntington’s Seven Guitars Curriculum Guide)

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