43 pages 1 hour read

August Wilson

Seven Guitars

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Seven Guitars, which premiered in 1995 at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and transferred to Broadway in 1996, is the seventh play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, also known as the Pittsburgh Cycle. This series, consisting of ten plays that are each set in a different decade of the 20th century, explore the lives of African Americans during each era. With the exclusion Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1984), which takes place in 1920s Chicago, all the Century Cycle plays are set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh where Wilson was born and raised. The Century Cycle constitutes the majority of Wilson’s work as one of the most significant and influential Black playwrights in United States theatre history. Seven Guitars earned a New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award and nominations for the 1995 Pulitzer and the 1996 Tony Award for Best Play.

Plot Summary

Set in 1947, the play takes place in the backyard of a small apartment building in the Black district of Pittsburgh. Five people have congregated after the funeral of Floyd Barton, a jazz musician who had been on the rise: Vera, Floyd’s grief-stricken fiancée; Red Carter and Canewell, two musicians in Floyd’s band; Louise, who owns the building; and Hedley, who experiences a combination of severe delusions and transcendent clarity. They discuss the nature of death. Vera plays Floyd’s hit song, the only one he recorded. The music floats into the next scene, shifting back to the period before Floyd’s death. Floyd and Vera dance, but Vera rejects his attempts to kiss her. When Floyd had gone to Chicago to record his song, he had left Vera for another woman. However, fresh from a ninety-day incarceration, Floyd now has an invitation to return to Chicago to record again, and he wants Vera to accompany him. First, Floyd needs his gun, which he may need to sell to get his electric guitar from the pawn shop. Louise enters, unhappy to see Vera with Floyd. Louise has learned that her niece, Ruby, will be staying with her after a love triangle turned deadly.

The next morning, Louise pressures Hedley, with whom she has a casual sexual relationship, to seek medical treatment for tuberculosis. Canewell brings Vera a plant and Floyd, who spent the night with Vera, asks him to go to Chicago to play with him. Canewell, who was arrested during the last trip, says no. Hedley enters and Floyd sings the first line of a song about Buddy Bolden promising money to someone. Hedley joins in, a ritual the men repeat frequently, and Floyd humors Hedley’s Biblical ranting and the belief that he’ll inherit his father’s money and buy a plantation.

Floyd runs into obstacles in his push to reach Chicago and can’t get the money to reclaim his guitar. He also asks Red Carter to play with him again in Chicago, but Red’s drums have also been pawned. Red, Canewell, and Floyd decide that they will demand to be treated better as musicians. At the end of Act I, Ruby appears, and the men all fall in love with her.

In the first scene of Act II, Hedley asks Ruby to have a baby with him, but she turns him down. Ruby admits that she is pregnant to Louise and Vera. Floyd’s manager books him and his band to play at a Mother’s Day dance and Floyd, with half of his advance in hand, is optimistic. Hedley is furious when he receives a summons from the board of health to be tested for tuberculosis after Louise called them.

Floyd learns that his manager has been arrested for fraud. He swears he will make it to Chicago and leaves. There is a commotion at the neighbor’s house. Ruby finds Hedley waiting with a machete he will use to defend himself from being treated. Hedley kisses her and Ruby, seeing his desperate need, gives in. After two days, Floyd returns and shows Vera his new guitar and the dress he bought for her to wear to the show as well as two tickets to Chicago. Vera agrees to go but has also bought a return ticket just in case.

Before the dance, Ruby tells Louise and Vera that she plans to let Hedley think that her baby belongs to him because he badly wants a son. Canewell enters and they discuss the reason for the commotion next door—the neighbor’s son had been killed during a robbery and two accomplices had gotten away.

The show is a hit, and everyone is flying high. After the women have gone to bed, Canewell finds a sheaf of money buried in the garden. Floyd tells him that it belongs to him and holds him at gunpoint until he returns it. Canewell realizes that Floyd had been a part of the robbery. Hedley enters, sees the money, and hallucinates that Floyd is Buddy Bolden, finally bringing the inheritance that his father had promised in a dream. They wrestle. Hedley exits, returns with the machete, and cuts Floyd’s throat. The final scene begins where the first scene ended, after Floyd’s funeral. The police haven’t solved Floyd’s murder. Alone onstage, Hedley holds Floyd’s money and lets it fall to the ground, singing the song about Buddy Bolden to himself.