Michael Anthony Williams and David Emerson Toney on Arena Stage’s Urgent Production of SEVEN GUITARS, and the Legacy of August Wilson
On November 19, 2021, a jury acquitted Kyle Rittenhouse on all counts against him, essentially making him a free man. In August of 2020, the 17-year-old Rittenhouse had traveled across state lines to Kenosha, Wisconsin, after protests arose over a white police officer shooting a Black man named Jacob Blake. Rittenhouse shot and killed two people: Joseph Rosenbaum and Anthony Huber (he also shot and injured Gaige Grosskreutz). The jury acquittal essentially made Rittenhouse a free man, and this week he received standing ovations at the conservative conference Turning Point USA.
For many Black Americans, Rittenhouse’s freedom is another painful reminder of the double standards between white America and Black America. While a Black person like Breonna Taylor can be killed by police officers for no reason, a white person like Rittenhouse can shoot and kill people protesting police brutality and face few repercussions.
I interviewed Michael Anthony Williams and David Emerson Toney, two actors in Arena Stage’s production of Seven Guitars, on the same day as Rittenhouse’s acquittal. For the ensemble of Seven Guitars, the day’s news had emotional resonances with the themes of Black family, incarceration, and violence in the play they had been rehearsing.
“We cried at the verdict in the rehearsal room. I did,” Toney said. When deciding how to harness those emotions, Toney said he channels them through into his acting. “When you go [act], it’s your work,” he said. “It happens to be that the work speaks to the moment. So [you] go deeper into the work. So you can do your job, which is to show humankind as they are, not who they think they are.”
Dismantling narratives about America to show the truth of this country was one of the many goals of August Wilson, the playwright who wrote Seven Guitars. The play is a middle entry into Wilson’s Century Cycle, a collection of ten plays each chronicling a different decade of the 20th century for the Black community in Pittsburgh, PA.
Seven Guitars, originally produced in 1995, takes place in 1948, in a backyard which serves as a hub for a Black neighborhood. The play begins with the death of emerging musician Floyd Barton (played in this production by Roderick Lawrence), but flashes backwards to explore Barton’s struggle to escape financial precarity after a short incarceration. As much as Wilson’s play is about Floyd, it’s also about the community around Floyd that alternately helps and destroys his dreams.
Michael Anthony Williams and David Emerson Toney act in two pivotal roles in the show. Williams plays Canewell, one of the most skilled storytellers in the neighborhood, who counsels Floyd on the abuses of power within the music industry. Toney plays Hedley, West Indian immigrant suffering from tuberculosis, who has vivid fantasies of memory and ritual which soon become his own living reality.
Seven Guitars is actually one of Wilson’s most physically violent works, showing how Black characters must necessarily turn to extreme actions to survive the extreme conditions of America. There’s an anger undergirding each of the characters’ words, even when they’re trying to celebrate small victories. For example, knives and guns are casually brought onstage with playful banter, but are eventually used to devastating effect.
The simmering tension of Black daily life leading to tragedy brought up personal memories for Williams.
“There’s many stories in [Seven Guitars] about Black men getting locked up for nothing, that’s still alive and well,” Williams said. “I can tell you that my interactions with the police, in my 61 years, I’ve had over 40. You know, illegally stopped, searched, illegally detained, the whole gamut. The fact that [in 2020] a young white man can go across state lines with a rifle and not be confronted and kill people and get off, that could be another chapter of this play.”
I’m tempted to call Wilson’s work “timely,” given how much it parallels contemporary events of racial injustice. However, the fact that the show is set in 1948 highlights the timelessness of Wilson’s work, and how little has changed for Black Americans over 70 years later.
I might then try to call Wilson’s work “historical,” but that’s another label Wilson shrugs off. In the script of Seven Guitars, Wilson notes that sharing the cultural elements of his mother’s life was his motivation for writing, including “her myths, her superstitions, her prayers, the contents of her pantry, the smell of her kitchen, the song that escaped from her sometimes parched lips.”
When I ask Williams and Toney what they think of Wilson refusing to call himself a historian, they both agreed that his interest was more in storytelling.
“I think what he meant by that was he wasn’t creating history, he was just putting it up on the stage for you all to be able to see,” Williams said.
“History is a funny thing, because history belongs to the people who write it,” Toney said. “What August Wilson does, he tells the story and the story always belongs to the people who live it… I’m not sure the plays themselves are meant to change the world. You know, like anything, you have to be open to be made aware of some things. And if you’re not open to it, it won’t change you. I feel as though August Wilson is a mirror. A mirror to the culture.”
Because Wilson is such a canonized playwright in dramatic literature, it’s easy to forget that much of his work was a celebration of Black culture often overlooked by historians. The culture celebrated in Seven Guitars is the rhythm of Black music, making the show a continuation of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’s exploration of similar themes. Wilson himself even stated that the seven characters of the show function as the title’s seven guitars. For Arena Stage’s production of the show, Williams said director Tazewell Thompson stressed the importance of integrating the music seamlessly into the piece. Toney said that making the music organic to the play was important, since music is organic to Black life.
“Music is a natural extension of the Black world,” Toney said. “I’m not going ‘poor us.’ … I mean this in a sense of this struggle of Black people in America. I think that singing is a natural occurrence, someone who is in a heightened position of stress just singing. To elevate.”
The cast of Seven Guitars has had an unusually long time to hone their musical skills. While the Arena Stage production was initially scheduled for the spring of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic kept pushing the production back into 2021. Toney said that when the production was tentatively scheduled for May of 2020, he even temporarily turned down the role of Hedley so that he could be with his college students at Virginia Commonwealth University after the death of George Floyd. Williams that he’s grateful to perform Seven Guitars now in front of a live audience.
“[It’s] the beauty of the language, man,” Williams said. “I am not a huge Shakespeare fan at all, and people are always waxing prophetic about the language. Well, he can’t hold a candle to August Wilson. And to be able to bring these characters to life, it’s a gift, actually, whenever I get the chance to perform his work, and I treat it as such.”
Because Seven Guitars is now playing in 2021, it’s playing to a much different theatre industry than before the pandemic. After the summer of 2020, there has been a rush to celebrate and produce Black playwrights. Playwrights such as Dominique Morriseu, Douglas Lyons, Adrienne Kennedy, and even Alice Childress are finally making their solo playwriting debuts on Broadway during the 2021-22 season. But Williams is skeptical of making any premature celebrations for Black shows opening during the pandemic.
“I have to tell you it’s token bullshit,” Williams said. “After this next round of playwrights’ plays are produced, we’re going to get a shake up and the real talent is going to rise to the top. And then we’ll see what Broadway does. But I have very little faith that this is going to be sustained.”
Toney has a more generous view on this influx of Black playwrights finally getting their chance to share their work, because of (or despite) the tumultuous past few years. When I asked him why he thought these works were getting staged now, he said the reason doesn’t matter as much as the fact that they’re staged at all.
“I don’t care what the reason is,” he said. “I don’t care. It’s sort of like, ‘Oh, I did arrive here from so-and-so, I don’t care what kind of car. But as long as I get there.’ I think that’s a huge part of the Black drive, is to get there. Acknowledge the terrible things that happened, but get there.”
This tension in the Black theatre community, between wanting to share Black experiences with national audiences while also not wanting to be tokenized, extends to August Wilson’s plays as well. Many Black millennial playwrights, including Jeremy O. Harris and Rachel Lynett, have written satirical plays poking fun at August Wilson being the only Black playwright known by many theatre patrons. In the film The Forty Year Old Version, playwright Radha Blank even stages white theatre producers talking about a “multi-racial” version of Fences, inserting white actors into a specifically Black show.
Those theatre producers are the “cultural imperialists” Wilson explicitly condemns in “The Ground on Which I Stand,” his revolutionary speech calling for Black-produced theatre. But Blank still exposes the danger of staging August Wilson now: this genius of Black theatre has the potential of being drained of radicalism, and transformed into the new standard onto which all other Black playwrights are held against.
Luckily, Arena Stage’s long-term investment in Black playwrights proves that staging August Wilson doesn’t always have to fall into these traps of representation. Seven Guitars is Arena Stage’s ninth production of Wilson’s work over four decades; they only have to stage Wilson’s 1990’s-set show Radio Golf to complete the Century Cycle. Toney says that showing audiences Black theatre over an extended period of time has been crucial in being able to understand Wilson’s work.
“I think [Molly Smith, Artistic Director of Arena Stage] sees what’s going out there, and she does what she thinks is necessary… And though it’s gone down some, [D.C.] still is a predominantly Black city. I think that it’s important for people to come and see themselves.”
Williams says that being able to provide representation for his own community, and family, is what motivates him to take on roles in Wilson’s work.
“My job now is to make sure that when I am onstage, I choose the pieces that work for me, and that are strong for me, so that I can tell the message as clearly as I can to Mary, my daughter,” Williams said. “I can tell her exactly what’s going on in as gentle a way as I can.”
Watching Seven Guitars at Arena Stage, I was struck by Donald Eastman’s set design. The backyard’s ground on the stage is made up of angular, broken concrete, making the actors of Seven Guitars constantly feel the ground beneath their feet.
August Wilson called attention to the ground on which he stood as a balancing force in his life: an awareness of his Black ancestors allowed him to understand himself. Now that Wilson has become one of those Black ancestors for new generations of Black Americans, witnessing Wilson’s work can also be that kind of centering force. But like the fresh dirt of a recent burial, the ground on which Black Americans stand doesn’t always feel static. This production of Seven Guitars, like the best works of theatre, helps us understand how the ground beneath us is always gently shifting.
Seven Guitars is in performance at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. through December 26, 2021. For tickets and more information, visit here.