American Century Cycle consolidated notes transferred to Substack

A Layman’s Guide to the American Century Cycle

Consolidated noted from all five sessions of Radio Golf transferred to substack here:

Gem of the Ocean notes transferred to substack here:

King Hedley II notes transferred to substack here:

Consolidated notes from Seven Guitars transferred to substack here:

Consolidated notes from Two Trains Running transferred to Substack here:

The Piano Lesson consolidated notes on substack here:

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone consolidated notes are here:

Fences consolidated notes transferred to substack here:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes on substack:

Jitney consolidated notes on substack here:

Radio Golf, and Wilson debts to Dunbar and O’Neill

Session #5

Consolidated noted from all five sessions transferred to substack here:

In the final two plays of the Cycle, August Wilson performs double duty, at least. One, in Radio Golf he tightens up any loose ends that remain in the narrative arc of the century of plays. Two, he establishes himself and his work as heir to the rich legacy of both the proto-Harlem Renaissance great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the great American dramatist, Eugene O’Neill.

Here’s a list of connections to loose ends tied of other plays in the Cycle:

The hand tooled tin in Aunt Ester’s old house connected to the tin burning in the factory Solly set on fire in Gem of the Ocean.

Sarah Degree, for whom Harmond wants to name the new community health center, was first mentioned in Seven Guitars, then in Two Trains Running, and is an actual person from Wilson’s childhood who used to take the community kids to Sunday school.

Model Cities Program relates to urban renewal efforts in Two Trains Running and Jitney.

Sterling wanted “to know what it was like to have some money” in the same way that Floyd Barton “wanted to know” what it would be like in Seven Guitars.

Bucket vs. Cup analogy. In Two Trains Running, West tells Sterling to get a cup instead of a ten gallon bucket, i.e., to lower his expectations. In Radio Golf, Old Joe complains that at the Mission, missionaries were drilling holes in the bottom of cups.

Old Joe tells Harmony if he gets elected, the city will only give him half the keys. In King Hedley II, the only key that matters is the Key to the Kingdom (forgiveness).

America as a giant slot machine that requires the right quarters ties to the jukebox at Memphis Diner (Two Trains) that never works when quarters are inserted.

Old Joe tried to tell people at Hill House that he wasn’t a dog, just as Hedley proclaimed in Seven Guitars, “the Negro is not a dog.”

Old Joe refers to Roosevelt as the King of the Barnyard Rooster, described previously in Seven Guitars.

The cat that appears on Roosevelt’s car is the resurrected cat from King Hedley II, the spirit of Aunt Ester revived.

Mame’s reduction of the religious “miracle” of a preacher putting his hand in a boiling cauldron to just “a Negro from Mississippi with some dry ice.” Does it resolve the ghost appearances in The Piano Lesson?

Sterling recounts his consultation with Aunt Ester in Two Trains as advised by Holloway.

Old Joe establishes his direct descent from Black Mary (she was his mother) who later was the successor to Aunt Ester.

Harmond and Old Joe are able to trace their common ancestor, Henry Samuels, who was the father of both Caesar Wilks and Black Mary.

Woodwork in Aunt Ester’s old house has carvings, faces and letters in it, seeming related to Berniece’s piano as a family artifact.

In Old Joe’s police record, Roosevelt makes fun of mention of a journey to the City of Bones.

Mame sounds a lot like Rose, in that she submerged her identity into that of her husband’s.

And there are more . . .

OK, so what’s this Paul Laurence Dunbar and Eugene O’Neill talk? First Dunbar.

I opened with the most often anthologized and most often recited poem of the Dunbar body of work, We Wear the Mask. Very appropriate for life today with COVID. In Gem of the Ocean, before embarking on the journey to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Solly and Eli to get and don their European masks. It’s all theater and it appears they have done this thing before, but to Citizen Barlow it appears to be a real voyage to a real destination. In Radio Golf, the masks are more subtle but just as effective because the masks are a variety of blackface worn by black characters in the play.

Much (not all) of the following comes from a paper written by Patrice Rankine, August Wilson and Greek Drama: Blackface Minstrelsy, “Spectacle” from Aristotle’s Poetics, and Radio Golf.

Mame, the PR expert, is overall in charge of image for her husband’s mayoral campaign and in her day job, for the governor’s office. Her name is a play on Mammy, the blackface female character from silent films.

Roosevelt, the literal black face of the radio deal he is running with Bernie Smith, is a fraud in many ways. He is barely two paychecks away from not being able to pay his rent and the note on his and his wife’s cars. He appears to be in a token position at Mellon Bank, where he works as VP, a position he eventually quits because of performance issues. He is unfaithful to his wife, and ultimately, he is unfaithful to his friend. Though well educated, he comes across as being quite the buffoon, while Old Joe, another name borrowed from the silent film and vaudeville era, who should be playing the buffoon, actually comes across as being quite profound at times. A bit of a role reversal as the opposites face off repeatedly.

Harmond, for his part, masquerades in the black face of respectability politics until events shift and he gets bought out by his partner. Then, recognizing that he has in fact been wearing a mask, a mask the poet says above “that grins and lies,” he aligns himself with his distant cousin old Joe, and the handyman, Sterling, and puts warpaint on his face to enter the battlefield, yet another mask.

Roosevelt puts up a poster of Tiger Woods signaling his love for golfing. But behind the surface, one is reminded that Tiger Woods has never self-identified as a black man (his father was African American, his mother was Asian).

Then, finally, and in the ultimate insult, Sterling identifies Roosevelt derogatorily as “a Negro,” and Harmond (harmony) refers to Roosevelt as “the shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile,” a throwback to a 1904 silent film still available on Youtube, yet another blackface masked actor. And to add insult to injury, Harmond asks Roosevelt if he is a hundred dollar, a three hundred dollar, or a thousand dollar whore paid by Bernie Smith.

What about Eugene O’Neill? Remember Old Joe’s war story about the flag bearer who gets shot and dies in battle? Then Old Joe picks the flag up and carries it for the duration of the war. That flag bearer soldier was named Joe Mott. Joe Mott happens to be the name of the one black member of Hope’s Bar crowd of pipe dreamers in The Ice Man Cometh, who has dreams of opening a colored gambling house and eventually passing for white.

Session #4

Consolidated notes from Sessions #1, #2, and #3

Youtube playlist

Notes on Gem of the Ocean (04282021)

Notes for all five sessions consolidated on substack. Click here:

Session #5

I’ll begin with two characters mentioned who show up in subsequent plays in the Cycle. Roper Lee hangs out with Citizen in Gem and shows up again in Joe Turner. Rev. Tolliver preaches the Garret Brown eulogy in Gem and also appears in Joe Turner.

But overall, Gem is Aunt Ester’s play. We meet her as a fully developed character. We find out about her childhood, her children’s names, and even her plans for eventual succession to Black Mary. We learn about her former husbands and current suitors. And Wilson introduces us to her cooking methods, her manner of consulting and giving advice and even her orchestration of the journey to the City of Bones, a process she has obviously supervised before.

In previous sessions we talked about Solly’s day job as a collector of pure, or dog feces. Pure collector is listed as one of the ten worst jobs in London during the Victoria era. Mixing the pure with water makes compound called “bate,” and bate is applied to leather to beak up the fibrous structure to make the leather soft and pliable before the final stage of tanning. I visited rooftop tanning operations in Morocco, but I never saw (or smelled) pure being used. Maybe they do it differently in Morocco.

It’s a bit advanced in the Cycle, but I would like to propose yet another way of describing and analyzing the structure of the plays.

Northrop Frye, a Canadian literature professor, described and analyzed the books of the Bible, and the stories contained therein, in a book named The Code.” As a unified book with a coherent narrative, Fire described the plot changes and development as a “U-shaped Plot” type of comedy, beginning with Genesis and the creation story, followed by a long line of historical disasters and triumphs, concluding with the final victory of the eternal city of Jerusalem at the end of Revelations. The Bible subplots, i.e., the various kingdoms and rulers in the Old Testament, as well as the lives of various disciples, all provide a sort of repetition of images and issues that serve to tie together the many “books” of the Bible, creating as well a sense of deja vu and premonition across the repetitive action and suggesting that the images and issues are “both themselves and not themselves,” suggesting that time itself may be an illusion.

In Frye’s second book, “Words with Power,” he expands his analysis from the internal structure of the Bible above to relationships and interrelationships between Biblical language and thought and the language and thought of everyday life, of mythology and of literature.

You see where I may be going with this.

The decade plays portray triumphs and disasters of families and individuals in the Hill District. In each play there are events that seem to take the wind out of the sails of the characters, especially the protagonists. But in each play there is a little something at the end that suggests that the tide may be turning and the ultimate fate, improving.

There is repetition, of character personality types and of issues, like incarceration, inter-community violence, urban renewal and gentrification, theft of land and refusal to pay an honest wage, and we see infidelity, and distrust, and resentment. The repetition, on the surface, might suggest a deficit of imagination on the part of the playwright, But that would be a very superficial analysis that overlooks the role of repletion as a unifying factor across the decades as well as across the plays themselves

We see interspliced the language of religion and spiritualism and the language of everyday life, augmented occasionally by the language of the blues, Wilson would add, always descriptive of a less than optimal situation, but always celebratory at some level.

Frye wrote about the primary concerns of life, the things we share with all plant and animal life, like food, drink, sex, property and freedom of movement, all embodied in myth and literature. Then he contrasts these with secondary concerns of religion, class, nation, tribe and their concerns, piety, virtue, patriotism, embodied in culture.

We see these issues played out in the alternation of decades in the Cycle plays. Wilson goes out of his way to focus our attention on food, drink, sex (in a subtle way – the plays are never pornographic), and certainly property and freedom of movement. Every play features these things prominently. But there is also the focus, often soft-pedaled, on piety, virtue and patriotism and we can think of plenty of examples.

The long and short of it is that Frye provides us an interesting model to thinking about the plays, but we have to work past the inherent resistance to comparing Wilson’s storytelling to that of the Bible.

Columbia, Gem of the Ocean has its own interesting story twists. Was it an original or was it copied by/from Britannia, Pride of the Ocean? (See Session #2). Was its author Thomas A’Beckett, David Shaw, or George Willig? What is the significance of its 1957 revival in the Broadway hit, The Music Man, a musical about a fraudulent band director and a con man?

One final post-discussion idea is the meaning of the title away from the above idiosyncracies of the song. Perhaps, as someone in the group discussion mentioned, the actual “gem” is the City of Bones itself, and not just the name of a ship. “It is a beautiful city,” Aunt Esther describes, where “the people made a kingdom out of nothing.” What if it’s not the lady with the flame in the Columbia Pictures logo, nor her antecedent in Roman mythology, Minerva, nor her antecedent in Greek mythology, Athena, all representative of Isis, of the great Egyptian pantheon, but an actual submerged city, maybe even the mystical Atlantis.

And maybe, to extend the metaphor even further, the submerged City of Bones represents not necessarily an ancient underwater city, but the promised destiny of America, lost at sea by a mean and selfish sea captain.


p.s. The Youtube playlist:


Session #4

Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?

They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.

From Wikipedia:

In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.

“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.

The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”

The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.

Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.

Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.

Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.

Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.

One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Session #1 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #2 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)

Thoughts on King Hedley II

King Hedley II consolidated noted transferred to substack here:

Dear friends: Is it me or do the plays seem to be getting harder and harder to wrap one’s brain around?

I went to Goodreads. All the King Hedley reviews (except mine) seem rather lukewarm, almost as if August Wilson hit some type of slump. I have some ideas.

For one, this play is about the 80’s. And we can remember the 80’s. So perhaps unconsciously, we look for stuff we remember. But our glance returns to us fatigued, exhausted. It seems there’s nothing in this play we can relate to.

Well, speak for yourself, Ray.

The 80’s were a bit of a lost decade for me. I spent the first half punching holes in the water, as they used to say, doing engineering work on deployed submarines and in shipyards. The second half I spent two years at a small college in Florida, having the time of my young life. That was followed by three years on a 30 year old destroyer, trying to nurse an aged ship and an obviously failed marriage, broken by too frequent separations for months at a time and instances of my own stupidity and immaturity. I wrote in my memoir that by the end of the 80’s I was slipping into darkness, to quote the lyrics of a then popular song. It was not a part of my plan. A poetry writing lady saved me from the abyss. A poetry writing man saves us all, perhaps. Maybe. Almost.

OK. Now we begin to see stuff in the play, perhaps. Man, I need some coffee.

The casual references to crime and to committing criminal acts in the play seem both strange and off-putting. King and Mister don’t seem to think twice about selling stolen refrigerators, or even robbing a local jewelry store. Not once does the idea of returning to jail serve as a deterrence to committing more crime, because, I suppose, “we won’t get caught this time.” Silly and senseless. King’s overreactions to petty indiscretions and daily microaggressions seem overwrought.

Aha! At this point we have accepted the status quo.

King and Elmore share their experience of performing the act of murder, the act itself, and how it made them feel. But it is outside the realm of our experience. They no longer seem sympathetic. Even Tonya’s long monologue about the abortion she wants to get (and never does, we find out later) might seem out of place for our sensibilities because either 1) it’s not a part of our experience, or 2) if it is, we don’t want to think about it.

Finally, no mention is made in the play of the crack cocaine pandemic of the 80’s. You think Hill residents were spared the ravages of that scourge? I don’t think so. It is there, between the lines.

Spoiler alert! King wins the battle between revenge and forgiveness in the end. Yet he still dies, he has to die. He’s been wearing the halo and his blood sacrifice is what’s required. He is the fatted calf Stool Pigeon has been looking for. The meow of the dead cat as the final curtain falls signals to us that there is cause for hope. This tragedy is Judeo-Christian, not Greco-Roman. Aunt Ester’s children will find their redemption. It is just a matter of time.


p.s. Here is the YouTube playlist:

Consolidated notes from previous sessions

Here’s my review in Goodreads:

Postscript. More on the death of Aunt Ester

First to clear the air. Notwithstanding the mathematics of Aunt Ester’s age, the arrival of Angolan indentured servants to Jamestown in 1619 was not the first recorded instance of Africans in the continental United States. Ponce de Leon was accompanied by African Juan Garrido in Florida in 1513, in search of the Fountain of Youth. The first group of enslaved African arrived to the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1565. 1619 marks the first arrival of Africans to a British settlement.

There is the suggestion in the text of the play from King, by way of Mr. Eli, that Aunt Ester, the matriarch of the Hill community and guardian of its culture, traditions and history, died of grief, with her hand stuck on her forehead. Then there is the suggestion, promoted by the now-spiritual seer Stool Pigeon, that Aunt Ester had to be removed in anticipation of some final judgement.

Either way, the passing of Aunt Ester is a significant turning point for the neighborhood, especially for those who sought her counsel at various occasions, including Stool Pigeon, Mister, King and Ruby.

Aunt Ester’s passing, more significantly, marks a turning point for the Cycle. First introduced chronologically in Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester dissuaded Ruby from getting an abortion in Seven Guitars, actively counseled characters in Two Trains Running, dies in King Hedley II, and figures prominently in Radio Golf. Aunt Ester’s Stoic teachings of sacrifice, self-knowledge, and personal responsibility held the community together through many struggles over the decades of the Cycle. Now, in her absence, for those who know, there is curiosity about how the community will survive.

At the closing off the final scene, blood from King’s fatal bullet wound flows into the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat and we hear a “meow” as the curtain falls. There is a suggestion that Aunt Ester may yet be with us and that all will not be lost.

Postscript. Reimagining George Floyd as King Hedley II (and vice versa).

King Hedley is a complicated character. He seems to have an anti-Midas touch, i.e., nothing he touches turns to gold. A good way to understand him is by comparing him to George Floyd, another complicated character. Floyd, like Hedley, was a seeming ne’er-do-well with a predilection for violence and criminal activity. Floyd even exceeded Hedley when it came to fathering five children across the country that he in turn abandoned. He was a failed athlete and a failed hip-hop artist, spending most of his adult life in and out of prison serving eight jail terms for various minor charges and convictions.

Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, George Floyd’s memory has been lionized and the sins of his prior life forgiven and forgotten. Peaceful protestors have demanded stern punishment for the police officer associated with his passing. Floyd’s death has been co-opted by politicians for political fundraising and support for calls to reform and defund police departments across the country.

For NaPoWriMo, I wrote a poem I called “Hedley’s Blues,” highlighting these and other similarities. In the end, Hedley’s unwilling sacrifice provided unforeseen opportunities for renewal for his community. Here is the poem:

Hedley’s Blues

They ask us to require this sacrifice.
Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Blood for blood.
This sacrifice will somehow make us whole,
Cure our ailments, fill the gaps you left
When they sold you down river for a song.
Those who bought you never knew stolen goods
Was all you were, living on borrowed time
And leaving casualties in your wake.
You were the sacrifice, the fatted calf,
your unwilling blood a fitting offering
To the gods. Once. Spilled on the seeded ground
Of hopes and dreams – your intoxication.
There’s no balm in revenge. So there’s no need
For a present value calculation.