I won’t be leading discussions of the August Wilson Century Cycle plays this Fall, not at OLLI, not at Moonlit. I will, however be reviewing each play sequentially, beginning with Gem of the Ocean, after Labor Day, in preparation, hopefully for a presentation I have proposed for the biannual August Wilson Colloquium in Pittsburgh next Spring.
Check back from time to time for notes and discussion.
title: To preserve and make accessible the human record: the archivist
as storyteller and facilitator in the pedagogical ecology of August
Wilson’s American Century Cycle
Whether one goes to a bookstore or a theater to “buy” a particular August Wilson play, one is not merely purchasing entertainment for the evening in the traditional sense of going to a movie or a play or taking part in a temporal event. My experience of leading discussions of the American Century Cycle plays with adult learners, one by one, over several sessions, has convinced me that each play in the Cycle, and all the plays in the aggregate, represents a collection of human records. These records exist in a continuous and dramatic form as encoded documents that tell us the history of a people at critical junctures in their development. But the plays also present us with a learning system for understanding human existence, theirs and ours, on the page, on the stage and screen, and in our lives. Exposure to this encoded learning system, whether consciously or unconsciously, I propose, may account in part for the continued popularity of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle plays.
In this paper, I will analyze these learning system features, this pedagogical ecology as set forth in one play as an example, defining terms along the way. I will include in the discussion the syllabus of learning aids we developed in our discussions that smoothed the bumps in the learning process, obstacles I would like to imagine the playwright intentionally placed to aid the student, the reader or the playgoer in achieving the mastery he intended for us to achieve. In our study groups we discuss the Cycle as a voyage, a journey, and an initiation into a mystic order. In this paper we begin the process of unmasking the process, revealing the aspects of the Cycle’s inherent learning system so that it becomes universally accessible and applicable.
Re-posted from the New York Times Obit page, June 12, 2019.
With her unapologetic lyrics, Rainey proudly proclaimed her bisexuality and helped to mainstream black female narratives in a musical style that later became a nationwide craze.Ma Rainey around 1923. Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she developed a reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals even before the blues became a nationwide craze.CreditDonaldson Collection/Getty Images
June 12, 2019
Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times. This month we’re adding the stories of important L.G.B.T.Q. figures.
By Giovanni Russonello
Ma Rainey did not make the first blues recording; that distinction belongs to Mamie Smith, the vaudevillian who recorded “Crazy Blues” in 1920. And Rainey did not achieve the monumental acclaim of Bessie Smith, her mentee and, later, friendly rival.
But it’s possible that neither of these figures would have sung the way they did without the influence of Rainey.
Often called the “Mother of the Blues,” she was the first entertainer to successfully bridge the divide between vaudeville — the cabaret-style shows that developed out of minstrelsy in the mid-1800s, and catered largely to white audiences — and authentic black Southern folk expression.
Even before the recording industry took off in the 1920s and the blues became a nationwide craze, she had developed a national reputation for her energizing, straight-talking performances and full-throated vocals. As the biographer Sandra Lieb observed in “Mother of the Blues: A Study of Ma Rainey” (1983), by combining a black folk style with techniques learned on the vaudeville stage, Rainey “offered to whites a glimpse into black culture far less obscured by white expectations, and offered to blacks a more direct affirmation” of their cultural power.
In the process, Rainey helped to mainstream narratives of black female autonomy that had little to do with the Victorian norms of white society. Partly that meant speaking candidly about her attraction to women as well as men. In “Prove It on Me Blues,”accompanied by a jug band, she sings defiantly:
Went out last night with a crowd of my friends.
They must’ve been women, ‘cause I don’t like no men.
It’s true I wear a collar and a tie,
Makes the wind blow all the while.
Don’t you say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me.
You sure got to prove it on me.
A Georgia native, Rainey began her career on the tent-show circuit, traveling with performance troupes that set up their own stages in towns across the South and Midwest, honing her own gregarious brew of music, comedy and social commentary.
The characters in Rainey’s songs rarely allowed themselves to become dependent on a male partner, or any agent of the law. “Far more typical,” the scholar and activist Angela Davis wrote in the book “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism” (1998), “are songs in which women explicitly celebrate their right to conduct themselves as expansively and even as undesirably as men.”
In Rainey’s blues — many of which she wrote herself — even the most jilted narrator was unlikely to fall into despair. In “Oh Papa Blues,” after detailing her grievances against a neglectful lover, Rainey turns on a dime, steeling herself to exact revenge.
Oh, papa, think when you away from home
You just don’t want me now, wait and see
You’ll find some other man makin’ love to me, now
Papa, papa, you ain’t got no mama now.
With a mouthful of gold teeth, richly dark skin and flashy jewelry dangling about her, Rainey cast a striking figure, with a ruggedly powerful voice and lavish stage presence to match.
“When she started singing, the gold in her teeth would sparkle,” the pianist and composer Thomas A. Dorsey, who was the musical director on some of her best-known recordings, wrote in his unpublished memoirs.
“She was in the spotlight,” he added. “She possessed listeners; they swayed, they rocked, they moaned and groaned, as they felt the blues with her.”
Sterling Brown, the poet and pioneering black literary critic, put it even more directly: “Ma really knew these people; she was a person of the folk.”
We know that Ma Rainey was born Gertrude Pridgett, the second of five children to Ella (Allen) and Thomas Pridgett. But beyond that, details are sketchy. Rainey often said she was born on April 26, 1886, in Columbus, Ga., but a 1900 census entry lists her birthplace as Alabama and her birth date as September 1882.
When her father died in 1896, her mother went to work for the Central Railway of Georgia. Gertrude began singing professionally as a teenager, making her first public performance in 1900 at the Springer Opera House in Columbus, where she joined a stage show called “The Bunch of Blackberries.” She was soon traveling with vaudeville acts.
It was while on the road, in Missouri in 1902, that she first heard a country blues singer. A young woman came up to the troupe’s tent with a guitar, singing a song of heartbreak with a twisting, ghostly melody. Rainey found herself so struck by the tune’s mysterious pathos that she began singing the song as an encore at her own shows.
Traveling throughout the rural South, Rainey began to hear similar songs, and she worked more country blues into her repertoire. The blues style — based on a pentatonic scale with an African-derived blue note, and generally following a loose, repetitious form — was such a natural fit for her that at one point she said she had invented the term “blues,” although most historians consider that claim to be an exaggeration.
In 1904, Rainey married the comedian, dancer and vocalist Will Rainey, and they toured as a duo with a variety of minstrel troupes, billing themselves as Ma and Pa Rainey. In the mid-1910s, the couple joined Moses Stokes’s tent show, then hit the road for a few years with Tolliver’s Circus and Musical Extravaganza, which touted the couple as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” For a time they performed with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, perhaps the most esteemed troupe of the day.
At some point during her travels, Rainey became acquainted with a young Bessie Smith, who was then performing as a chorus girl, and became Smith’s mentor. Not only were they both virtuoso singers; they shared a love of bold, risqué lyrics, and each proudly proclaimed her bisexuality. During one tour, after Rainey was caught by the Chicago police in the midst of a sexual dalliance with some of her female dancers, it was Smith who came to bail her out of jail.
Rainey separated from her husband in 1916 and began touring with her own show, Madam Gertrude Ma Rainey and Her Georgia Smart Set, which included a chorus line of male and female dancers. (She later married a younger man, though details of that relationship are scarce.) Rainey often closed her set with “See See Rider,” a lament for a lover whose primary romantic partner comes back into the picture. “I’m goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall/Lawd, lawd, lawd,” she sings on the recorded version. “Goin’ away, baby, won’t be back till fall./If I find me a good man, I won’t be back at all.”
Like many tent shows, Rainey’s often holed up for the winter in New Orleans. In the off-season she became friends with a number of the city’s leading jazz musicians, including Armstrong, Kid Ory and King Oliver.Rainey in about 1924 with Thomas A. Dorsey, right, with whom she assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.CreditJP Jazz Archives/Redferns
In 1923, Rainey traveled to Chicago to record for the first time for the Paramount Record Company. Riding the breakout success of these recordings, she and Dorsey assembled a touring band that could play both homespun blues and written sheet music — an early example of the archetypal jazz musician’s skill set.
Between 1923 and 1928, with “race records” by and for the black community becoming a thriving industry, Rainey went on to record no fewer than 92 songs for the small Wisconsin-based Paramount label. But Paramount had a low budget compared with major outfits like Okeh and Columbia (for which Bessie Smith cut her most famous sides), and Rainey’s recordings were of mediocre sound quality.
When Paramount went bankrupt in the 1930s, they fell out of print. Other labels recirculated parts of her catalog, but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that most of her recordings received a proper reissue, on the Milestone and Biograph labels.
She lived for much of the 1920s and ’30s in Chicago, performing in concert and at house parties with jazz musicians like Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton, and touring the country often. In 1935, Rainey returned to Georgia and effectively retired, though she worked for a few years as a theater proprietor.
Ma Rainey died of a heart attack on Dec. 22, 1939. Ever since, paeans to her have been a motif of black music and letters. The blues guitarist and vocalist Memphis Minnie recorded a tribute to her in 1940, telling the story of her life and cataloging the names of her famous songs. Sterling Brown’s poem “Ma Rainey” evoked the thrill of her performances, and the validation that she offered to black listeners of the era.
O Ma Rainey,
Sing yo’ song;
Now you’s back
Whah you belong,
Git way inside us,
Keep us strong.
Even in the late 1960s, at the height of the Black Arts Movement and long after her death, Rainey continued to hold a special significance in the heart of black America as an early ambassador of empowered sexuality and personal liberation. The poet Al Young wrote “A Dance for Ma Rainey” in 1969, proclaiming: “I’m going to be just like you, Ma/Rainey this monday morning.”
To preserve and make accessible the human record: the archivist as storyteller and facilitator in the pedagogical ecology of the American Century Cycle
Whether one goes to a bookstore or a theater to “buy” a particular August Wilson play, one is not merely purchasing entertainment for the evening in the traditional sense of going to a movie or a play, or taking part in a temporal event. My experience of leading discussions of the American Century Cycle plays in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, one by one, over several sessions, has convinced me that each play in the Cycle, and all the plays in the aggregate, represents a collection of human records (I am an archivist and manuscripts librarian on my day job). These records, in the continuous and dramatic form of each play, contain encoded items and documents that tell us a history of a people at a critical juncture in their evolution as a people. Moreover, they present us with a learning system for understanding human existence, theirs and ours, on the page, on the stage and screen, and in our lives. Exposure to this encoded learning system, whether consciously or unconsciously, is what in my opinion accounts for the continued popularity of August Wilson’s plays.
In this paper, I will analyze these learning system features, this pedagogical ecology as set forth in a couple of plays, defining terms along the way. I will include in the discussion the learning aids we developed in our discussions, YouTube playlists, outside readings, and works of art. These aids smoothed the bumps in the learning process, obstacles I contend the playwright intentionally placed to aid the student, the reader or the playgoer in achieving the mastery he intended for us to achieve. In our study groups we discuss the Cycle as a voyage, a journey, and an initiation into a mystic order. In this paper we begin the process of unmasking the process, revealing the aspects of the Cycle’s inherent learning system so that it becomes universally accessible and applicable.
Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt
Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?
Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record
Aunt Ester’s house, architecture and carpentry as archive
The above list details a few of the ideas we discussed in our final group discussion of the session.
The Job story. At the end of Radio Golf, Roosevelt has used Bernie Smith’s money to buy Harmond out. Harmond has lost his stake in the project and his voice in its management. He has lost a long term friendship with Roosevelt in a broken business relationship. Curiously reminiscent of language in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Harmond, in obvious disappointment, tells Roosevelt,
“Enter Roosevelt Hicks. The shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile. How much he pay for something like that? After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got? A hundred dollars? Three hundred dollars? Or are you one of them high-class whores?
Harmond has apparently lost his shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Mame, has correspondingly lost her spot on the shortlist to become the Governor’s press representative. Mame, in a Rose Maxsom moment, says,
“You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. All any of the other board members see. What all our friends see. I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me. I don’t know if I can carry this any further.
We are left to wonder if Harmond’s marriage is salvageable. Harmond loses all, just like Job in the Bible. At the end of the play, outside the text but in the director’s notes, we see Harmond painting lines of his face, like Sterling did earlier when he tells Roosevelt, “I learned that from Cochise. We on the battlefield now,” though Harmond reveals to us in his final monologue with Roosevelt that he was always on the battlefield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the old Negro spiritual:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord. I’m on the battlefield for my Lord, and I promised Him that I would serve Him ’til I die; I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.
We believe that it all works out for Harmond because that’s what Wilson wants us to believe. Harmond retians his family real estate business, effectively putting Roosevelt out of the office at the end and tearing down the Tiger Woods poster (too bad on that one, given Tiger’s recent greatest comeback of all time). Just as it all works out for Old Testament Job. After enduring all of God’s trials and tribulations, Job is a better man. Riley Temple, in his classic work, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, compares Harmond Wilks to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a sort of reborn Adam with a quickening spirit.
The Jacob and Esau story. I mentioned in our discussion without giving it full thought at the time the story of Jacob and Esau, then backed down when I wasn’t able to carefully articulate the subtle nuances of the comparison. I still am not, but i think it is worth mentioning and memorializing. In the play we have allusions to the relationship between the twin brothers, Harmond and Raymond, with Raymond bolting from the father’s plan early to attend an HBCU followed by his decision to enlist, which led to his unfortunate and untimely demise. Harmond, on the other hand, stayed with his father’s plan for him and almost made it to the mayor’s office, which could have been followed by the Senate, and perhaps even the White House. We will never know, though we can venture to speculate that Harmond Wilks might have been better equipped to occupy the White House than Obama was. Back to the discussion. In a way of thinking, Raymond sold his birthright to pursue an independent track, leaving the “promise” to Harmond. Similarly, Harmond and Roosevelt extend the Jacob and Esau story, except this time, it is Roosevelt selling his birthright for immediate, temporary gain, again, leaving the “spiritual” and “metaphysical” promise of saving the community to Harmond.
Who stole the golf clubs? Did anyone else find it curious that the golf clubs went missing from Harmond’s trunk, only to be purchased by Sterling, who in turn sold the the clubs back to Harmond, later accusing Harmond of “receiving” stolen property (with an implied threat of future blackmailing)? Did anyone else connect the dots and conclude that Sterling actually stole the golf clubs in the first place? Why else would he return Harmond’s payment that was to cover his own payment to the fence (the alleged intermediary who actually stole the clubs, and an allusion to yet another August Wilson play) in the first place? We play Sterling cheap at our own peril. Sterling is a messenger from the past (Two Trains Running) just as Elder Joe Barlow is a messenger from the past (Gem of the Ocean), both present to serve as midwives for Harmond’s spiritual birth as a Wilson Warrior.
Life as a record. Roosevelt, after consulting with the local police department, is only too happy to attempt to smear Old Joe’s character by citing points on his police rap sheet, thereby somehow harming his claim to the property at 1839 Wylie (Ad hominen fallacy). In Act 2 Scene 3, Roosevelt reads the list, to which Harmond replies, “All that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean anything. i don’t care if he’s a criminal. We can’t tear down his house.” Roosevelt again shows us a vile side of his character.
Aunt Ester’s house as the archives. We don’t know what Harmond studied in school, but he has a definite appreciation for interior design. In Act 2 Scene 2 he descibes the interior of Aunt Ester’s house:
“It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. You don’t see that too often. . . .You should feel the woodwrok. if you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. And old language. And there’s this smell in the air . . . .The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.”
One senses, through Harmond’s discovery and descriptions, that the lives of generations of families are carved into those walls, recorded in those carpentry fixtures, much like a primitive archive, much like Bereniece’s piano in The Piano Lesson. Early in the history of record keeping, records and data were carved into walls, as displayed in this John White Alexander mural at the Library of Congress. The series of murals is entitled, “The Evolution of the Book.”
postscript. One day I’ll write about the military veterans among August Wilson’s characters, Solly Two Kings in Gem, Floyd Schoolboy Barton in Seven Guitars, Gabriel Maxsom in Fences, Doub and Darnell “Youngblood” Williams in Jitney, and Elder Joseph Barlow in Radio Golf. Today, on Memorial Day weekend, my attention is drawn to Elder Joseph Barlow, Old Joe, and specifically, his monologue near the end of Act One where he describes his participation in a World War II battle. In his story, Joe Mott, the flag bearer, gets shot in battle, and Joe Barlow picks the flag up and carries it throughout the battle and until the day of his discharge. You have to read it and I wont spoil it for you. But here’s the deal. Joe Mott was also the name of a character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the name shows up here in this setting. With August Wilson, there are no coincidences.
Just a short note to thank you all for the card you signed, the honorarium, and the opportunity to take this 11-week journey with each and every one of you. What remains to be said/done?
With this email we are all in touch with each other so we can continue to build on the August Wilson bond we’ve developed together.
I have a few more emails to send with the aggregated links to blog posts for each play. At some point, I will send out an email to all three session groups as we approach time for the Arena Stage and National Theater plays in the upcoming season.
I originally proposed this course to OLLI because I had all the plays on my to-read list but didn’t want to read them alone. I guess I got that done! But with each reading of the plays I discover new depths to plumb, in the plays, and in some cases, in myself. That’s a bit of a confession, but heck, y’all know me now!
OK. Have a great weekend, and keep in touch!
p.s. For those who missed the final meeting, I will mail you your completion/initiation certificate. r