NY Times Obit: Overlooked No More: Ma Rainey, the ‘Mother of the Blues’

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

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.CreditCreditDonaldson 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.”

She was also a celebrity. Of the nearly 100 songs she recorded in the 1920s, many were national hits, and some have become part of the American musical canon. Her 1924 recording of “See See Rider,” on which she is accompanied by a young Louis Armstrong, was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry in 2004.

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

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.”

Later in the poem, he pledged:

I’m going to hover in the corners

of the world, Ma

& sing from the bottom of hell

up to the tops of high heaven

first draft of a proposal for the 2020 August Wilson Society Colloquium

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), in a continuous and dramatic form, encoded documents that not only tell us a history of a people at a critical juncture in their evolution as a people, but 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 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 that 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.

Blog notes from three sessions of August Wilson American Century Cycle (2018-2019)

Gem of the Ocean

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/30/some-notes-for-9-gem-of-the-ocean/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/notes-on-gem-of-the-ocean-11-24-2018/
 
Carole’s notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/28/caroles-notes-on-gem-11-28-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/pre-class-thoughts-after-reading-gem-of-the-ocean/

post class notes:  https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/09/post-class-notes-gem-of-the-ocean-3-9-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Gem of the Ocean

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/some-takeaway-notes-from-joe-turners-come-and-gone/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/notes-joe-turners-come-and-gone-10-14-2018/

Carole’s notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/16/caroles-additional-notes-on-joe-turners-come-and-gone-10-15-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/13/sosme-notes-on-joe-turners-come-and-gone-and-wilsons-4-bs/

https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/14/some-discussion-points-for-joe-turners-come-and-gone/

Wikipedia entry for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/notes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom-10-01-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/22/some-pre-class-notes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom-3-21-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

The Piano Lesson

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/some-notes-and-takeaways-from-two-trains-running/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/ (see Carole’s notes in the comments section)

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/03/28/pre-class-notes-for-the-piano-lesson-3-28-2019/

post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/02/post-class-notes-for-the-piano-lesson-3-30-2019/

Wikipedia entry for The Piano Lesson

Seven Guitars

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/16/pre-class-notes-for-seven-guitars/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/notes-on-seven-guitars-11-05-2018/

Carole’s notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/05/carole-horns-notes-on-seven-guitars-11-05-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/04/notes-for-seven-guitars-4-3-2019/

post class notes https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/11/some-post-seven-guitars-thoughts-4-6-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Seven Guitars

Fences

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/24/some-takeaway-notes-from-fences/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/08/notes-on-week-4-fences/

Carole’s notes on Fences: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/carole-horns-notes-on-fences-olli-au10-11-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/12/notes-on-fences-4-11-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Fences

Two Trains Running

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/some-takeaways-from-two-trains-running/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/29/notes-on-two-trains-running-10-29-2018/

Carole’s notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/31/carole-horns-notes-on-two-trains-running-with-notes-links-and-annotations/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/25/notes-on-two-trains-running-4-25-2019/

Session #2 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/post-notes-on-two-trains-running-4-26-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Two Trains Running

Jitney

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/06/week-one-of-the-century-series-jitney/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/09/23/notes-on-jitney-for-9-24-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/03/notes-on-jitney-5-3-2019/?relatedposts_hit=1&relatedposts_origin=861&relatedposts_position=0

Session #2 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/post-notes-on-two-trains-running-4-26-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Jitney

King Hedley II

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/class-notes-for-king-hedley-ii/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/notes-on-king-hedley-ii-11-11-2018/

Session #3 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/09/some-pre-discussion-notes-on-king-hedley-ii-5-8-2019/

Session #3 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/some-afterthoughts-on-king-hedley-ii-5-11-2019/

Wikipedia entry for King Hedley II

Radio Golf

Session #1 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/05/06/some-initial-thoughts-on-week-10-radiogolf/

Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/12/03/some-random-thoughts-on-radio-golf-12-03-2018/

Session #3 pre-class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/radio-golf-some-thoughts-5-16-2019/

Session #3 post-class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/18/radio-golf-post-class-thoughts-5-18-2019/

Wikipedia entry for Radio Golf

Radio Golf – post-class thoughts (5.18.2019)

  1. Harmond as Job, Harmond as Wilson warrior.
  2. Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt
  3. Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?
  4. Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record
  5. 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. 

every goodbye ain’t gone

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!

Ray

p.s. For those who missed the final meeting, I will mail you your completion/initiation certificate. r

Radio Golf – some thoughts (5.16.2019)

I am struck by the repetition and frequency of shifting loyalties in Radio Golf. Let’s try to tease one or two of them out.

The big sort of climax in the play is the breakup of the friendship between Harmond Wilks, the ensemble’s central character, and his old college roommate and current business partner, Roosevelt Hicks. Harmond Wilks is from old money, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the old folks say. His father ran the real estate business before him and his grandfather before his father. In fact, we know his grandfather, Cesar Wilks, from the first play in the series, Gem of the Ocean. Wilks’ business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, on the other hand is so nouveau riche, that he believes 1) that if he doesn’t have a current business card on the golf course the other players will think he is the caddie, and 2) if the current deal goes south he will lose his house and his wife’s car. They even vary with regard to golf, with Harmond thinking the golf course is a place where one can learn rules for success, while Roosevelt considers success on the golf course as a pretense for showing off his manhood. It is frankly a wonder they have remained connected for as long as they have, with such fundamental differences in outlook and priorities.

Let’s work backwards for better detail resolution.

There is a big fallout at the play’s end. Harmond seeks to redesign a land development deal to honor a family relationship that he has just learned he has. Rather than tear down a house that once belonged to Aunt Ester, a friend of his grandfather’s, and that currently belongs to Aunt Ester’s successor’s son, Old Joe, who, it turns out, is also Harmond’s second cousin, he seeks a way to build around the old house, preserving a piece of the original neighborhood. Once Roosevelt learns of the “new” deal, he bolts and develops an alternate plan to buy Harmond out of his share of the project, using money from a new found friend who is already using him as the black face of a media project in order to qualify for minority set-aside funding for both the media project and ultimately, for the real estate deal. When Harmond confronts Roosevelt about the ethics of the business arrangement, Roosevelt responds that’s just the way deals are cut and he won’t be deprived of his opportunity to “hang out” with the big boys of business. Not only will Roosevelt turn his back on a long standing friendship with Harmond, he will also turn his back on his own community. Tsk, tsk.

For his part, Harmond is too willing to back away from “the plan” once he learns that family is involved in it, because that’s where he places his values. We applaud Harmond for creating disappointment that contributes to his sense of family and community. But we criticize Roosevelt for his disloyalty when it is based on the profit motive or personal achievement, no matter how temporary. Harmond’s wife, Mame, is none too happy about his new decisions, and she blames her job loss on Harmond’s political face loss in the whole situation. Yet she promises to stand with her husband, through think and thin.

Radio Golf, thus, can serve as Wilson’s morality play, much as King Hedley served as Wilson’s Greek tragedy. Through it, Wilson is pointing us in a moral and ethical direction for our own future behavior. He is saying, quietly and gently, don’t be like Roosevelt, be like Harmond.

I hope in our discussion tomorrow to address the Radio part of the play, the use and utility of media, and the Golf part of the play, how games and sports serve as a surrogate for our lives.

More later.

p.s. The Radio Golf Play game.

How many times in Radio Golf do you feel like you are in a different August Wilson play?

Of course, every time Elder Barlow speaks you feel like you are in Gem of the Ocean. He even sounds like Aunt Ester, doesn’t he?

But you got to have the right quarter. American is a giant slot machine. You walk up and put in your coin and it spits it back at you. You look aat your coin. You think maybe it’s a Canadian quarter. It’s the only coin you got. If this coin ain’t no good then you out of luck. You look at it and sure enough it’s an American quarter. But it don’t spend for you.”  Act 1 Scene 2

And every time Sterling speaks  you are transported to Two Trains Running, expecting to hear from Risa and Hambone: “I’ve been waiting for this office to open a long time. I do construction work. I’m looking for a job.” Act 1 Scene 2

Except here, Sterling sounds like Floyd Barton’s seven ways speech in Seven Guitars:
I just wanted to know what it was like to have some money. Seem like everybody else had some. I said let me get some. So I robbed that bank.” Act 1 Scene 1Harmond says, in Act 1 Scene 1 “You mix them all up in a pot and stir it up and you got America. That’s what makes this country great.” Doesn’t that sound like something Toledo would say in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?

But when he says, “You teach the kids how to play golf and they have all the rules they need to win at life. You ever play golf?” he sounds like the anti-Troy Maxsom in Fences who hates sports for his son because it didn’t work out for him.

Old Joe says “You strut like you a rooster. You the King of the Barnyard. You strut through the barnyard during the day. At night you roost high up on the rafters. But when you get to the bottom of it a rooster ain’t nothing but a chicken.” Straight from Canewwell’s monologue in Seven Guitars.

Mame has lines at the end that sound just like something similar from Rose in Fences. “You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. . . . I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me.”Early in Act 1, Harmond says, “See those marks. It’s all hand tooled. That’s the only way you get that pattern detail like that. That tin ceiling’s worth some money.” Maybe a bit like the description of the piano in The Piano Lesson?

OK. Your turn to play.

some afterthoughts on King Hedley II (5.11.2019)

A few things we spoke about in our group discussion Friday are worth recapitulating here.

Did Ruby intentionally kill King at the end? The thought completely escaped my reading, but when we discussed it I had to give it some consideration. Ruby was about to begin a “new” life in her prospective marriage with Elmore. Elmore’s revelation to King that Leroy, not Hedley, was his father was a slight fly in the ointment that Ruby should have disclosed much earlier, but she chose not to and it really wasn’t a show stopper. Interestingly, King and Elmore in their final confrontation had both gone to the brink, to the edge of causing each other harm, but both backed away in a sort of truce of mutual forgiveness (“The Keys to the Mountain,” as Stool Pigeon proclaimed following the confrontation). When Elmore lowered his gun and the sound of discharging it into the ground reached Ruby, she screams out, “Elmore!,” her first concern, perhaps. Ruby fires her pistol and King shouts, “Mama!” It would be the only time in the play King acknowledges Ruby as his mother. But it would be too late. The fired bullet hits King in the throat, killing him.

The question remains, did she mean to do it? Mister calls King’s name three times and rushes over to him. Tonya says twice, “Call 911.” Elmore goes over to King to be by his side. Where is Ruby while all this is going on? Sitting on the ground singing Red Sails in the Sunset. Strange. Strange, indeed. The play ends and we are left to try to figure it out.

Tonya’s monologue on abortion is the the longest in the play. Abortion can be a touchy subject but the fact that it occupies so much real estate in the play forces us to face it squarely. Tonya’s defense is persuasive (to everybody except King) and equally compelling. Abortions are legal after Roe v. Wade, accessible, and relatively inexpensive. By all measures, it is a convenient option for Tonya for all the reasons she so eloquently states

But historical numbers and trends tell a slightly different story, one to which August Wilson calls our attention. In the aggregate, CDC reports 45,789,558 abortions performed in the U.S. between 1970 and 2015 (California, Maryland and New Hampshire do not report abortions to CDC, so this is by definition an undercount). In 2013, CDC reported 134,814 (37.3%) white, 128,682 (35.6%) black, and 68,761 (19.0) (Hispanic) abortions performed (same under-reporting applies, but overall percentages have been trending lower for whites and higher for blacks and Hispanics over the past few years).

Hedley explains at the end of Act 2 Scene 3 what, to him, is the significance of this pregnancy: “That’s why I need this baby, not ’cause I took something out of the world, but because I wanna put something in it. Let everybody know I was here. You got King Hedley II and then you got King Hedley III. Got rocky dirt. Got glass and bottless. But it still deserves to live. Even if you do have to call the undertaker. Even if somebody come along and pull it out by the root. It still deserve to live. It still deserves that chance.”

King and Elmore discuss the murders they committed as a sort of badge of honor. The first mention of honor and dignity, having it and keeping it, comes at the end of Act 1. King talks about being born with honor and dignity and Elmore says the way to keep your dignity is to make your own rules. Elmore says in Act 2 Scene 2, “See, when you pull that trigger you done something. You done something more than most other people. You know more about life ’cause you done been to that part of it. Most people don’t get over on that side . . . that part of life. They live on the safe side, But see . . . you done been God. Death is something he do.”

Finally, we didn’t give much attention to Elmore’s admission in Act 1 Scene 3 that he is dying slowly from some terminal ailment. He tells Ruby, “The doctor say this thing is killing me by degreees and ain’t but so many degrees left. I’m dying on my feet.” A long pause follows.