notes on Fences (4.11.2019)

So much has been written on Fences. And small wonder. Five Tonys, five Drama Desk awards, the Pulitzer prize in its 1987 premier, then ten Tonys and four Drama Desk Awards in its 2010 revival. Its film adaptation earned four Oscar nominations and two Golden Globes nominations. A huge success by all measures and so many wonderful reviews, and academic articles.

We are not professional critics. We just like a good production, a good story, a good evening spent at the theater. Fences scores on all three.

It was my good fortune to catch the James Earl Jones – led performance on Broadway in late 1987. I missed the revival in 2010, but caught the film adaptation a couple of years ago.

OK, let’s take the plunge.

Our discussions of the five plays so far cause me to focus in the first instance on family relationships. Here we have the Troy-Bono relationship, the father-son relationships, the Troy-Rose marriage dynamic, the Troy-Gabriel relationship. These relationships all involve Troy, the flawed Greek god of the play. These relationships are all worthy of note.

Troy and Bono go back to the time they shared in prison. They work together on the garbage truck. They are best friends and they are both comfortable in expressing their affection for one another. When Bono sees Troy headed for trouble with his “side chick,” Bono calls him out on it and reminds him of his obligation to his wife. Troy accepts the warning advice in good spirit (but does nothing about it). Bono is a friend to Troy until the end, arranging the pall bearers for Troy’s funeral, even though they become somewhat distant after Troy’s transgression with Alberta and the birth of Raynell.

There are two father-son relationships, both complex and complicated. Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, comes around on payday to hit his father up for loans. Troy was in prison during Lyon’s upbringing and may feel a twinge of guilt about not being around. Lyons styles himself a musician, but he is not all that good at it, at least not good enough to make a living. So he bums money from his now-present father.

Troy’s youngest son, Cory, is a high schooler who wants to go to college on a football scholarship. Of course, Troy discourages his efforts because Troy thinks he got a raw deal in baseball, failing because of his age to make the transition fron the Negro League to the Majors. Troy blames race discrimination and wants to shield Cory from a similar disappointment. Cory tells his father things have changed (and they have) and he wants to be able to take advantage of new opportunities. Cory also wants his dad to buy a television for the family on credit. Cory wants to move into the modern world while Troy lives with excuses.

Troy and Rose. Troy is unfaithful to his wife. He comes up with a tightly woven explanation but it doesn’t carry water and it doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks to high heaven. Rose is faithful to Troy, even after she realizes that he is not everything she had hoped he would be in a husband. She makes the best of a flawed situation.

Yet, many people sympathize with Troy in the end. “At least he stayed around and tried to do right,” folks say. “He wasn’t absent like Wilson’s own dad was,” they rationalize. “He did the best he could with limited means and a harsh external racist environment,” some might inveigh. We even transfer our sympathy to Denzel Washington at the Oscars ceremony as he gets passed over for Best Actor and for the film as Best Film because in our minds, Denzel has become Troy Maxson, the actor has become the character, and we see him there, flawed but somehow redeemable.

That, my friends is the power of great writing (and great acting). “It is in the nature of great acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman.”

OK. We’ll save the Troy-Gabriel relationship and all rest for our discussion.

Notes from Session #1:

Notes from Session #2:

Carole Horn’s notes are amazing!

some post-Seven Guitars thoughts (4.6.2019)

A couple of quick bookmarks to insert before moving on from Seven Guitars.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the body of literature, but August Wilson often makes a point to applaud literacy, reading and writing, and to decry, if not condemn, illiteracy. This may seem an almost obvious position for a playwright to take, and it may appear that literacy is an automatic “state” to assume in an industrialized democracy like the United States. But a quick look at the statistics tells a different story and highlights the importance Wilson places on literacy in character and plot development.

In Fences, for example, Troy cannot read or write. Could that be the real reason why he wasn’t able to transfer to white league professional baseball? We don’t know and Wilson doesn’t tell us. In Seven Guitars, Floyd is illiterate and it is the cause of many of his woes. He can’t get his daily compensation because he couldn’t read to know to keep a certain letter. He failed to negotiate a deal for royalties on his first hit because he didn’t understand the process or the business itself of recording. He is a veteran of WW2, but he didn’t acquire any transferable skills from his army hitch because he couldn’t read, he couldn’t acquire information from texts. His misfortunes, it may be argued, stem more from illiteracy than from poverty, or racial discrimination, or any other cause.

We get the impression from The Piano Lesson that Boy Willie was functionally illiterate. He could farm, but there was nothing he could do, by his own admission, in the city (where literacy skills are required). Boy Willie thought it absurd that Maretha could only play what was written on the paper. In Ma Rainey, Levee was illiterate, though he could read and write music. In the end, he kills the only band member who could read and write, Toledo, acting out a rage he couldn’t contain from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written. I’ll have to go back and review Joe Turner and Gem but I am almost certain there are some references to literacy.

OK, that’s bookmark #1. Here is bookmark #2.

I think August Wilson was an archivist par excellence. He gave a lot of credit to libraries, and specifically to public libraries, but his talent was in creating and storing records, records of human life in each 10 year period of the 20th century. Seven Guitars is full of lists of things pertinent to life in the 1940’s. In The Piano Lesson the piano is itself an archive, a storage of family events across the years. Ma Rainey introduces us to “the record” and the recording process, a store of information that is transportable and reproducible. On and on.

These are two “properties” of Wilson’s writing that I hope to develop more fully in the days and weeks ahead.

notes for Seven Guitars (4.3.2019)

Seven Guitars always leaves me with the strangest internal conversation, even though I’ve read it several times and I know what is going to happen at each decision point, AND I know Seven Guitars, while considered by many as Wilsion’s Greek tragedy play, is an important prequel, so everything that happens must happen. It is the “predetermination” that gets to me, that things are predetermined so wrongly. I ask myself during the reading, for example, why doesn’t Vera listen to Louise and ditch Floyd? Why didn’t Floyd listen to Canewell and insist on royalties for his first recording? Why doesn’t Hedley take his TB self to the sanatarium? Why doesn’t Hedley shut his trap about all the Ethiopia/Haiti stuff? Why does Floyd resort to crime? Doesn’t he know crime does not pay? Why is Ruby? Why IS Ruby? To be fair, these are all the types of questions I ask myself when watching Eastenders, but I watch it everyday!

Before I get too far afield, please pay sspecial attention to the dedication, to the Tony Kushner forward, and to the Note From the Playwright. All three are quite magical and add to the play’s context.

Also, upfront, the play list for Seven Guitars is probably one of the fullest and most complete of them all. So much music is cited/referred to/alluded to in the play.

By way of introduction, Wilson says in an interview that the thought for the play began as a story about four men working in a turpentine factory in the South. All musicians, they had a desire to go to Chicago to make a record. Wilson admitted that he knew nothing about the making of turpentine. Then he says that three women showed up, all in his imagination, of course, and asked for space. The setting for the play migrated from the turpentine factory, to Chicago, to his mother’s back yard in Pittsburgh when the women arrived. He also said in an interview that the seven guitars are the seven characters in the play.

A few things stand out for me in the play. There are so many lists of things. It almost reminds me of Walt Whitman. Act 1 Scene 1 lists all the different types of beer. Scene 2 has a list of ingredients for dinner. Scene 3 lists different brands of cigarettes that people smoke. Scene 4 lists the actual recipe for cooking greens. Scene 5 lists the blow by blow account of the Joe Louis fight and the different types of roosters. And skipping some, Act 2 Scene 3 lists Floyd’s seven ways to go. There is ritual in list making which is perhaps why Whitman found it a useful tool. And list making speaks to the oral tradition of religion in an almost mystical way.

A few more things stand out. The funeral scenes at the beginning and end serve as bookends for the plot development in the middle, almost a series of flashbacks. Vera says twice about the angels in Scene 1 “They come down from the sky.” Only Vera, Canewell and Hedley saw the angels. Floyd was a WWII veteran and claimed a knowledge of guns and weapons although most black WWII veterans didn’t see any combat action. Vera makes a reference to a dress having two different kinds of blue, perhaps a metaphor. Canewell would have been a preacher but the devil’s call was to loud (Canewell and Ruby show up in a later play, as does Ruby’s son and Red Carter’s son). The dance scene after the fight reminds me of the Juba in Joe Turner and the table prison song scene in The Piano Lesson. Hedley killing Floyd with a machete is certainly reminiscent of his ritual killing of chickens in the yard, but it also reminds one of Levee’s knife murder of Toledo and Herald Loomis’s self-mutilation with a knife.

There will be more later after our Friday discussion.

Notes from Session #2:

Carloe’s notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

post-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.30.2019)

An interesting discussion Friday warrants this additional blog post.

There were a few comments on the relationship and relationship dynamics between Berniece and Boy Willie that really caught my attention, perspectives I had not considered previously. It was pointed out that Boy Willie and Berniece’s mother was pretty much a dysfunctional parent after the death of her husband and there are clues to this in the text. She spent all her time ploishing that piano, rubbing it until her hands bled, then rubbing that blood into the piano wood. What normal person does that?

“Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in . . . mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it. Every day the God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it.”

OK. Not normal. It’s not a tremendous leap in logic, then, to hypothesize that the oldest child, Berniece, took on the “mother” role for a younger Boy Willie. And it emerges in the play. Whenever Boy Willie criticizes Berniece’s parenting skills, he speaks with an emotionalism that suggests he had personaly been on the other side of those bad parenting skills. When Berniece tells Maretha “If you was a boy I wouldn’t be going through this,” Boy Willie has a very strong negative reaction. And when Berniece tells Boy Willie, in front of Maretha, “You right at the bottom with the rest of us,” Boy Willie recoils with “If you believe that’s where you at you gonna act that way. If you act that way then that’s where you gonna be. It’s as simple as that.” And Boy Willie goes on and on for two pages, acting out something that is clearly from his boyhood when Berniece was his loco parenti.

The brother-sister relationship between Berniece and Boy Willie was/is “overlain” by the mother-son relationship forced by the emotional absence of the actual mother figure in the family and both of them resent each other because of it. But as was mentioned in our Friday discussion, while there are times when Boy Willie seems almost affectionate towards his sister, in speech patterns and in general feelings expressed, there is seldom an exchange in which Berniece shows some affection for Boy Willie, that is, until the end of the play.

postscript. Berniece’s three years of grieving over her husband’s death may be a learned behavior, mimicking her own mother’s prolonged grieving over the death of her father. If so, it is not a good omen for the future.

OK. I’m not going to beat this horse to death. Each person in the group brings a wealth of background experience to our discussion. It is beautiful and I am so grateful to be a part of these discussions with you all each week.

pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

I enjoy slightly retelling the stories in these August Wilson plays. It somehow helps me understand them better. My favorite thing is renaming each play. For example, I renamed Gem of the Ocean “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” The rename for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is “The Return of Deacon Herald Loomis,” though it could also named “Bynum Walker’s Fulfillment. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was easy, “It’s All About Levee,” though “August Wilson on Playwriting and Play Production” is running a tight second and may win the race overall. The renaming of this week’s play, The Piano Lesson, is a bit complex, but I think I have figured it out: “Sutter’s Ghost in the Archive.” Let me explain.

conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Altogether, this represents Borgesian magical realism at its finest, one of Wilson’s top influences. I mentioned magical realism in an earlier post, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” It serves as motive force for internally pushing the plot forward, but it also tells its own story.

It’s 5:55 and I need to get ready for a 6:55 departure to work. Tonight I’ll finish with the explanation of “The Archive.”

OK. The Archive. One normally thinks of archives in terms of written records, and normally, these days though it hasn’t always been, on paper. Let me change your thinking. The piano is a worthy museum piece, with the carvings and all, an artifact, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as an archive. But this piano has carvings that represent several generations fo the Charles family, births, marriages, transactions, deaths, etc. Those representations qualify it to be an archive itself, the images mere surrogates of actual events in the lives of actual people. Doaker and Wining Boy tell Boy Charles, “Bernice is not going to sell that piano,” because they know she recognizes the power of the record, of the representation.

I wrote in an earlier set of notes, “The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. It’s the Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the archive of the family history through the generations.

“Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and a family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

Here is a link to the YouTube playlist:

Notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

Supplementary notes that Carole Horn and I collaborated on in the 2nd session:

Some pre-class notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (3.21.2019)

There are two plays. There is the superficial plot of the play – a Ma Rainey recording session that ends in the production of a record by the star and a a tragic act committed among the band players. And there are several meta-plays that the playwright and all the characters both generate and represent between the lines. Let’s talk about the first, then the second.

Deep inside Act 1, after meeting all the band members and the staff of the recording company and learning through their “locker room talk” what makes them tick as individuals, Ma finally arrives with her girlfriend and her stuttering nephew and a police officer in tow. There’s been a traffic altercation that gets fixed with a small side payment.

The recording session, already behind schedule, gets further delayed as Ma (1) insists on getting a soft drink from outside the studio, and (2) insists that the band will do multiple takes until her stuttering nephew can get the voice introduction to her hit song right. Once the recording session is complete, or so we think, the recording crew discovers that a microphone was disconnected. So they have to do it one more time. Once completed, Ma refuses to sign the release, though after a short period of protestation, she signs and departs. And the fun begins. Levee (Levi, Louis Armstrong) the trumpet player, fired by Ma for being a hot shot (and for making overtures to Ma’s girlfriend), has been working a side deal with the record producer to produce his own band. The producer at length rejects Levee’s recording proposal, but offers him $5 for the score and “his troubles.” Levee feels dejected and disappointed and carries those feelings back to the band room, whereupon, he gets involved in a final altercation with Toledo, the piano player, resulting in what appears to be Toledo’s death by stabbing. As the curtain falls the sound of Levee’s trumpet is heard.

Time for a network break.

OK. An alternate perspective. Or several.

The “real” play is a series of representations. There is the waiting game that Professor Shannon writes about. Waiting for Ma to show up late. Waiting for the policeman to get his bribe. Waiting for Ma to get her Coke. The band members waiting for their alcohol and marijuana high to kick in. Waiting for Sylvester, the stutter to get his part right and without repetitions. Waiting for Levee to make his move on Dussie. Waiting for the microphone to get fixed so they can do one more take. Waiting for Slow Drag to finish his card trick. Waiting for Ma to sign the release. Waiting for Toledo to die. Professor Shannon writes about “The Long Wait” in Ma Rainey, linking it to African Americans’ long wait for freedom.

Professor Nadel writes about the metaphor of making the record, that is to say, writing the history. Wilson has written words to the effect that the blues contains history, philosophy, psychology and cosmology. But what distinguishes the performed blues of Ma with her fans on the road from the mechanically reproduced blues distributed by the recording company? If you’ve ever been to a live concert or a blues club the size of a large living room, you know the answer to that question.

Finally (or perhaps not but this blog post can’t go on forever!), remember, they (the New York/Broadway establishment) offered Wilson $25,000 for this play, but with no artistic direction on his part. They wanted to make it into a musical. In the end, Wilson rejected their offer (even though he was only making $80 a week as a short order cook) and forged the relationship with Lloyd Richards and the Yale Rep that preserved his artistic freedom.

In a meta sense (I propose that poets and playwrights tell three stories: the autobiographic (about their lives); the ethnographic (about their immediate environments); and the meta-poetic (about their experience with the process of writing itself), I hear August Wilson’s voice talking about writing and producing plays throughout this play. Stretch your imagination. In the character of the intellectual, Toledo (“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.” And “Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.” And “That’s what you call an African conceptualization. That’s when you name the gods or call on the ancestors to achieve whatever your desires are.”) In the character of the band leader, Cutler (“We ain’t talking about the paper. We talking about you understanding where you fit in when you around here. You just play what I say.” and ” Levee’s confused about who the boss is. He don’t know Ma’s the boss.” And “You plays the piece. . . Whatever they want! Ma says what to play! Not you! You ain’t here to be doing no creating.”)

And, yes, in the character of Ma, the diva herself (“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” And, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley. I done made this company more money from my records than all the other recording artisits the got put together. And they want to balk about how much this session is costing them.”)

Although I haven’t mentioned it much here, the play is in large part Levee’s biopic. He is the character whose development we see the most of, from his childhood to his tragic act at the end of the play. As the Louis Armstrong surrogate, Levee heralds the new music, the modern blues, and modernism itself. As the only reader and writer of music in the ensemble, his final act brings to an end the life of the only literate member of the band, the only one who has an appreciation for history and culture and, in turn, the neoclassical approach. Rest assured that Levee gets a short sentence, and returns to music making (history writing) on his own terms, eclipsing Ma and all the others of his cohort, in Act 3 of this play.

Here are Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes from session #1:

Here are Ma Rainey notes from session #2:

Some discussion points for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

First session notes:

Second session notes:

Pre-class notes. First, I’d like to draw everybody’s attention to the scenesetter at the beginning, called “The Play.” Gem of the Ocean began with a short prologue that set the stage for the play. Joe Turner opens with a short essay that constructs a framework for an era in time. Gem’s opening prepares us to look backward for guidance, for a message, while postponing the present to a time in the future (Tuesday). Joe Turner’s opening analyses the present and sets forth future options. If you get the chance, please compare the two for discussion.

We learn some things in Scene 1. Seth is a landlord and an owner, the son of free blacks, and a craftsman. He has little regard for Bynum’s “heebie-jeebie stuff,” i.e., African/southern spiritual traditions. He reminds me a bit of Caesar Wilks, he has little patience with what he considers backwardness.

Bynum, based on his description in the play notes, is essentially a Stoic. He is not bothered by outward appearances of things. He tends to his garden and completes his daily rituals centered in nature, whose practice, we later learn, he has inherited from his father. The first interaction in the play is between Bynum and Seth, the traditional vs. the proto-modern, moderated by Bertha, Seth’s wife, who straddles both worlds.

Selig, introduced in Gem of the Ocean as a trader, gets identified racially in Scene 1. We assumed his race in Gem from his name and mannerisms – now we know for certain. Selig buys manufactured housewares from Seth wholesale, then peddles them retail to the public. From his retail work, door to door, Selig knows where people are located and becomes known as a People Finder. Bynum is looking for a shiny man and solicits Selig’s assistance. From their dialogue, we learn the details of Bynum’s vision.

We meet ne’er-do-well Jeremy. We meet Loomis and Zonia and Mattie and Reuben. Jeremy is looking for love, Mattie is looking for lost love, Loomis is looking for Martha, his wife and Zonia, her mother. Selig, the People Finder is ready to help. That’s a lot of action for one scene, but it sets the framework for the rest of the play.

There are some interesting repetitive occurrences in the play and between Joe Turner and Gem. Seth says seven times words to the effect that something is not right about Loomis. Seven times! Jeremy hangs out with Roper Lee, and Citizen Barlow hung out with a Roper Lee earlier in Gem. Loomis makes a reference to tongues on fire when he comes in during the Juba and Citizen Barlow sees people with tongues on fire in the City of Bones.

While Loomis appears to be the star of the ensemble, it is Bynum who, in discovering his Shiny Man (Loomis), achieves transcendence and completion. At best, then, Loomis is Best Supporting Actor to Bynum’s Best Actor, in my estimation.

I may add to this before Friday. And I’ll post post-class notes after class.

More discussion points – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

  1. Largest ensemble cast of any Wilson play. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper
  2. Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket
  3. Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles (not so sure about this anymore. In fact, the reverse. Let’s discuss.)
  4. Themes that recur:
  • Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil.
  • Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense of agency.
  • The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen.
  • Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
  • Bynum’s spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes.

       5. Play Structure

  • Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
  • Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
  • Climax: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
  • Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
  • Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
  • Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.