Post-session notes on Fences 10.25.2021

Parting notes on Fences.

Consolidated notes on Fences (Boy, these consolidated notes are getting longer and longer with each session!): https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/fieldnotes-on-fences

Post session #6 notes.

First, pertinent excerpts from the two day intro course (now included in the consolidated notes):

OK, Fences. Troy Maxson, our illustrious anti-hero, learns baseball in prison after killing a man in a robbery gone bad. He becomes a big star in the Negro Baseball league. But by the time the Major League integrates and admits black players, Troy is in his 40’s and considered to be past his prime. In his bitterness about lost opportunities, he attempts to pass on to his son a lesson about the false promise of sports.

Meanwhile, Troy takes on a side chick, Alberta, who, seeking refuge from his disappointments, he impregnates. Troy has some issues.

But Troy’s greatest obstacle to individual progress, in my opinion (and I think it is an opinion that Wilson shared and led me to by following the bread crumbs), is his functional illiteracy. Try cannot read or write. Nor does he appear to be doing anything about it. He makes mistakes in judgement and in decisions affecting his family and his work because of it. It is the thing I dislike the most about the Troy character.

Troy and Rose act out the universal theme of Beauty and the Beast. Pretty girl gets involved with boy who is in some way disfigured. She sticks with him in the faith that, deep inside and in the end, he is really a handsome prince. She makes all sorts of accommodations to get it to work out. Except, in a clever twist of the ancient theme that only an August Wilson influenced by a Jorge Luis Borges could create, Troy doesn’t become a handsome prince in the end. He just becomes an older Troy, who, coincidentally, is named for an ancient city in Turkey where a different type of trickery takes place. Again, this reversal of the Beauty and the Beast theme is what we get when we cross the Blues with Borgesian magical realism. Wilson is not the original Trickster, but he does manage to keep us in our seats until the final curtain call and the end of the story.

Speaking of the end of the story, Wilson doesn’t let us see Troy’s actual death. We only see the anticipation of the funeral and how it serves as a focal point for family re-unification. Fences has two unseen deaths in it, and more than one death is something uncommon for Wilson’s plays. Troy dies, and also, unseen, his girlfriend on the side, Alberta, who we never actually meet or hear from in the final, published version of the play, dies in childbirth.

But there is one more trick in the plot. This one never makes it to the public stage. In the play’s first draft, Troy gets into an argument with his son Cory, tempers flare, Cory grabs a baseball bat (poetic perhaps), and swings it at his father’s head. Troy, surprised, catches the bat, pulls out a pistol, points it at Cory, and cocks back the hammer. Cory leaves the family home that day and doesn’t return until his father’s funeral, we are led to conclude.

But that particular part of the play doesn’t survive rehearsals. Why not? What happens?

About the same time, but in real life, Marvin Gaye, of Motown fame, gets into an argument with his father, Rev. Gaye, about his unholy lifestyle in the entertainment world. Rev. Gaye pulls out a gun and fires it, fatally wounding his son, who dies instantly. True story.

Wilson and his production crew promptly decide the gun thing is too violent and too reminiscent of the death of popular singer Marvin Gaye. They re-write the play, omitting that particular dramatization, before the stage production. It never sees the light of day.

More on the Romare Bearden influence on Wilson plays here: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/august-wilson-american-century-cycle-f1d

Second, some concluding notes. As I mentioned, I am also doing the 100 Days of Dante readings and much of it spills over into my weekly August Wilson readings. Much like Dante whose thinking and outlook was evolving as he wrote The Divine Comedy, I suspect Wilson evolved as a playwright during the production of his plays (and his thinking) in the American Century Cycle. He even attests to his continuing evolution in interviews. In the plays to follow, the seven plays that remain in the Cycle, I want to focus on Wilson’s development.

Moreover, I hope to focus on Wilson’s actual presence in his plays, both Wilson the pilgrim and wayfarer and Wilson the poet and recorder. Dante wrote words to the effect that there are four levels of analysis, four layers, if you will, of interpretation of artistic work. There is the literal (historical), the moral/ethical (tropological), the allegorical (typological), and the spiritual or mystical (anagogical). I hope to apply this analytical method, lightly perhaps, to Wilson’s plays as we proceed.

Notes on reading Fences (10/21/2021)

I’ll begin by saying I went through the same emotional turmoil in Act 2 that I always experience, even though I’ve read the play at least nine times and know the outcome. My wife says I’m too sympathetic to/with Troy, but it does grieve me when Cory tries to walk past his father and won’t even say excuse me. Then when he says “You don’t count around here anymore,” it really breaks me up. He is still the primary breadwinner, he still brings his check home to Rose. How about a little bit of respect?

We begin with a brief Synopsis. Very brief.

Troy Maxson, our protagonist, works on a garbage truck. It is tough work. He migrated north, lived a life of crime, was imprisoned where he learned baseball, upon his release enjoyed some success in the Negro baseball league. He never learned to read or write. He has a best friend, Bono, who he met while incarcerated, and who works with him on the garbage truck. Troy was already past his prime when the major league integrated. He is bitter he never got a chance to play. He has a wife, Rose, and a son, Cory, who fashions himself a great athlete. He has a son by a prior relationship, Lyons, who is a musician who can’t find or keep a job. And he has a brother, Gabriel, who was injured in World War II and now has special needs.

Troy discourages Cory from following athletic pursuits, even though Cory thinks it may be his ticket to college. This father-son conflict is central to the main plot.

Meanwhile, somewhat discouraged by his lack of progress in life in general, Troy forms an adulterous relationship with Alberta, who becomes pregnant with their child. When Troy takes the news of this pregnancy to Rose, she is incensed, of course. Alberta dies in childbirth and Troy brings the baby home. Rose accepts to raise the child, but consigns Troy permanently to the doghouse while she gets increasingly involved in church activities. Troy and Cory have a final fallout and Troy puts Cory out of the house. Cory ends up joining the military instead of going to college. 

Troy retires but in his golden years he finds himself abandoned by Rose, his wife, by Bono, his best friend, and by Cory, his son. He even loses his sense of taste. Troy dies in his 60’s. Lyons is released from prison to attend the funeral, and Gabriel comes home from the hospital/institution where he has been committed. Bono organizes the pallbearers, and Cory comes home from the Marines and meets a much older Raynell, his new sister. The family is reunited.

A few notes about the beginning and end of the play, as captured from original sources in Professor Shannon’s excellent book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.

The beginning. Fences was Wilson’s third play in this series. At its writing he had neither a plan nor an intention to write ten plays, one for each decade in the 20th century. The first effort, Jitney, was about a bunch of guys operating an illegal cab service in 1970’s Pittsburgh. The second play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was about musicians recording in a studio in 1920’s Chicago. Theater professionals convinced Wilson to make his third play “more commercial and conventional,” more accessible to theater-goers. Wilson decided a play about a nuclear family with a strong central protagonist would fit the bill. So he wrote a play about Troy Maxson and his nuclear family in 1950’s Pittsburgh.

The end. Broadway producers and investors responsible for bringing the play to Broadway sought to change the end of the play to minimize if not delete the role of Gabriel, who blew his horn to open Heaven’s gates for Troy. They referred to the play’s end as “silly,” and cited negative reviews on regional performances in New Haven, Chicago, and San Francisco. Broadway producer Carol Shorestein led the charge to change the play,  and organized a series of meetings to change the play’s end that did not include Wilson’s input or approval. Shorestein fired the director, Lloyd Richards, when he would not agree to her proposed changes, but she was not able to hire a new director without Wilson’s approval, which was not forthcoming. In the end, the play opened on Broadway to rave reviews, with the original ending intact.

Gabriel is the first “challenged” character in Wilson’s American Century Cycle of plays, but he won’t be the last. We should keep a list and discuss at some appropriate point.

Now some notes from my reading.

1. I suspect that Troy’s indiscretion was no surprise. To anybody. Bono certainly knew. I suspect Cory knew as early as Act 1 Scene 3 when he makes a reference, in conversation with his mother, about his father not working on the fence and instead going down to “Taylors'” to watch television. He confirms it later when he asks his father to buy a TV and Troy refuses. Also, in the same Scene 3, Troy returns home and Rose asks him the score of the game. Rose knew Troy wasn’t slipping out to no game. He was creeping! So, why the big surprise when Troy finally tells Rose?  Now, Troy’s real sin was his hypocrisy, not his whoring around. He holds Cory to a much higher standard when he accuses Cory of lying to him about football and the A&P store. And he acts on his hypocrisy when he goes behind Cory’s back and tells the coach Cory won’t be playing football, talking about Cory did it to himself when he lied, all the while Troy is lying about laying up with Ms. Alberta, a much more consequential lie. What would Dante say? Troy’s fraudulent behavior (with respect to Cory and Rose) is a greater sin than his incontinent behavior.

2. There are some interesting appearances (and reappearances) by people in Fences. From the top, we have Mr. Rand, who also appears in Jitney as the mean landlord. Pearl Brown, who hit the number for a dollar, was Floyd’s girlfriend in Seven Guitars. Pope, who bought a restaurant with his numbers winnings, also shows up earlier in Seven Guitars and later in Two Trains Running. Joe Canewell, whose daughter was Troy’s love interest as a teenager, appear again in Seven Guitars and in its sequel, King Hedley II, with a new name, Stool Pigeon. Both Troy and Booster in Jitney actually grew up while incarcerated for murder – so rehabilitation works. Troy’s monologue with Rose in Act 2 (p. 66) about his failures is reminiscent of Floyd’s seven ways in Seven Guitars. Troy tells Cory “You are just another nigger on the street.” Becker says the same thing to Booster. at the end of Troy’s final scene alive, he has lost his sense of taste. Same thing happened to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. And finally, Raynell is obsessed with her garden, just as Hedley was obsessed with his garden. 

One final thought, among the many for discussion. We know Fences is highly autobiographical for Wilson, but in interesting ways. Wilson’s biological father, Frederick Kittel, who was white, abandoned the black family. Some scholars say Kittel had a white family also in Pittsburgh. Troy never does abandon his family, and in fact, augments it, even though the accepted social pronouncement on the black family includes the absentee father. Troy’s stepfather, though, is a different story. David Bedford, who marries Daisy Wilson Kittel following the death of her first husband, had an interesting background as a star football player who wanted to become a physician in the 30’s, but wasn’t able to find money for college. He robs a store to acquire money for college, and in the process kills the storekeeper, for which he is incarcerated for over twenty years. After serving his sentence, Bedford returned to the Hill District, where the only employment open to him was on a garbage truck. Here it gets interesting. Bedford encouraged Wilson to play sports and be involved in athletics. Unlike Troy, when Wilson didn’t exactly show interest in sports, Bedford strongly expressed his disappointment.

Knowing this strong auto-biographical element in the play, we should look for other clues, direct or inverted, to help us see what Wilson is ACTUALLY telling us in this play.

There is a lot more to discuss. Can’t wait for Sunday!

Notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 10/17/2021

Session #6

I began with the boxed edition book, but it is so marked up with various colors of ballpoint point pens and pencils that I decided on reading a fresh, unmarked copy for new insights, perhaps.

Also, I haven’t yet reviewed my prior session notes, so I’m not sure what I may be duplicating. I’ll check them out when I’m done here.

The beginning, “The Play” shows Wilson at his best poet self. Somewhere I converted the whole thing to stanzas. It is epic poetry that Homer or any of those guys would find impressive. I’ll see if I can find it later. Please read “The Play” closely, slowly.

In the opening scene, I was struck by Sturdyvant’s staccato speech pattern. It reminded me, in fact, of haiku.

The three band members are introduced in Wilson’s stage directions, as a sort of pyramid, with Cutler, the band leader and most sensible, whose playing is solid and unembellished, at the top. Slow Drag, at the pyramid base, is most bored by life and lacks energy. Yet, African rhythms are his foundation. Toledo, the other end of the pyramid base, is named for a famous city in Andalusia that represents Spain’s Golden Age of tolerance across the three Abrahamic faiths. Toledo is the piano player who acknowledges that the piano’s “limitations are an extension of himself.” He is the only reader in the group, the only one who can extract meaning from written texts. They are all the same age, and there are suggestions they are all “buzzed out” on marijuana and booze throughout the play. There is intentionally no room for Levee in that pyramid, which is why Wilson has him show up much later.

Unrelatedly, perhaps, there is an unwritten rule in a Navy wardroom that when you arrive, you should remain silent for three minutes before joining the conversation, to get the lay of the land, so to speak. This is not a wardroom, it’s a band room, but I apply the same unwritten rule because of my experience. Levee breaks that rule. Wilson calls him flamboyant with a rakish (dissolute, lewd, debauched) temper who “plays wrong notes frequently” and confuses his skill with his talent.

It also helps to know, in the decoding, that Levee represents, in archetype, Louis Armstrong, referred to as “the master of modernism and creator of his own song style.” We’ll come back to that later.

One study group member cited the similarity of Levee to the Hebrew Levi. I had to look it up. 3rd son of Jacob and Leah. Great-grandfather of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Founder of the Tribe of Levi (Levites). Then it gets interesting. Levai, a Hungarian Jewish surname derived from Levi, gets modified to evade Hitler persecution. And where was Wilson’s absentee father from? Frederick (Fritz) Kittel, who claimed to be German, would have actually been an Austro-Hungarian citizen when he and his three brothers immigrated to the U.S. in 1915. A stretch. Perhaps. Forward magazine published an interesting article on Wilson’s Jewish “history.” https://forward.com/culture/356896/the-secret-jewish-history-of-fences-author-august-wilson/

We heard all about levees during Katrina. “An embankment on the margin of a river, to confine it within its natural channel: as, the levees of the Mississippi.” During Katrina, the levees failed resulting in severe flooding of 80% of New Orleans, 95% of St. Bernard’s Parish. That particular levee was the last line of defense against catastrophic flooding. Our Levee provides no such embankment protection, unless, perhaps, his physical self is our last defense against the severe emotional trauma that rages in his soul.

Coffee pause.

Attaching a study guide. We may consider some of the questions at the end during our Sunday chat.

Also attaching an article from The New Republic, August Wilson’s Uncompromising Vision for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

One more point to raise. No play in the Cycle, with the possible exception of Seven Guitars, has more blues infused throughout it. The opening epigram cites lines from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Sunshine Special” (on the playlist). Ma Rainey’s “Hear Me Talking to You” is memorialized in its entirety in Act 1 Scene 1 (on the playlist). Jelly Roll Morton’s “Hello Central Give Me Doctor Jazz” is also in the first act, along with Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way.” All on the playlist. And that’s just the first act. In the second act, there are the complete lyrics to “Black Bottom,” and a reprieve of “Hear Me Talking to You,” both Ma Rainey hits.

Finally, here’s a list of Toledo quotables:

“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.”

“I know what you talking about, but you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“You gonna fit two propositions on the same track . . . run them into each other, and because they crash you gonna say it’s the same train.”  (Sounds Aristotelian!)

“Everybody got style. Style ain’t nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end.”

“Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.”

“Levee you worse than ignorant. You ignorant without a premise.”

“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.”

“No eye for taking an abstract and fixing it to a specific.”

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he look to white folks for approval . . .then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about.”

“That’s the trouble with colored folks . . . always wanna have a good time. Good times get more niggers killed than God got ways to count.”

“Some folks go arm in arm with the devil, shoulder to shoulder, and talk to him all the time.”

“The colored man is the leftovers. Now, what’s the colored man gonna do with himself? That’s what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers.”

And there’s more. I’ll refer you to the consolidated session notes here.

Post session notes. 10/17/2021

A few topics came up in our discussion today that were/are worthy of memorializing. I couldn’t resist going directly to the website of the Little Brothers of the Elderly, the nonprofit that employed August Wilson as a short-order cook during the writing of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I had never seen the Louis Armstrong documentary, Satchmo, until it was mentioned today in our discussion. I found it on YouTube and will be watching it tonight. Eight parts, a bit of 10 minutes each. An added bonus is seeing a baby-faced Wynton Marsalis in the documentary, who I sneaked off my boat on a duty night to witness perform to a small venue at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, back in 1982. Also helps to further contextualize Levee’s character in the play. (Side note, check out Billie Holiday in segment 5 of 8. Oh, and the short clip with a young Dizzy Gillespie is to die for!))

I had also never heard factually that they eliminated cocaine from the Coca-Cola recipe in 1929, two years after this play we set. So in addition to the band members passing around booze and marijuana, We have Ma Rainey making a big deal about getting her cocaine dosage via Coca-Cola. As a side note, my brother-in-law in Guinea-Bissau says he had relatives in then Portuguese Guinea who provided cola nut shipments to the Coca-Cola folks in Atlanta.

The idea that both Ma Rainey and Levee served as “levees” was a thought that resonated with me, Ma Rainey holding back the tide of commercialized distribution of her music while simultaneously breaking down the walls of polite expectations of blues diva sexuality at the time. Meanwhile, Levee provided his own type of embankment, containing within his person as long as he was able the severe traumatization he experienced in his youth.

There is a lot to be said for splitting off August Wilson the pilgrim, on his own very unique development path, from August Wilson the poet taking us on a tour of the world he envisioned and imagined. See my notes from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone for a fuller discussion of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the idea, informed by Victor Frankl, that self-actualization is not the top of the pyramid at all. It turns out that self-transcendence trumps self-actualization any day of the week and twice on Sundays, as explicitly stated in Maslow’s late works. The most recent scholarship points out the Blackfoot roots underpinning Maslow’s work and how Maslow got it wrong, for the most part. We can feel Wilson nudging us in that direction, especially in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. A bit of foreshadowing of my own, no doubt.

A final word. We have much to learn from what I call the “dual-directional influence” of August Wilson with regard to his forerunners and successors in the world of drama composition and production. Patrick Maley makes the case that we have a better understanding of Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller after reading August Wilson than before and that each one informs and amplifies the other. The same can be said of many of Wilson’s contemporaries in the arts, including Toni Morrison and others. We will begin next Sunday with a look at many of August Wilson’s influences.

See consolidated notes from all prior sessions here: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/fieldnotes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom

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Fall 2021 – Email update #12

I began with the boxed edition book, but it is so marked up with various colors of ballpoint point pens and pencils that I decided on reading a fresh, unmarked copy for new insights, perhaps.

Also, I haven’t yet reviewed my prior session notes, so I’m not sure what I may be duplicating. I’ll check them out when I’m done here.

The beginning, “The Play” shows Wilson at his best poet self. Somewhere I converted the whole thing to stanzas. It is epic poetry that Homer or any of those guys would find impressive. I’ll see if I can find it later. Please read “The Play” closely, slowly.

In the opening scene, I was struck by Sturdyvant’s staccato speech pattern. It reminded me, in fact, of haiku.

The three band members are introduced in Wilson’s stage directions, as a sort of pyramid, with Cutler, the band leader and most sensible, whose playing is solid and unembellished, at the top. Slow Drag, at the pyramid base, is most bored by life and lacks energy. Yet, African rhythms are his foundation. Toledo, named for a famous city in Andalusia that represents Spain’s Golden Age of tolerance across the three Abrahamic faiths, is the piano player who acknowledges that the piano’s “limitations are an extension of himself.” He is the only reader in the group, the only one who can extract meaning from written texts. They are all the same age, and there are suggestions they are all “buzzed out” on marijuana and booze throughout the play. There is intentionally no room for Levee in that pyramid, which is why Wilson has him show up much later.

Unrelatedly, perhaps, there is an unwritten rule in a Navy wardroom that when you arrive, you should remain silent for three minutes before joining the conversation, to get the lay of the land, so to speak. This is not a wardroom, it’s a band room, but I apply the same unwritten rule because of my experience. Levee breaks that rule. Wilson calls him flamboyant with a rakish (dissolute, lewd, debauched) temper who “plays wrong notes frequently” and confuses his skill with his talent.

It also helps to know, in the decoding, that Levee represents, in archetype, Louis Armstrong, referred to as “the master of modernism and creator of his own song style.” We’ll come back to that later.

One study group member cited the similarity of Levee to the Hebrew Levi. I had to look it up. 3rd son of Jacob and Leah. Check. Great-grandfather of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Check. Founder of the Tribe of Levi (Levites). Check. Then it gets interesting. Levai, Hungarian Jewish surname derived from Levi, modified to evade Hitler persecution. And where was Wilson’s absentee father from? Frederick (Fritz) Kittel, who claimed to be German, would have actually been an Austro-Hungarian citizen when he and his three brothers immigrated to the U.S. in 1915. A stretch. Perhaps. Forward magazine published an interesting article on Wilson’s Jewish “history.” https://forward.com/culture/356896/the-secret-jewish-history-of-fences-author-august-wilson/

We heard all about levees during Katrina. “An embankment on the margin of a river, to confine it within its natural channel: as, the levees of the Mississippi.” During Katrina, the levees failed resulting in severe flooding of 80% of New Orleans, 95% of St. Bernard’s Parish. That particular levee was the last line of defense against catastrophic flooding. Our Levee provides no such embankment, unless, perhaps, his physical self is our last defense against the severe emotional trauma that rages in his soul.

Attaching a study guide. We may consider some of the questions at  the end during our Sunday chat.

Also attaching an article from The New Republic, August Wilson’s Uncompromising Vision for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

One more point to raise. No play in the Cycle, with the possible exception of Seven Guitars, has more blues infused throughout it. The opening epigram cites lines from Blind Lemon Jefferson’s “Sunshine Special” (on the playlist). Ma Rainey’s “Hear Me Talking to You” is memorialized in its entirety in Act 1 Scene 1 (on the playlist). Jelly Roll Morton’s “Hello Central Give Me Doctor Jazz” is also in the first act, along with Blind Willie Johnson’s “If I Had My Way.” All on the playlist. And that’s just the first act. In the second act, there are the complete lyrics to “Black Bottom,” and a reprieve to “Hear Me Talking to You,” both Ma Rainey hits.

Finally, here’s a list of Toledo quotables:

“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.”

“I know what you talking about, but you don’t know what I’m talking about.”

“You gonna fit two propositions on the same track . . . run them into each other, and because they crash you gonna say it’s the same train.”  (Sounds Aristotelian!)

“Everybody got style. Style ain’t nothing but keeping the same idea from beginning to end.”

“Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.”

“Levee you worse than ignorant. You ignorant without a premise.”

“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.”

“No eye for taking an abstract and fixing it to a specific.”

“As long as the colored man look to white folks to put the crown on what he say . . . as long as he look to white folks for approval . . .then he ain’t never gonna find out who he is and what he’s about.”

“That’s the trouble with colored folks . . . always wanna have a good time. Good times get more niggers killed than God got ways to count.”

“Some folks go arm in arm with the devil, shoulder to shoulder, and talk to him all the time.”

“The colored man is the leftovers. Now, what’s the colored man gonna do with himself? That’s what we waiting to find out. But first we gotta know we the leftovers.”

And there’s more. I’ll refer you to the consolidated session notes here: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/fieldnotes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom. There you will also find a stanza version of the opening to “The Play” and my own sonnet inspired by the play.

Fall 2021 – Email update #11

Monday greetings, all. Pushing out at least two emails today. One to recapitulate and close out Jitney and one to open Ma Rainey.

(Attaching the chat text. Still figuring out how to upload the video. Google drive link to follow.)
I think our first session went well and I’d love to get your feedback.  Big thanks to everyone for their contributions to the discussion. I’ll be adding post discussion notes to the blog asap.

The insights from the Pittsburgh folks were so revealing. And everybody’s personal reflections added so much spice and flavor to the conversation (if you cook, you know spice and flavor are different things). The insight, for example, that families across the country, as well as successive generations, were affected by urban renewal provides an excellent launchpad for other plays in the Cycle as well as illuminating our own personal experiences. Hilda Doolittle said of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks words to the effect that it was not just a painting, it was a window into Da Vinci’s mind. We can similarly say that Jitney is not just a play, but a window. Moreover, it is a mirror, not matter what our ethnic background. We can see ourselves in the play at some level, if only a reflection of a reflection. You gotta check out Madonna of the Rocks. See my notes from Session #5.

At the expense of sounding like I’m playing favorites (because I really am not), I had to go back and read Robin’s notes in the chat. There’s a lot of context there. I am reminded of that part in one of the Superman movies where Superman goes up to the North Pole (or maybe it’s the South Pole) where the archives from his original planet Krypton are kept in crystals (lots of metaphor there!) inside a mountain cave. He breaks off a crystal and hears the voice of his father, Jo-El, telling him the history of his people and his family. Reading an August Wilson play is like breaking off a crystal and hearing a familiar voice tell the story. I could bend your ear forever about how Wilson is actually a master archivist. Only, though because I am an archivist in this, my third career.

Madelyn’s insight that the steel mills were already in a state of decline, dying as it were, makes it all the more poignant that Becker would return to the mill to meet his demise. We’ll see that theme play out, sort of, in Ma Rainey, where we witness a diva already on the descending slope of her career, bemoaning the loss of an art form.
The coffee pot is gurgling. Be right back.

What becomes of the Jitney station? It’s hard to know. But the impulse to start with nothing and build a business, an industry, a world (as Aunt Ester says of her ancestors in Gem of the Ocean) that satisfies a need continues unabated. Why did Becker have to die? That was a good discussion. There is a death in every play in the Cycle, as I reflect, except The Piano Lesson, which is full of ghosts anyway. Something to think about as we plow through.

I never managed to mention that, interestingly, there are no soliloquies in Wilson’s plays. People don’t talk to the gods or to themselves. People talk to other people. We see that in Jitney and it continues throughout
the Cycle. It’s a good communications model. Wilson says of Cutler in Ma Rainey, “He has all the qualities of a loner except the introspection.” Wow!

It’s the second cup of coffee talking!

I’ll close out here, check on the upload, and begin the next reading.

Jitney Sunday chat: https://drive.google.com/file/d/15rPaKg-BHaOtnSCvmdLQ2_iftNe2VOYM/view?usp=sharing
Benjamin is described as a Marxist professor. I don’t have a problem with his method of analysis, as such, though I am no Marxist. He does an excellent job of explaining the transference from live performance to the stage and to film (or record). The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. (Sections, 1, 2, 5, 8, 9, 11, 12 if pressed for time) https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf

Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/ma-rainey-_1_.pdf
Screenplay of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (the film): Ruben Santiago-Hudson Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay https://www.icloud.com/iclouddrive/0tGpV8ayQbwklYDWWn2FrrHlQ#ma-raineys-black-bottom-screenplay

And the weekly playlist has some Ma Rainey pieces, some period pieces, and some video clips:
YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

This article places Ma Rainey in her historical persepective: The Queer Black Woman Who Reinvented The Blues

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-queer-black-woman-who-reinvented-the-blues

A review: https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/jitney-is-august-wilsons-underappreciated-masterpiece/Content?oid=12932362

About another diva, Billie Holiday. A great poem: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/42657/the-day-lady-died

Happy Reading!

Ray

Fall 2021 – Email update #10

All: I finished reading Jitney last night. It was refreshing! No matter how many times I read these plays, I always stumble upon something I hadn’t noticed before. I will write up my notes and post them to a blog, along with the notes from previous sessions and will make that available to you ASAP.

We recently completed a two day intro course that was basically me lecturing. Let me remind you the 10-week course is not a lecture format. We will discuss and participate as a group. No “sage on the stage!” You will each be expected to read the play before we meet and be ready to discuss a passage you have selected or a section of the play that appealed to you. You have to do the hard work at home before class! Remember, you bring your life experiences to the discussion and that is just as valuable (and maybe more) as any specific expertise related to the play itself.

My blog and notes are fully accessible to you. If you wish to subscribe to my substack for updates, you may, but subscription is not required for the study group. Here is the link: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/  The substack and the wordpress blog both contain notes from prior course discussions.

OK. Happy reading!

Ray

August Wilson’s Five Beliefs

The Piano Lesson

According to Dr. Sandra Shannon in her book The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, the playwright had five primarily beliefs by which he stood, all of which are evident in each of his ten Century Cycle plays. The beliefs are:

1.The original sin committed by African Americans may be traced back to their massive postwar exodus from the South and their decision not to cling to the land.

2. African Americans do not sufficiently acknowledge and celebrate their cultural differences.

3. The salvation of today’s African Americans rests with renewing ties with Africa and acknowledging their african heritage.

4. Mainstream histories have systematically and consciously excluded and misrepresented African-Americans.

5. The only venues that traditionally have offered African Americans limited acceptance have been sports and music.

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Notes on Jitney – 10/06/2021

I try to look at these plays from a different angle, a different perspective each time I read them.

This time I want to begin with Becker’s rule-based world. At the very beginning of Act 1, we are introduced to Becker’s Rules, a simple set of regulations for running the jitney operation. They are:

1. No overcharging.

2. Keep your car clean.

3. No drinking.

4. Be courteous.

5. Replace and clean tools.

Seems like a very simple list, easy to memorize. Right?

Well, we don’t have to go very far into the play to see that these very basic rules are not being followed. Drivers are discourteous. Drivers drink on the job. Cars are not kept clean. And that’s just for starters.

Again, at the end of Act 1, Booster accuses Becker of clinging to his rules, much like Obama accused Republicans of clinging to their guns and bibles. Do you all remember that? Back to the play, Becker’s rules caused him to disown his own son. Forever. He states, “I’m calling the deal off. You ain’t nothing to me, boy. You just another nigger on the street.” He meant it, and even we feel the sense of abandonment and dispossession that Booster must be feeling.

Then, near the end of the play, Fielding, the drinker on the job, mentions to Booster something being against Becker’s rules. And Booster responds that Becker’s rules got him into prison.

Yet in the end, what does Becker’s rules get Becker? Do they make his life appreciably better? Booster says, “. . . He ain’t got out of life what he put in. He deserved better that what life gave him. I can’t help thinking that.

So let’s talk for a moment about rules. Becker lived in what one might call “a rules-based world,” a logical program using predefined rules to make deductions and choices. There are two basic failures of a rules-based system, however. For one, the system can’t make the rules up quick enough to deal with every situation, especially in a dynamic system. And two, a rules based system won’t change or update on its own and it lacks the capacity to learn from mistakes. In short, a rules-based system will eventually fail. That’s the tragedy of the rules-based system and the tragedy of this play.

But what is the opposite of a rules-based world? It is a systems-thinking framework that sees all the moving parts of an operation, can cope with complexity and uncertainly, learns from errors, and adapts to a dynamic, shifting reality.

As we proceed through these plays, we should look for that rules-based vs. systems-thinking framework for decision making.

We learn that Booster was very smart in science, winning the science fair every year in high school and eventually qualifying for a scholarship at Pitt. This was the 1950’s mind you, when Pitt was known mostly as a night school for the working class, not the elite research institution it is today. But we have every reason to believe that Booster may have had a systems-thinking way of looking at things that immediately put him at odds with his father’s rule-based framework, apart from his youthful indiscretions. There are suggestions to that end in various parts of the play

I also want to mention the invisible characters in this play, along with the characters who show up in other plays in the Cycle. Booster’s mother, Coreen, is hidden but ever presents is Becker’s present wife, Lucille, who we at least hear from periodically on the telephone. Many other wives and girlfriends are mentioned that we never see on stage. There is Shealy’s better half, Rosie, whose face haunts him whenever he thinks about another woman. There is Cigar Annie, recently evicted from her condemned building, homeless, who, pantyless, flashes motorists on the street. There is Susan McKnight, the white girl who gets Booster in trouble in the first place. He killed her. She’s dead. There is Fielding’s wife. We don’t even get her name. She’s been gone for 22 years, but she still loves him. Just ask Fielding. Philmore’s wife put him out. He lives with his mother. Next week his wife is going to be begging him to come back. We never meet Peaches, Rena’s sister, though Turbo seems to be obsessed with her presence. Doub and Turbo are both single, and study group members in the past have intuited that Turbo is a closet homosexual.

Pope, who runs the closing restaurant down the street, is mentioned. He is also mentioned in the 1960’s play, Two Trains Running. Stool Pigeon is mentioned, who we meet in seven Guitars and in King Hedley II. Jim Bono, from 1950’s play Fences gets a passing mention as being sick with cancer. Turbo hopes to take his place at a different jitney company. Memphis Lee is mentioned. He ran the diner in Two Trains Running. Finally Reverend Flowers, who preaches the funeral, also preached Floyd Barton’s funeral in Seven Guitar.

OK. There’s a lot more to discuss and a lot is covered in the previous session notes. Let’s dive into the deep water!

Scene by scene synopsis

Act 1 Scene 1. Introduces all the characters and their interrelationships. Tells us the central plot – the loss of the Jitney shop to redevelopment. Will the Jitney operation be just like Cigar Annie, evicted and on the street, showing motorists its private parts?

Act 1 Scene 2. More character development. The beginning of the Youngblood/Turnbo tension surfaces. Turnbo reveals his secret of Youngblood’s alleged infidelity to Rena (a bit of Iago, ya think?). Rena in turn confronts Youngblood with the allegation. Becker and Doub has a heart-to-heart about the disposition of the jitney station.

Act 1 Scene 3. A physical confrontation between Youngblood and Turnbo that accelerates in stages almost ends in disaster.

Act 1 Scene 4. Booster arrives home from 20 years in prison. Fielding falls out with Becker. Becker and Booster (father and son) talk at each other (not with each other) in a long dialogue. Both are grieving the loss of Coreen and each blames the other.

Act 2 Scene 1. Turnbo and Doub locker room about singers Lena Horne and Sarah Vaughan. Doub mentors Youngblood, reflecting on his own experiences as a soldier in Korea.. Turnbo and Youngblood continue the argument, but scaled down. Youngblood comes clean with Rena about the new house. They work it out. Becker mentors Youngblood. Fielding mentors Booster. Fatherhood never stops.

Act 2 Scene 2. Becker meets with the whole jitney team to discuss what is going to happen with the jitney operation. They decide to remain, get a lawyer, and fight.

Act 2 Scene 3. Becker dies in an accident at the steel mill where he is temporarily filling in. Booster learns of his father’s passing.

Act 2 Scene 4. After the funeral they all gather at the jitney station. Booster laments his and his father’s loss. Booster reconciles with the jitney team members. On his way out, the phone rings. After an initial hesitation, Booster answers the call with “car service.” We hope it means the jitney station will continue operation under Booster’s leadership.

Last minute thoughts.

Jitney takes place in a “jitney station.” Other Wilson plays take place in a single location. What role does place have on the unfolding of the plot in Wilson’s plays?

Wilson said in an interview that when he wrote Jitney in 1979, he “had not yet adopted an artistic agenda that advanced an African presence.” How does knowing that affect the order in which we study Wilson’s plays? Something to bear in mind as we read different plays.

Jitney, though set in 1977, written in 1979, and locally performed in the early 1980’s, didn’t make it to Broadway until 2000. Was it ahead of its time? Was it too contemporary? Was it too “black” for play-going audiences?

post discussion notes for Session #6

I think our first session went well and I’d love to get your feedback.  Big thanks to everyone for their contributions to the discussion. I’ll be adding post discussion notes to the blog asap.

The insights from the Pittsburgh folks were so revealing. And everybody’s personal reflections added so much spice and flavor to the conversation (if you cook, you know spice and flavor are different things). The insight, for example, that families across the country, as well as successive generations, were affected by urban renewal provides an excellent launchpad for other plays in the Cycle as well as illuminating our own personal experiences. Hilda Doolittle said of Da Vinci’s Madonna of the Rocks words to the effect that it was not just a painting, it was a window into Da Vinci’s mind. We can similarly say that Jitney is not just a play, but a window. Moreover, it is a mirror, not matter what our ethnic background. We can see ourselves in the play at some level, if only a reflection of a reflection. You gotta check out Madonna of the Rocks. See my notes from Session #5.

At the expense of sounding like I’m playing favorites (because I really am not), I had to go back and read Robin’s notes in the chat. There’s a lot of context there. I am reminded of that part in one of the Superman movies where Superman goes up to the North Pole (or maybe it’s the South Pole) where the archives from his original planet Krypton are kept in crystals (lots of metaphor there!) inside a mountain cave. He breaks off a crystal and hears the voice of his father, Jo-El, telling him the history of his people and his family. Reading an August Wilson play is like breaking off a crystal and hearing a familiar voice tell the story. I could bend your ear forever about how Wilson is actually a master archivist. Only, though because I am an archivist in this, my third career.

Madelyn’s insight that the steel mills were already in a state of decline, dying as it were, makes it all the more poignant that Becker would return to the mill to meet his demise. We’ll see that theme play out, sort of, in Ma Rainey, where we witness a diva already on the descending slope of her career, bemoaning the loss of an art form.

The coffee pot is gurgling. Be right back.

What becomes of the Jitney station? It’s hard to know. But the impulse to start with nothing and build a business, an industry, a world (as Aunt Ester says of her ancestors in Gem of the Ocean) that satisfies a need continues unabated. Why did Becker have to die? That was a good discussion. There is a death in every play in the Cycle, as I reflect, except The Piano Lesson, which is full of ghosts anyway. Something to think about as we plow through.

I never managed to mention that, interestingly, there are no soliloquies in Wilson’s plays. People don’t talk to the gods or to themselves. People talk to other people. We see that in Jitney and it continues throughout
​the Cycle. It’s a good communications model. Wilson says of Cutler in Ma Rainey, “He has all the qualities of a loner except the introspection.” Wow!

It’s the second cup of coffee talking!

I’ll close out here, check on the upload, and begin the next reading.

Enjoy your day!

Ray

My wife’s favorite poem – Blues Villanelle

#ThisIsMyPoetryBlog

Blues Villanelle is my wife’s favorite poem, though she still refers to Invitation as my masterpiece. What do you think? Inspired by August Wilson’s Seven Guitars.

Blues Villanelle

This love song is a villanelle:

The format makes it easy to recall –

Poetry in two shades of blue.

Repeating sends the thoughts aflight:

The lines of text emerge in time –

This love song is a villanelle.

The words and sounds convey their truth,

The essence lies inside the tune –

Poetry in two shades of blue.

The blues they wail at disco night

Become the Sunday morning hymn –

This love song is a villanelle.

Our wanderings are all askew:

Our feet are painted backwards bound –

Poetry in two shades of blue.

We celebrate in loss or gain,
In joy, in sadness, and between –
This love song is a villanelle:
Poetry in two shades of blue.

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