Fall 2021 – Email #6

Greetings all: Hope you all had a great week. I did my first guitar lesson this week, and let me tell you, I have a steep uphill learning curve to climb before I’ll be ready to play for friends! 

ModPo, an online poetry course I’ve been doing every year since 2012, the first year as a student and subsequent years as a community teaching assistant, began this week.

And I began a year-long group read (3 cantos per week) of Dante’s Divine Comedy this week. Just a couple of hours ago we completed a ZOOM group read of Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself. A lot of stuff is going on and it all feeds into what? August Wilson!

This is what retirement looks like!

I am including this week, for your reading pleasure, a link to the first issue of my Substack newsletter. I think it serves as a useful introduction to the American Century Cycle, as well as thoughts about my experience with leading study groups and my sort of philosophy about the cycle of plays. Stuff you won’t find in books. Hope you get a chance to check it out! https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/coming-soon.

The previous email updates are archived on my blog here (I’m an archivist, after all, just an unemployed one!): https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/. I’ll be adding this one before I crash for the evening.

Have a pleasant week, y’all.

Ray


p.s. I am reading some of my poetry at Martha Washington Public Library in Alexandria this Tuesday, 7-9pm. The American Century Cycle collection, that is, poetry inspired by August Wilson plays over the years. Stop by if you are in the neighborhood! Or if not, you can find it all here: https://raymond5e2.substack.com/p/week-of-june-6-2021. I need to make a video. We have the technology, don’t we bawses? –r

One more postscript (will include this as a separate email, #6A. Here are the play texts I have found online and will send to you:

Jitney

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Fences

The Piano Lesson

Two Trains Running

I have not managed to find King Hedley II, Gem of the Ocean, Radio Golf, and Seven Guitars. You will have to find hard copies at a library or bookstore. I recommend the boxed set of the hardcover editions.

Fall 2021 – Email #5

Greetings, all: Hope you all had a good entry into September. I confess I have been right on the edge of my seat about this whole Afghanistan thing. Many of the folks I worked with in Baghdad twelve years ago were/are hardship post junkies, doing repeated back-to-back postings in Baghdad and Kabul and other horrible places, even until now. The money is good, but money is not everything, at least it wasn’t for me. Plus, I had a wife to answer to!  

OK, back to the matters at hand.

I have made the changes to the syllabus and posted the corrected syllabus on the blog here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2021/08/21/fall-2021-proposed-syllabus/

I am checking documents to verify which pdfs of plays I have and which you will need to acquire. I’ll get that list out next week.

Meanwhile, I am attaching a shorter piece than last week, an interview with Wilson conducted by playwright Suzan-Lori Parks about a month before Wilson’s passing but a few weeks after he made the announcement that his liver cancer was inoperable. I can’t imagine being in her shoes. And I really can’t imagine being in his. Here is a link: https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/

We are up to 20 people, give or take, a good number because it allows everybody space to participate.

Have a great week, y’all!  Enjoy the read!

Ray

Summer Short – July 12-14, 2021

August Wilson American Century Cycle – Day 1, Mapping the Influences.

Welcome to the short course, the July mini course on the works of August Wilson. During the spring session, the course runs for ten weeks and involves reading and discussing each of the ten plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle. In this mini course, we will cover a representative sampling of the plays in the cycle.

But first, a word from our sponsors. https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/fkkBY2BSBno?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

As an introduction, we will spend the bulk of today’s talk on what August Wilson considered his primary influences. Artists, writers, playwrights don’t always explain the influences on their work so candidly and so explicitly. Wilson tells us up front: the Blues, Baraka, Bearden, and Borges. The 4B’s.

Here is my attempt at mapping the “genealogy” of Wilson’s 4B’s.

The Blues.

We will begin at the top. The Blues. Wilson says he discovered the blues when he bought a 45 of Bessie Smith singing that Jelly roll song, “Nobody Makes a Jelly Role like Mine” and played it 223 times in a row. Wilson became a “decoder” of the Blues, concluding its music and lyrics contained and were a source of the folklore of American blacks.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/Y0UDVX_pYqI?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

Every play in the Cycle is infused with blues lyrics. It’s almost as if the blues provide characters their dialogues, another aspect of Wilson’s decoding and transmission.

Ma Rainey says in the play, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out but they don’t know how it got there (they cannot decode it). They don’t understand that’s life way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/xJMyZ6Ewh6k?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

One more thought about the blues before we move on. In the blues you hear work songs, gospel and praise songs, and songs about romance and breakup. The work songs clearly have African origins in their rhythms. But the gospel songs and the romance/love blues songs are purely American in their origin, derived exclusively from American experiences. You will find no traces of it on the African continent.

Borges.

How did Borges paintings and collages affect and influence Wilson’s playwriting? Borges development of techniques he loosely called magical realism, or in Spanish, “lo real marivillosa” show up in Wilson’s plays, in he use of ghosts, spirits, angels, and in the use of hypnotism, trances, seances, and exorcisms. Another Borges manifestation in Wilson’s plays is in plot development, where Wilson gives away the plot punch line in advance, then still manages to hold his audiences in suspense as the plot unfolds. We see ample amounts of this in both Seven guitars and in King Hedley II. Both techniques follow a straight line path from Poe through Borges to Wilson. Borges cites its this Poe influence in his own self-referential writings.

A second set of influences comes from Walt Whitman, again through Borges to Wilson. Whitman’s self-referencing, about his craft and his own life, in, for example Song of Myself, I Hear America Singing, and Salut Au Monde, reflects the same self-referential considerations and self-reflexivity about his work as does Wilson in Ma Rainey, The Piano Lesson, Two Trains Running, and Jitney. Borges covered this self-referentiality in his lectures on English literature course at the University of Buenos Aires.

Before going to Baraka, there are other influences we should mention.

In the upper right quadrant, Ed Bullins (https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/bullins-ed-1935/) and Ron Milner (https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803100158957) were both playwrights with whom Wilson associated early in his writing career. It was Bullins, for example, who had the original idea to produce a cycle of multiple plays. At one point, Bullins was the Minister of Culture for the Black Panthers. He wrote over 50 plays, including a 12-play series of plays, a cycle.

Lorraine Hansberry was the most prominent black playwright of the early 1960’s. Her greatest work, “Raisin in the Sun,”

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/rZK3EX6N1tI?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

received critical acclaim on Broadway, was adapted to film, and gave rise to its own series of plays, called “The Raisin Cycle.” Noted Wilson interpreter and critic, Frank Rich said “A Raisin in the Sun” changed American theater forever.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/z9IFbBCFa0Y?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

There are traces of “Raisin” in Fences, Jitney, and Two Trains Running, among others. It may be argued with without Lorraine Hansberry, there would have been no creative space for a August Wilson.

Athol Fugard is a South African playwright who has chronicled in his over 30 plays the relationships between blacks and whites under the rule of apartheid. Wilson mentions Athol Fugard as one of the few playwrights whose work he had actually seen performed. https://profiletheatre.org/12-13/about-fugard/

And behind the scenes there was the Yale Rep Director, Lloyd Richards. Wilson had a unique father-son relationship with Richards that informed the work they did together and resulted in an excellent collaboration. Richards, for his part, had also produced Fugard and Hansberry plays in the past. For more on the Richards/Wilson collaboration: http://exhibits.library.yale.edu/exhibits/show/yalerep/richardsandwilson

Also in the upper quadrant we have the influences of the English Romantics on Poe, then to Borges. Juxtaposed on the opposing end of the map are the Harlem Renaissance influences on Bearden and through him to Wilson.

Baraka.

There are two sets of influences here. There is the pre-1965 Leroi Jones, hanging out with the Beat Poets in Greenwich Village after his discharge from the Air Force. And there is the transformed, changed-his-name, divorced-his-wife Amiri Baraka, who radically changed political and cultural course following the assassination of Malcolm X.

The map shows the two divisions of Baraka’s influence, both divisions of which had a similar effect on Wilson. A riveting read on the pre-1965 Leroi Jones is the memoir of his former wife, “How I Became Hettie Jones.” Baraka’s primary influence during that period was the beat poet Allen Ginsberg (https://www.npr.org/transcripts/261379770), and by inference, the entire Beat Poetry movement. But he was radicalized into a more ethnic black cultural nationalism following his brief flirtation with Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam that somewhat unwound with the demise of Malcolm X. August Wilson underwent a similar transformation in his futile attempt to save his first marriage with Nation of Islam member Brenda Burton.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/-hjPZpaXNsw?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

Finally, there is the indisputable influence of Whitman on the Beat Poets with whom Baraka hung out and with some of whom Wilson may have had a slight infatuation during his earlier, poet days.

A beat poetry favorite of mine is Kerouac’s October in Railroad Earth.

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/KUEu-pG1HWw?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

Bearden.

Numerically and graphically on the map, Romare Bearden has the largest number of second degree influences. Interesting because it weighs disproportionately the Bearden influence on Wilson. It can be argued that Bearden’s influence on Wilson is the greatest of all the 4B’s.

The boarding house in Pittsburgh where Bearden spent summers with his grandparents was the same boarding house that served as the setting for his collage, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, and later, for Wilson’s play by the same name, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, which was later named, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Bearden’s collage, The Piano Lesson, also called Homage to Mary Lou Williams following a collaboration the blues singer had with Bearden’s wife, Nanette, inspired Wilson’s play by the same name. The two characters in the collage, teacher and student, found their way into Wilson’s play as Berniece and Maretha.

Bearden’s collage from the series, Continuities, named Miss Bertha and Mister Seth, served as the inspiration source for Fences. Wilson never met Bearden, but he repeatedly cited him as a major influence. In an interview, Wilson recounted how he stood outside Bearden’s New York apartment, never mustering the courage to knock on the door and introduce himself. The story is told that Wilson wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times wherein he cited Bearden’s immense influence on his plays and his playwriting. A Bearden associate with whom Bearden was having breakfast asked him if he had seen Wilson’s op-ed and if he was aware of the credit Wilson gave him on his work. Bearden said he had not seen the op-ed, adding “He could have at least sent us tickets to the show.”

The list of Bearden’s influences is limited on the map due to space limitation, but they include Picasso, the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, Matisse and the French Impressionists, The harlem Renaissance painter, Aaron Douglas, Van Gogh (and Vermeer and the Dutch Masters), African statue art, and Chinese landscape artists and calligraphers, of whom Bearden said,

“In Chinese paintings, probably the greatest of paintings, you’ll find – and I sometimes try to do this – an open area, or open space, which allows the onlooker to enter the painting and find his own surprises in it. They always refer to the “open corner” of Chinese painting.”

Here’s the complete playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYMq0cuFUCNHmQc2-9JpQZE

Day 2, The “Bearden Period.”

The three Bearden collages that inspired Wilson to write three plays out of ten in the cycle provide such a strong and powerful visual image of the central plots of the plays that one may wonder what came first, the collage or the play representing or represented by the collage. Let me assure you: the collages predate the plays by several decades.

Wilson dramaturg and scholar Joan Herrington writes without qualification that “of the 4B’s, the painter Romare Bearden has had the most direct impact on Wilson’s work.” Herrington continued,

Wilson studied Bearden, appreciating his ability to capture the energy of an entire community in a single work of art. Following this lead, Wilson’s plays do not reveal struggle within what has become the common context for contemporary Rama in which the temporary problem of the individual is addressed and most often solved. Rather, Wilson and Bearden depict struggles in an African-American context – i.e., struggles that are on-going and that reflect problems facing a community rather than an individual. Bearden’s imagery encouraged Wilson to incorporate into his work elements that define traditional African performance forms. These include birth and death, existence influenced by past and future generations.”

OK. So back to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

The setting of the stage and the principle characters come directly from the Bearden collage, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, with was also the original name of the play. The play title was changed to reflect the words of a W.C. Handy song and, unrelatedly, perhaps, a Tennessee practice of kidnapping black men after arresting them and finding them guilty on minor and spurious charges and forcing them to work in captivity for seven years. It was normal to expect person to be changed after so long a period of forced servitude. And it was normal for the person to be a bit lost and bewildered upon his release. In the case of Herald Loomis both behaviors were evident.

Before we go too far afield, here is the W.C. Handy blues piece:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/5f31EzRopJ4?rel=0&autoplay=0&showinfo=0&enablejsapi=0

So let’s do some decoding of the blues song because that’s what August Wilson would have wanted us to do – decode the message in the song.

The original song is about the flooding of Oil Creek in Pennsylvania in 1892. This event would surely have been known about in Pittsburgh where the boarding house served as he setting of the play. Heavy rainfall was the source of the flooding but when a nearby dam collapsed upstream, a “wall of water”” swept the towns of Titusville and Oil City, destroying the towns, all the livestock, crops, everything. Tankers located on the bank of the creek, holding flammable Benzene, were ignited, adding fire damage to the flood damage. 54 residents in Oil City and 72 residents in Titusville lost their lives as a result of the flood and flames. The song describes a Joe Turner, an almost Santa Claus-like figure, who provided the people food and firewood after the flood and fire wiped everything out. Joe Turner, it turned out, was a charitable figure who saved the day for the communities affected.

So what does the flood and the Santa Clause type guy have to do with the guy in Tennessee who captured men and forced them to work for free on his farm for seven years?

It’s all a trick, a play on words, and a part of the cosmology of the Blues. You take a horrible situation, forced servitude, and you overlay that, as a collagist would, with an equally bad situation, fire and flooding, that has a magical (Borgesian) Santa Claus solution. And somehow you find the strength, energy and enthusiasm from the story to go out and fight your battles another day.

OK, let’s take a close look at the collage. Wilson saw this collage painting in an exhibit catalog a friend showed him from a Bearden exhibit, “The Prevalence of Ritual.” Thumb through my blog post here for a visual: https://bit.ly/2VDXN3I

Seth is descending the steps to the left. He must be headed out to work as his lunch pail is just below is disproportionately large right hand. Seth is the owner of the boarding house. Bynum the old conjure man stands in front of the table. He also has a disproportionately large right hand. Or is that his wife, Bertha? The gender of the figure is not clear, so we don’t know for sure. A man sits at the table wearing a long black coat. He looks dejected. It must be Herald Loomis, always in a funk. A picture of Seth’s mother is on the wall. Or is it a window to outside? Or is it a mirror reflecting an image in the foreground that we can’t see? We don’t know for sure. Further to the right there is what appears to be a group photograph or painting on the wall, maybe a family scene. Through a window we see an oil rig, a factory of some type emitting smoke (maybe a steel making plant), and what appears to be a train underneath. There is a baby or a large fetus in the left foreground. A woman sits at the opposite side of the table, drinking a beverage from a cup. And there is a wooden chair in the lower right foreground that looks like it may be some instrument of torture.

By the way, there is a different collage in the same series with the title, “Miss Bertha and Mister Seth.” And Mister Seth in the collage is holding a baby close to his shoulder. You guessed it. Sounds like a scene from Fences! The character names, it appears, are even borrowed from Bearden. That August Wilson is a real trickster! But we cannot use this as a segue to Fences. Not yet.

There is an organic link between Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Fences. Joe Turner, thematically, is about the false promises of emancipation and freedom. But it is also about personal redemption. The presence of Bynum, the old conjure man, and his vision of his Shiny Man who gave him his song, as well as the vision of Herald Loomis, of the bones rising up from the sea, putting on flesh, and coming to life when a strong wind blows ties the play organically to Gem of the Ocean and the journey to the City of Bones. It also brings to mind the Egyptian creation myth of Bennu, a bird who sings a song across the endless expanse of water that enables and gives rise to all the rest of creation.

I am reminded here of a Bynum monologue that is my favorite of all the monologues of all the plays in the cycle. It is from Act 2, Scene 2.

“I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song. I tried to give my daddy back his song. But I found it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from deep inside me. I looked back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. All the time that song getting bigger and bigger. It got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself.”

– Bynum, from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Wilson calls Joe Turner’s Come and Gone his favorite play. One writer/scholar describes Joe Turner as Wilson’s most Beardenesque play of the cycle. But the play he wrote just before Joe Turner, Fences, is widely considered Wilson’s best play, even by Wilson himself. Fences is also based on a Bearden collage, as is Joe Turner. One day in the future, critics, fans and scholars will refer to “the Bearden Period” of Wilson’s plays.

One more theme in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is family separation and family reunification. The boarding house serves the function of reuniting families that were or had been separated, either by external factors, or by the vicissitudes of time. But as old Bynum says in the play, “You can’t bind what don’t cling.”

OK, Fences. Troy Maxsom, 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, with whom, 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 all 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, the 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, in his surprise, 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, right here in Washington, DC, 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.

One final piece on Fences if you will indulge me. Inspired by Troy’s story in Fences, I wrote a poem which I titled, “Troy’s Slow Descent into Hell: An Elegy.” May I share it with you?

Troy’s Slow Descent into Hell: An Elegy

In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Like an unfinished Job, loses all
That was once near and dear to him.

The cherished love of his wife is broken
When she acts on her maternal instinct
And decides to not refuse to care for

The child that is the result of his infidelity.
He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true or false affection.

His best friend doesn’t come around
Any more, not even for a Friday drink
That once satisfied a parched thirst.

Finally, abandoned by his own sense
Of taste (Yes! A multiple metaphor!),
He is left to swing aimlessly at all
Those fast balls on life’s outside corners.

The last play we cover in the Bearden period is The Piano Lesson.

On the surface, The piano Lesson asks that we choose between (1) preserving a stolen family heirloom that informs family identity and preserves family history and heritage, and (2) exchanging the artifact for cold hard cash to purchase farmland the ancestors worked in order to generate real wealth for the family. It is a flawed paradox that presents a false dilemma, and we know it, but we stay in our seats just to see how it all works out. For those of you who haven’t seen or read the play I will not spoil it for you.

I wrote in the session 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 is 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.

Structurally, the play contains an ample amount of Borgesian magical realism: ghosts and spirits, seances and exorcisms, but in subtle places and amounts so as not to offend religions audiences.

The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, and for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Le’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson that night than ever before. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year (2021), and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.

NaPoWriMo required a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?

The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.

Day 3, Greek and classical themes in the last four plays.

I call these two plays the prequel and the sequel plays as one, King Hedley II, set in 1985, is the continuation, a couple generations removed, from the the other, Seven Guitars, set in 1948. But discussions about time lines fade into obscurity when you get to the foundation of the matter. And the foundation of the matter is that these two plays represent something of great significance  in the mind and the thinking of the playwright.

Ruben Santiago Hudson, actor in and director of many Wilson plays, refers to Seven Guitars as “August’s Greek tragedy play.” But if we scratch the surface and look beneath the superficial, all the plays at the end of the cycle, from Seven Guitars to Radio Golf, have enough elements of Greek tragedy to place them in that category. Wilson lays the African American experience over top the Greek tragedy model, and perhaps, vice versa, re-adapting the Greek tragedy model to African American experience.  

Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a frame of reference, let’s first note the prologue/Greek chorus in Act 1. Scene 1. It takes us forward in time to the funeral of the main protagonist, Floyd Schoolboy Barton. So we know up front what is going to happen. Floyd dies. There are no surprises, we just have to wait and see how the plot develops and how events unravel leading Floyd to his end. Even so, strangely enough, as spectators, we have hope, hope for Floyd, hope for his future as a recording artist, hope for his relationship with Vera. As we read we sit on the edge of our seats. Silly us, because the playwright told us up front. Why is there suspense?

Aristotle’s perfect tragedy does not involve the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, nor does it involve a villainous man in a similar condition. It should be a man in between, a guy like Floyd Barton, perhaps. The change of fortune should be from good to bad and should come about not because of some vice, but because of an error in judgement or a similar frailty. Floyd, after several ups and downs, has just enjoyed a successful debut playing his hit song at the local dance club, and is on his way, with Vera, his true love, on his arm, to Chicago to record an album. The success he has hoped and dreamed for is almost within his grasp.

Then by some quirk of fate, Canewell discovers the money Floyd stole and buried in the yard. He later acknowledge “ownership” to Floyd, but right in time for an intoxicated Hedley to show up and assume the buried money is the result of some alcohol-crazed dream he had of his father and Buddy Bolden. Whereupon Hedley retrieves the machete recently gifted to him by Joe Roberts, and uses the machete to whack Floyd in the neck, severing his windpipe and ending his dreams.

Of course, a lot happens in the interim. There is the complication of Floyd’s release from incarceration without access to either finances nor the means to earn wealth from his music. His instrument, as well as the drummer’s drum set, are in hock at the local pawn ship and the term for retrieving them has expired. There is the disappointment Vera experienced when Floyd abandoned her earlier for Pearl Brown. Floyd is now challenged to overcome that betrayal, despite negative reinforcements from the Greek chorus, the landlady, Louise. Things are not looking good for Floyd.

Then in an Aristotelian reversal of fortune, Floyd comes into a bit of cash (from illegal activity, nonetheless), buys a new electric guitar, a new blue dress for Vera, and makes his date at the dance club, all to a rousing success. Collapsed into the same event, there is recognition for Floyd’s musical talents. Straight from Poetics, the final spectacle collapses pathos and catharsis, for Hedley and Canewell at least, with Floyd, unfortunately, on the losing end.

It is important to recall that Seven Guitars is a prequel of sorts, and many seemingly random threads will establish their significance in the second part, the sequel, the penultimate play in the Cycle, King Hedley II. But we should also note the archived information Wilson preserves, the card games (bid whist and pinochle), the cigarettes smoked (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camel), the beer brands (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label), the menu items for Vera’s dinner (chicken, potatoes and green beans), the four types of roosters, Canewell’s recipe for cooking greens, the blow-by-blow account of the Joe Louis fight, and the mention of Toussaint L’Overture and Marcus Garvey, all preserved for posterity inside the play.

We cannot overlook the bits of Borges magical realism in the initial and final scenes of the play. Canewell, Vera and Hedley all see the six angels escorting Floyd into heaven. I have no interpretation for why those three in particular see the vision. Vera had accepted Floyd’s marriage proposal, making her perhaps the character closest to Floyd. Canewell survives the prequel and shows up later with a new name, Stool Pigeon, suggesting he is the one who gave up Hedley as Floyd’s killer. Hedley, who “fathers” the next tragic figure, King Hedley II, in the only play in the Cycle named for a character, ultimately slays Floyd.

Finally, my favorite lines from the play, both from Vera, are “I done told you, my feet ain’t on backwards” and “It was two different shades of blue.”

A short word about structure in the play. The first scene of Act 1 ends precisely with the same line as the 9th scene of Act 2, the finale of the play with Red Carter saying, “Floyd Schoolboy Barton.” The the two scenes are bookends “housing” the whole play. Also interesting is the way the scenes get shorter, more compact, and more condensed in Act 2, sort of drawing us, pulling us, dragging us through the action to the end, which we already know, while keeping us on the edge of our seats. It is amazing how the structure of the play is used to unwind and unravel the action, almost collapsing linear time.

**********
The play’s structure with the end up front, followed by the action in the middle and the end at the end, both standard structure for Greek tragedy and a shoutout to Borges, one of Wilson’s principle influencers. Wilson pointed out how Borges tells his readers what is going to happen in advance, yet there is still a sense of suspense. Then it comes about. No doubt this is Wilson’s Greek tragedy play with Borges hints.

*******

Embedded themes in Seven guitars

There are many mentions of the number seven in Seven Guitars. Wilson himself said in an interview that the seven guitars are the seven characters in the play, each a musical instrument of sorts. Maybe we should dig a bit deeper. For example, I learned that the guitar itself went through seven distinct stages of evolution over the past thousand years, from the Arabic and Persian oud to the modern acoustic guitar.

There is an interesting thing about the guitar especially if each guitar represents a separate character. When one string is plucked on a guitar, all the rest of the strings vibrate in response. It is called sympathetic vibration, and if the vibration is audible, it becomes sympathetic resonance. Similarly, each actor in the ensemble affects all the other actors, simultaneously and all the time.

There is a separate story about how the guitar became the instrument of choice for blues musicians. It has to do with the standardization of the instrument and the codification of its music. But also related is the popularity of the guitar in Spain, passing on to Mexico via cultural conquest and crossing the border into the U.S. The development of the Sears and Roebuck mail order catalog made cheap guitars available to the masses. The development of both railroad lines carrying freight, and the USPS rural free delivery system that delivered the guitars to people’s homes increased accessibility. And all around the turn of the 19th to 20th century as music was being commercialized and producing music became popular with the common person.

Different types of blue. Vera describes a dress she was wearing when she met Floyd as two shades of blue or, to be precise, “two different kinds of blue.” I saw this initially as a distinction between the blues of Buddy Bolden, for whom Hedley was named, and the blues of Muddy Waters, the mentor for our bluesman, Floyd Barton. Extending the frame of reference to another Wilson play, there was the “jug-bucket” blues of Ma Rainey vs. the dance music blues of Levee. A short search yields a multiplicity of different kinds and types of blues music, including Memphis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, Psychedelic Blues, Country Blues, Texas Blues. and British Blues. Each has its own peculiar sound and its unique performers.

Hedley’s tuberculosis and COVID. I was struck by the similarities between Hedley’s tuberculosis condition, the testing and treatment of it, etc., and current concerns about COVID. Tuberculosis, like COVID, was not extremely well understood in its early days and often patients were “herded” together in sanatoriums to die, similar to what happened in the nursing home scandals in New York and Michigan. Eventually, the nature of the disease became better understood and medications were developed that eradicated it. We can only surmise what happens in Hedley’s case, though Louise’s descriptions make it sound like his tuberculosis is already in advanced stages.

Hedley represents Blacks from the Caribbean who participated in the Great Migration. He is the first character we’ve come across in Wilson’s work who is not from the south like all the other migrants to Pittsburgh. It sets up a different dynamic in personal relations that we see playing out in Hedley’s interactions with other members of the ensemble. This accurately reflects what happened with so many black Caribbean immigrants moving to Northern cities and having to interact with a new country, a new black society unlike what was most prevalent in the south, and in many cases, a new religious order. In effect they, these immigrants from the Caribbean faced separate challenges than southern black migrants – a completely new society. Hedley makes Seven Guitars a special case for studying the Great Migration. Another aspect of the great migration not covered in the American Century Cycle, however, is the rural to urban migration that took place within the south and never crossed into northern states.

Highway 61. Wilson makes a big deal about Highway 61. I didn’t get it until I looked it up. Highway 61 runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota. It was a major thoroughfare out of the deep south and the subject of many blues songs. In fact, Bob Dylan made a complete album in 1965, “Highway 61 Revisited,” that included much of the music and blues tradition. Interesting that while the earliest blues pieces were about walking, placing emphasis on shoes as a means of mobility, later blues songs described trains and railroads, because railroads were the primary method of conveyance. Later, with the development of interstate highway systems, automobiles and highways become the underpinning subject of blues.

Let’s discuss briefly functional illiteracy as a major obstacle to individual progress and in the aggregate, for community progress. We have instances of Floyd’s functional illiteracy throughout the play. While in prison he paid someone to write letters to Vera. He didn’t understand the words in a letter from the prison detailing the procedure for claiming his pay for each day he was imprisoned. Even Red Carter accuses Floyd of not being able to read. It is not a huge leap to reason that Floyd’s issues with his early recording contract could have stemmed from his inability to read. I wonder how he made it through his enlistment in the Army and how he survived the war without being able to read. We see this issue of the impediments of illiteracy in other characters in the Wilson Cycle.

(Note: 4% of Americans are non-literate and 14% are below basic literacy levels. 34% are barely at the basic literacy level. 52% read under the 8th grade level. These are 2013 levels, from data collected by the OECD every ten years, but levels of illiteracy are sure to rise with the present influx of non-English speakers across the southern border. https://www.wyliecomm.com/2020/11/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/). The American Library Association’s Library journal cites a 21% and rising rate of adult illiteracy in the United States.

There are examples of illiteracy across the Cycle. I haven’t seen it mentioned in the 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 from his prison time 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 WWII, 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 systemic 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 on the piano musical notes 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 a life of trauma and from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written.

Greek tragedy themes in King Hedley II.

A few things caught my interest in King Hedley II. First of all the Greek Chorus that Wilson has Stool Pigeon provide in the opening of the play. From Wikipedia:

Greek choruses sometimes had a leader known as the coryphaeus. He sometimes came first to introduce the chorus, and sometimes spoke for them if they were taking part in the action. The entrances and exits of the coryphaeus and his chorus served the same way curtains do in a modern theatre.

If this play were a Greek tragedy, and some may argue that it may be, Stool Pigeon fulfills the role of the Greek Chorus, and of Coryphaeus, the leader of the Greek Chorus, in the Prologue, and everywhere he speaks in the play. Let that sink in for a minute, then go back through the play and attribute all Stool Pigeon’s speaking parts to the Greek Chorus, beginning at the very end of Scene 1, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamps down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!

In brief, the function of the chorus in Greek Drama is to provide commentary on actions and events occurring in the play, to allow time and space to the playwright to control the atmosphere and expectations of the audience, to allow the playwright to prepare the audience for key moments in the story line, and to underline certain elements and downplay others.

So Stool Pigeon, who was Canewell in Seven Guitars, now doubles as Seer, Spirit Guide, Supporter of Aunt Ester (like Holloway in Two Trains) and coryphaeus in Wilson’s attempt to connect to Greek classical drama (my spin). Canewell said in Seven Guitars, “If I could put the music down I would have been a preacher. Many times I felt God was calling. But the devil was calling too, and it seem like he called louder. God speak in a whisper and the devil shout.

Additionally, Stool Pigeon gets his Bible quotations wrong every time – unless his recitations represents the promotion of a new synthesis of religion/mythology, a blending of Christian concepts with local African American spiritualism and all combined with African ideas of philosophy and religious belief. This would align with characters in earlier Wilson plays that touted African spiritual concepts (Turnbo in Jitney, Toledo in Ma Rainey, Bynum in Joe Turner, ultimately Berniece in Piano Lesson, and Holloway in Seven Guitars).

What if Stool Pigeon really is the Greek Chorus? And what if he is speaking to a specific audience or saying things that no one else could say and still preserve their theatric credibility? Taking it a step further, what if Ruby represents the Greek Siren, luring unsuspecting sailors to shipwreck on a rocky coast? Could August Wilson be using these classical “motifs” subconsciously to establish his chops and links to the classical and neoclassical tradition? Wouldn’t that be something? The death of Aunt Ester is an additional climax in the play, as is the accidental death of King at the play’s end. The play has overlapping and intersecting climaxes, in fact.

King Hedley II is one of only two plays in the cycle that contains a formal prologue, another element of Greek tragedy, the other being Gem of the Ocean. Seven Guitars has a first scene that plays the role of a prologue, though it is not formally named as such. Similarly, four plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and Fences have very beautifully written scene setters and “The Play” introductions. Rounding out the cycle, neither Two Trains Running nor Radio Golf have prologues or scene setters and, instead, plunge the reader or playgoer directly into the action of the first act.

Additionally, the presence of the Prologue in King Hedley II connects us by theme or by content to four other plays in the cycle, Two Trains Running (mention of ham bones), Gem of the Ocean (the prevalence of Aunt Ester mentions), Seven Guitars (Stool Pigeon, the narrator, exists as younger Canewell in Seven Guitars), and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (the narrator sounds peculiarly like Bynum).

Finally, Stool Pigeon sets up in the Prologue that something less than pleasant is about to befall the cycle’s heroine, Aunt Ester, a Borgesian technique. As readers and playgoers, we are placed on warning of ominous things to come.

A separate theme altogether might be the tragic end of King Hedley and his possible redemption. As an illustration, please bear with me as I reimagine George Floyd as King Hedley II (and vice versa).

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

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

King Hedley did time on a murder conviction and was involved in a series of petty crimes following his release. But his death was an accident and not in the commission of a crime. His spilled blood flowed to a place in the yard where Aunt Ester’s cat had been buried. We are led to believe in the play that the blood offering gave the cat a new life, a resurrection of sorts, that in turn would provide new spiritual life to Aunt Ester, who had recently died. Another bit of Borgesian magical realism tossed in the cooking pot.

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

Hedley’s Blues

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

Gem of the Ocean

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

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

American poet William Cullen Bryant makes a cameo appearance in Gem of the Ocean with recitation by Solly of lines from one of his epic poems, Thanatopsis. William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written the poem at age 17. Thanatopsis, a poem written in the neoclassical style was very popular at the time of its publishing. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. A portion of Thanatopsis appears in Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play.

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

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

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

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

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

And finally, Radio Golf.

Look, here is the deal (words used by President Biden to reassure us and put our minds at ease) . . .

The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of masks in classical drama, masks for tragedy looked sad, masks for comedy had a smile, and masks for shock or surprise had a big open mouth and raised eyebrows.

Let’s recall the use of masks in Gem of the Ocean, European face masks worn by Solly, Eli and Black Mary during the well-rehearsed drama as they conducted Citizen’s voyage to the City of Bones.

The equivalent technique in American stage culture of the mask, historically, is the blackface, though its use has fallen into disrepute in recent times. In the 19th century where it first appeared and in the early 20th century, blackface was all the rage.

So American blackface is the extension across time of the classical Greek mask.

Writers and critics have pointed out the use of a type of blackface in Radio Golf.
Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a local white businessman Harmond does not trust. Hicks is the “blackface’ that enables the purchase of a radio station at a deep discount with an FCC Minority Tax Certificate. Hicks is the front man, in charge of day-to-day operations, even though he has no radio experience. And because he loves golf, he produces a radio program where he offers golf tips.

It’s also a symbolic representation of an attempt by Wilson, in sharp departure to the other nine plays in the cycle, to portray the black middle class: Harmond the real estate developer/attorney running for mayor, Roosevelt, the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat, whose name may be considered a play on the Mammy stereotype in American blackface.

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

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

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

Wilson scholar Harry Elam gives us much food for thought in his article, “Radio Golf in the Age of Obama.” He tasks us to examine the incongruity of “radio” with “golf,” a combination in the play’s title that does not quite fit. He calls our attention to a vision of black pragmatism that Wilson crafts in the play and that vision’s lineage throughout the plays in the series. He mentions the creation of “Barack Obama as a political juggernaut dependent on manipulations of reality and the play of incongruity.”

But here the writer leaves out an interesting detail. The actor who played Harmond Wilks as Radio Golf toured the coast on its way to Broadway, Harry Lennix, is the same actor who claims in real life to have “taught” Barack Obama in the 90’s the articulations and gesticulations of an educated black Chicagoan before his first foray into state level politics. Lennix said in a press account, “He mimicked me, he followed me for years, and they wanted me to train him and teach him how to act . . . . like an educated south side African-American.” Life follows art.

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

The use of the mask in Wilson’s plays, manifesting itself as blackface minstrelry in the black “front” for white interests serves multiple purposes. As Rankine alludes, the mask use in Radio Golf establishes Wilson’s chops in a theatrical tradition that dates back to ancient times while making a significant though coded comment on current social and political times. It is a fitting culmination to Wilson’s American Century Cycle.

Fall 2021 – Email #4

Greetings, all: Let me begin by saying I hope you are in a safe place with a good plan if you are in the pathway of Hurricane Ida. We remember how crazy everything was with Katrina.

Administrative: There’s a schedule conflict. Would anybody mind terribly if we began on October 10 instead of October 3? It means we will go a week more into December to finish ten meetings. Please let me know if anybody has a strong objection. Otherwise, I will re-do the syllabus with new dates beginning on October 10.

Order of the plays. We are following the order in which the plays were written, not the chron order of the decades the plays represent. If you listened to the podcast in email #3 you will recall what Wilson himself said about the first few plays being different from the later plays. So we will begin with Jitney and proceed through the plays in the order written, called by some Wilson scholars, “the proper order.”

A typical Sunday afternoon. I will open up the ZOOM (the Zoom link will remain the same throughout the ten weeks) at 3:30 and play music and video clips from the playlist for that week. Attendance for the “devotional” as they used to call it in the church where I grew up is purely voluntary. We will begin our discussion at 4pm. I will typically chat for about 5 minutes, basically synopsizing the play, scene by scene. To start, I’ve found it useful to have participants share a passage, a monologue, reading that passage, then allow the other participants to weigh in. There will be times that folks will be overflowing with thoughts about what they have read. Just speak up and I will defer to you in that case. On our first meeting we will begin with a sort of ice breaker, introducing ourselves to the group, and maybe offering a thought or two about why we are here or what we hope to get out of the course. I like to call it course subjectives. We will end promptly, more or less, at 5:30, an hour and a half later. Typically I have received emails from participants outside the time for our meeting which I will share with the group throughout the week, particularly if there is a request for information.

The N word. Some of Wilson’s plays contain very colorful and repetitive use of the N word. I think Two Trains Running, for example, contains 88 instances. We can use “air quotes” when reciting those particular passages.

That is probably enough for now. I will send you stuff to read as we work through September, interviews I have come across, magazine articles, reviews. I even have a set of obituary pieces that I saved in 2005 for some unknown reason. Of course, the only text required to be read is the actual text of the plays, but you will be expected to read the plays each week before we meet and be ready to discuss and participate. Sometimes stuff comes up and we all understand that. But there is a certain rigor to the course which I trust you will find beneficial. Few even of the scholars have actually plowed through each play. Many actors only know intimately the plays which they have performed. I like to think at the end there is a sense of accomplishment of completing the WHOLE body of Wilson’s work.

This week I’ll send out a longish New Yorker piece by John Lahr. It contains a lot of “inside” stuff. You will like it.

Reach out to me any time. I’ll get back to you promptly, I promise.

All the best as we cross into September!

Ray

p.s. all recipients are on BCC out of regard for privacy. If everybody agrees to it, I will make the email addresses available to all participants. But only if we ALL agree.

Fall 2021 – Email #3

All ye who have signed up so far!

I know I promised WEEKLY updates. But sometimes the spirit just hits, as it did when I stumbled upon this 8 minute podcast of a speech August Wilson gave in the 80’s.

The podcast has a couple of really cool tidbits of Wilson’s original poetry. Enjoy!

Check out this episode: August Wilson, from the podcast August Wilson: https://web.podfriend.com/podcast/august-wilson/2937495

p.s. Don’t worry if you are not in the Facebook group. My aim is to include whatever is there on the blog https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/.

Be well, everybody. Don’t let the Rona bugs bite!

Fall 2021 – Email #2

Email #2 – Fall 2021 August Wilson American Century Cycle study group

Inbox

Greetings all: We have reached critical mass (minimum) for the Fall 2021 August Wilson American Century Cycle study group by Zoom scheduled to begin October 3rd. So it is definitely a go. This offering will be open and free. We continue to invite study group members interested and willing to commit to reading one play per week for ten weeks. Please get back to me here or by DM for more info. Updates weekly. Details available by email. Thanks, y’all.

Updated syllabus here in the blog: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2021/08/21/fall-2021-proposed-syllabus/


Join the Facebook group here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/143743884554476/


Substack consolidated notes (all content accessible): https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/


Last week’s email #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2021/08/23/fall-2021-email-1/


Enjoy the new week!

Ray

Fall 2021 – Email #1

Greetings all. You all are the early respondents. I will update this email weekly.


I propose our first meeting on Sunday, October 3rd. If Sunday works for everybody we can fix a time that works

I have four of the plays in pdf that I can provide. Maybe five. The others you will have to get from a library or a bookstore. If you can afford it, I encourage everybody to get the boxed edition, generally available wherever you buy books, $100-200 bucks. Amazon, SAmuel French, etc. Used copies of the plays generally run for $6-10 each. Hey, support the playwright and buy the books if you can!

I’ve done these groups six times and have copious notes I will share, plus an annotated syllabus/reading list with additional readings, plus weekly YouTube playlists I will share. But there is no substitute for engaging directly with Wilson’s words. Such a poet.

A level of commitment is required. Participants must read the play in advance and be ready to discuss when we meet. I may or may not have introductory remarks. Often folks are really anxious to jump into the discussion and I will demur. We will begin with each person bringing a passage that “spoke to them” and discussing it collaboratively. I read each play each time and post something to my blog that is unique to that reading (or I try).
Here is an early peep at the blog (it may seem all over the place): https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/. I have things more consolidated on Substack by free subscription. Everything on Substack is accessible on the WordPress blog. Hey, a brother’s gotta pay the rent! One day the Substack is going to be a book!

That’s all for now. I am so looking forward to doing this with you bawses! Dr. Stacey is going to allow me to do a small announcement Sunday, and I will get an email out early in the week, then weekly.

Best!
Raymond

Fall 2021 Proposed Syllabus

Syllabus

Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle

Course Description
The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods
The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage.

Required Texts
Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.

Additional Suggested Texts (not required)
Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook.
Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done.
Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson.
Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle.
Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson.
Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion.
Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.

Course Requirements
Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.

Week 1: October 10, 2021 – Jitney (1979) Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
– Lahr New Yorker Interview, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
– Suzan Lori-Parks Interview, 2005. https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
– Racist Roots of Urban Renewal. https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal
– Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/jitney.pdf
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Week 2: October 17, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982) Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.
– The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
– Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/ma-rainey-_1_.pdf
– My blog post has lots of links: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/
– Ruben Santiago-Hudson Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Week 3: October 24, 2021 – Fences (1984) Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory.
– Freytag’s Pyramid Dramatic Structure article: https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/what-is-freytags-pyramid-dramatic-structure/
– Article on Negro Baseball leagues. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/sports/baseball/mlb-negro-leagues.html
– America’s Most Undefeated Playwright: https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO
– Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/fences1.pdf

Week 4: October 31, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984) Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
– Article on convict leasing programs: https://www.thoughtco.com/convict-leasing-4160457
– Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual – https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/
– Maslow on Self-Transcendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/18/summary-of-maslow-on-self-transcendence/
– Maslow got it wrong – https://www.pacesconnection.com/g/tribal-communities-of-northern-california/blog/ravilochan-maslow-got-it-wrong
– Full play pdf: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qe- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

Week 5: November 7, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986) Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.
– Exploring the Use of Myth and Mystical Practice in August Wilson’s Century Cycle – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/colloquium-presentation-3-april-20186.pdf
– Article on Parchment Prison/Farm – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
– Youtube playlist (includes film adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Week 6: November 14, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990) Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
– Dear White People – Two Trains Running is Not About Race: http://phindie.com/11061-11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
– August Wilson Life and Work Timeline: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/2012/06/01/August-Wilson-s-Life-and-Work-A-timeline-1945-2005/stories/201206010268
– YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Week 7: November 21, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995) Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used to symbolize it.
– Aristotle Poetics, Parts 13-15 – https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studying-aristotles-poetics-part-13-a-a-perfect-tragedy-2bced5e9ed3c
– A Short History of the Legend of Buddy Bolden – https://www.jazziz.com/a-short-history-of-the-legend-of-buddy-bolden/
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
– Educational guide and synopsis: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qu

Week 8: November 28, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991) Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.
– The Function of the Chorus in Greek Drama article – http://krishaamer.com/function-chorus-greek-drama/
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
– Curriculum guide and synopsis: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/king-hedley.pdf

Week 9: December 5, 2021 – Gem of the Ocean (2003) Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
– August Wilson in the “City That Encourages Dreams”. https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/project_muse_588846.pdf
– Prologue: definition and examples – https://literarydevices.net/prologue/
– Baraka: Columbia the Gem of the Ocean – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/baraka-gem-of-the-ocean.pdf
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
– City of Dry Bones sermon: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/city-of-bones.pdf

Week 10: December 12, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005) Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
– Radio Golf Student Guide: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/radio-golf-student-guide.pdf
– The Ground On Which I stand: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/the-ground-on-which-i-stand.docx
– Alan Nadal, The Theatre of August Wilson, Chapter 9: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/chapter_9_the_century_that_cant_fix_nothing_with_the_law_radio_golf.pdf
– YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd

Re-posting from Minneapolis Star Tribune – Obit for William Yellow Robe, playwright

William Yellow Robe, the August Wilson of Native American playwrights, dies at 61.

RohanPreston

Star Tribune file Playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr.

Playwright William S. Yellow Robe Jr. was often likened to August Wilson for his uncompromising artistic vision and his fidelity to Native arts and culture. But the comparison carried only so far. Yellow Robe was not as well known but was highly respected in theater circles.

The professor, director and longtime company member of Penumbra Theatre died July 19 in Bangor, Maine, where he had been teaching. He was 61 and had long battled health issues, including diabetes and congestive heart failure.

“Bill believed there should be 574 Native theaters — one for each federally recognized tribe,” said Rhiana Yazzie, founder of the New Native Theatre in St. Paul. “Each tribe should have its own theater in its own voice and right to tell its own story.”

Yellow Robe lived that ethos, writing insightful, witty plays that plumbed the historical trauma and contemporary aches of Native American life alongside the joys.

He published his dozens of full-length and short plays in anthologies such as “Where the Pavement Ends” and “Restless Spirits.”

Yellow Robe is best known for titles such as “The Independence of Eddie Rose,” about a teenage boy facing the family demons of alcoholism and domestic abuse; “The Council,” a children’s play featuring animal characters; and “Grandchildren of the Buffalo Soldiers,” about the all-Black regiment that fought in the Indian Wars. “Grandchildren,” which drew on his own biography, was produced at Penumbra, directed by theater founder Lou Bellamy, who took it on a national tour to Trinity Rep in Providence, R.I., and to Native American reservations.

Born into an Assiniboine family Feb. 4, 1960, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Poplar, Mont., Yellow Robe was educated at reservation schools. He found his calling early and left the reservation for the University of Montana in Missoula, where he developed his acting and writing but found barriers to his success. He would only be cast in “Indian” roles, often one-dimensional stereotypes.

His solution was to improve his playwriting and craft his own plays, which he did with the help of a fellowship to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in the 1980s. That’s when he first met Bellamy.

Yellow Robe also encountered barriers to getting his work produced, so he founded a company, the Wakiknabe Intertribal Theatre Company in Albuquerque, N.M., where he was teaching. Yazzie was one of his students and mentees.

“Artistic directors across the country knew of his work but were afraid to put them onstage because Bill was always very truthful about the experiences of Native peoples,” Yazzie said. “He taught us to be truthful no matter what other people think about Native stories and to not change characters or themes or plot points to make audiences feel safe.”

Yellow Robe worked across the country to build up Native artists. His plays were produced or read at La Mama Theatre in New York, New York’s Public Theater and Trinity Rep at Brown University, where he first met Oskar Eustis, artistic director at the Public.

“Bill Yellow Robe was a unique and wonderful playwright,” Eustis said. “His work was fierce, funny and searingly honest … [It] could be uncomfortable, and provoke controversy, but he provided a glimpse into contemporary Native American life unparalleled in its depth and detail.”

Yellow Robe’s survivors include widow Jeanne Domek-Yellow Robe of Maine and sister Karen Yellow Robe of Wolf Point, Mont. Services have been held.

https://www.startribune.com/william-yellow-robe-the-august-wilson-of-native-american-playwrights-dies-at-61/600082480/

Playwrights influenced by August Wilson – Victor Vauban Junior

Insights into the family drama ‘Leaves’ from playwright Victor Vauban Júnior

By Deb Miller – August 8, 2021 Share

If you ask Brazilian-born Bronx-based playwright, actor, director, and circus performer Victor Vauban Júnior what he considers to be the most important qualities of a successful marriage, he will answer “love, trust, respect, loyalty” – and he’s even written an award-winning play to deliver that message.

Actors Ben Rowe and Dierdra McDowell in a promotional image for Leaves. Photo courtesy of the artist.

In Leaves, which begins performances for a limited Off-Broadway engagement at Theater for the New City this Thursday, August 12, Vauban addresses such momentous issues as assimilation, color, the importance of family, and mental health – themes that, he observes, “still remain controversial subjects within the African American community” – with a goal of not only entertaining audiences, but also sparking much-needed conversations.

The moving and relatable domestic drama, which won the award for Best Play in Riant Theatre’s 32nd Strawberry One-Act Festival in 2019, tells “a love story like you never seen before” through the lens of the “normal life of a quintessential African-American middle-class family” in upstate NY, which, despite a happy and conventional appearance, holds secrets.

In addition to the shining example set by his parents – “They were together for over 40 years and it was great to see their kind of love. The way they raised their children and their relationship was the essence of love,” said Vauban – the writer found motivation for his work in the words of playwrights August Wilson and Tennessee Williams, and legendary jazz singer Nina Simone, who believed that “the artist’s duty is to reflect the times.”

Victor generously made time over the weekend before performances begin to answer my questions about the significance of the play, his thoughts on its themes, and his mission with the affecting work.

Victor Vauban Júnior. Photo by Nathan Yungerberg.

What inspired the theme of the play?

The moment we are living in now has inspired me to write this piece. The play tackles several themes present in the history of mankind since the beginning of time. Love or the lack of it is the constant theme present in all of the plays I have written and I don’t think it will change any time soon. Love is such an intricate feeling, and at the same time the easiest to succumb due to its complexity.

What do you hope people take away from it?

I hope people will be able to identify themselves with the characters and connect with them and their struggles and triumphs in a way that will spark a significant and positive change in how they interact with the world, how it influences their lives, and the impact on the lives of those they might be in contact with.

Why is it especially relevant now?

We are living in a time when relationships and virtues have been severely compromised, causing almost irreversible damage to today’s society and future generations. There is a need to refocus and to find out what and where it went wrong. Family is the nucleus of a society and it must be protected. The world must learn to embrace diversity. Leaves brings up many questions and many answers at the same time.

Members of the cast. Photo courtesy of the artist.

What’s your first creative memory that put you on the path to becoming a theater artist?

I do believe that creativity is embedded in every living creature on the face of the earth. We are all born with an immense amount of creativity and many of us are able to identify it and nurture it. As far as I can remember since I was a kid there was always the need to question facts, to understand, and communicate. It was in college that I was really able to understand ways of canalizing my memories, emotions, and ideas and put them on paper in an effective fashion.

What are the most important qualities you strive for in your work?

Creativity, relatability, and excellence. I strive for the ability of making the piece clear and relatable. From the moment I take the time to sit down and write a story, the first thing in my mind is the people I am writing about. I must write about real people and real issues, with a dash of fantasy and delusion here and there, with a strong social message.

Thank you, Victor, for sharing your compelling hopes and thoughts. I look forward to the show, and wish you much continued success with it and with all of your future endeavors.

Leaves plays August 12-29, Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 3:00 pm, at Theater for the New City, 155 First Avenue (between 9th and 10th Streets), NYC. In keeping with current safety protocol, masks and social distancing are always required. Temperatures will be taken at the door; if not vaccinated, a negative COVID-19 test result taken within the past three to five days of arrival is required. Members of the audience will need a printed version of test results or a vaccine card in hand in order to expedite prompt curtain times. For tickets, priced at $18 for General Admission, $15 for Students and Seniors, go online.

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