Update – January, 2022

Thanks to all who have visited, read and subscribed to this blog.

There will be a new session of the August Wilson study group starting in March 2022 at OLLI-AU (https://www.olli-dc.org/view_all_study_groups) for which there will be additional content added for each play.

I also anticipate a stand-alone August Wilson study group this summer, July to September, via Zoom, of course.

I am very excited to share here that I am exploring the possibility of a new study group in the Fall of 2022 reading and discussing the works of noted novelist and cultural anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston. A lovely boxed edition of ten of her works was just released.

And for the Spring of 2023 (these things take time), I want to explore organizing a community of readers to take a deep dive into my three favorite works by Octavia Butler, Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Sower, and a compendium I continue to struggle to get through, Seed to Harvest.

So stay tuned, and keep checking out this space for great things to come!

Best and warmest regards to all!

Ray

Notes of Radio Golf: a unique perspective (12.17.2021)

For starters, Radio Golf is August Wilson’s “shout out” to the black middle class, its strengths and its weaknesses as a group. In that regard he touches on a wide range of pertinent topics, some of which we will discuss here.

There are three generations of the Wilks family highlighted by the present generation in Radio Golf. No, four generations. It appears to be somewhat of a patriarchy that begins with a common ancestor, Henry Samuels, father of Caesar Wilks and Black Mary. One of the sons of Caesar Wilks, perhaps the only son, carried forward the residential real estate business Caesar started. That son also carried forward many of the behavioral traits of the elder Wilks, passing the family real estate business on to Harmond Wilks when he graduated from Cornell. We also see represented the multi-generational transfer of wealth, resulting in the present generation being financially stable enough to seek political office without fear of financial failure. It’s a stable business, deeply rooted in the black community of the Hill District. It is an example of what can happen when a business is developed, preserved and passed on, intact, to successive generations.

I mentioned patriarchy at the top. There is no mention of Caesar Wilks’ mother, nor of his wife, nor of Harmond Wilks’ mother. It is, unfortunately, an opportunity lost, but one that may manifest itself in a future series of plays, or perhaps a novel. The Wilks Women. I can see it on the shelf at Barnes and Noble. Nevertheless, we know with certainty they existed and they no doubt played a significant role in their family’s success and prosperity. It is, lest we forget, an American Story.

Note this generation went to Cornell. Harmond’s brother, Raymond, the one who should have been the star, made an independent decision to go to Grambling, an HBCU in Louisiana, to play football. I can pretty much imagine the conversation across the dinner table when the father issued an ultimatum that he would not pay for his son to go to Grambling. Raymond, bereft of funds, ended up joining the Army, where he perished in combat in Vietnam. Lots of families have these stories.

So, when Harmond finished at Cornell, we assume a BA or a BS but it may well have been an MBA, he returned to Pittsburgh to take his place in the family firm, Wilks Realty. Along the way he met Roosevelt Hicks, almost a loose rhyme of Wilks, who may or may not have been his line brother in a black fraternity at Cornell. Oh the irony of it all! Roosevelt was clearly not born with the silver spoon – we can tell by his occasional use of non-standard English, his general attitudes about things, and his failure to pay attention to and appreciate the finer aspects of the house he is intent on demolishing. There is more discussion on this aspect of the character of Roosevelt in previous session notes. Let’s just conclude by saying they, Harmond and Roosevelt, are not cut from the same cloth. Suffice it to say that Roosevelt Hicks represents a specific archetype of the black middle class in Wilson’s estimation, and more broadly, the American middle class in general.

Mame has high aspirations for Harmond, their family, and herself. I am close to concluding that Wilson intentionally created Mame as a shallow and superficial character. But not quite there. She doesn’t get “The Piano Lesson” aspect of Harmond’s behavior, that ancient heirlooms are worth preserving, that they, like the interior finishings of Aunt Ester’s house, carry the story, the “visible speech” of multiple generations. In that regard, Mame also represents an archetype of the black middle class, Wilson might have us conclude, focused exclusively on the present and not necessarily beholden to prior generations.

We remember Sterling from Two Trains Running, who, at the end of the play, broke into a local butcher shop for a ham to place in a casket. That was 30 years prior, but he seems to still be up to old tricks. Sterling had been orphaned as a child and grew up at a local orphanage, Toner Institute. Yet he survived. Elder Joe Barlow, the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also has not had a pleasant path in life, with a rap sheet of petty criminal activity a mile long, as Roosvelt is quick to point out. But he is also a survivor. The survivor archetype finds expression not so much in the middle class but in, perhaps, the lower middle class, shut out from education, professional levels of employment and unionized job opportunities. The survivors provide a useful juxtaposition to the aspiring middle class. “Don’t be like them, don’t be like the riff-raff. Be like us.” We hear the whisper.

In the end though, betrayed by all the trappings of upwardly mobile middle-classness, we see Harmond all alone, tearing down the Tiger Woods poster, falling back on his original family business, Wilks Realty. According to the Broadway production note, he applies warpaint to his face, Cochise-style, in preparation, with Sterling, to go to war. Interesting that Wilson would bring in an allusion to the plight of Native Americans, the ultimate survivors, in the final play of the cycle. But that is exactly what he did.

Notes from prior sessions: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2021/05/05/radio-golf-and-wilson-debts-to-dunbar-and-oneill/

Post session notes. 12/19/2021.

A couple of unanswered questions: https://raymmaxx.wordpress.com/2021/12/19/blogmas-day-19/

Radio Golf issues in real life. Row houses are preserved and a massive commercial edifice is erected around it in Washington, DC.

Notes on Gem of the Ocean (12.10.2021)

Let’s begin with the proposition that Gem of the Ocean is one of the most linearly constructed plays in the cycle. Let’s examine the development of the plot using Freytag’s Pyramid.

In Technique of the Drama (1863), Gustav Freytag outlined what he considered to be the most successful structure for a play, based on the writings of Aristotle, Shakespeare, and the format of the well-made play. Briefly, Freytag believed the action of the play could be organized in the shape of a triangle, stressing that there should be five distinct parts:

freytag

The introduction (or exposition) explains the place and time of the action, and briefly characterizes the environment. Often, the exposition is a summary of what has happened before the play itself begins. Following a very short prologue that sort of sets the parameters of Aunt Ester’s visitation schedule, i.e., she see people on Tuesdays and the house is a peaceful sanctuary, we are introduced to the key characters, Eli, Black Mary, Selig, Solly, and Aunt Ester. As exposition, we learn that Eli takes care of the place, Black Mary cooks and cleans, Selig is in and out as a merchant, and Solly is a routine visitor.

As an inciting incident, we discover a local man, accused of stealing nails, drowns himself in the river rather than face justice for something he didn’t do. And late in the scene, Aunt Ester makes her long awaited (by us) appearance.

The rising action begins with Citizen Barlow’s surprise entry into the house through the upstairs window. Citizen Barlow is desperately seeking an audience with Aunt Ester to help him with a burden weighing on his soul. He has been told on the street that she can help him. Aunt Ester is drawn to Barlow because he reminds her of one of her sons. Aunt Ester ends up offering him not only work but a place to stay. There is almost immediate chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, when they meet, which Aunt Ester encourages. In a slight complication, Black Mary’s brother, Caesar, is not so taken with Citizen Barlow, Still, the romance continues.

The climax is the highest point of the action, the highest point of tension, after which the rest of the play becomes inevitable. Gem has two climaxes. They are: 1) Aunt Ester’s decision to “treat” Citizen Barlow with a therapeutic “journey” to the “City of Bones”; and 2) Solly’s decision to burn down the local mill before his trip back south to help his sister and Caesar’s action of seeking to arrest Solly for his crime. 

Two climaxes deserve two falling actions. The falling action occurs after the climax. It is usually shorter than the rising action, since there is necessarily less suspense. The falling action shows the result of the climax, and sometimes includes a calm before the storm: a moment when we believe that everything can still turn out all right. Barlow learns important lessons in repentance and forgiveness as a result of his therapy. Solly kneecaps Caesar when he comes to arrest Solly for the suspected arson.

The resolution (also known variously as the denouement or catastrophe) is the closing action, where the loose ends of the play are tied. It must be brief and simple, where the character’s downfall is relieved through a great deed. In Gem, Solly seeks to escape and Citizen Barlow, now relieved of his spiritual burden, feels empowered to assist Solly. But Caesar catches Solly on the escape route, shooting him in the chest from a distance. Selig and Citizen return Solly to Aunt Ester’s house where he dies. Citizen, transformed by all his experiences, dons Solly’s overcoat, takes his walking stick, and heads south to complete Solly’s work rescuing his family.

Marginalia notes

Tuesday is Ogun Day in the Yoruba calendar. Ogun is the god of iron and steel, an important deity for early century Pittsburgh. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” Aunt Ester only sees visitors on Tuesdays. And when Citizen barlow makes his pilgrimage to the City of Bones, he carries a piece of iron with him to make him strong of heart.

Aunt Ester hires Citizen Barlow to help Eli erect a stone wall on the side of the house, ostensibly to keep Caesar out. Solly suggests taking some wood and building a fence (a throwback to a different play, perhaps), but Eli insists on building a stone wall.

Garret Brown chose to die in honor, rather than live in shame. Somewhat reminiscent of Boomer’s decision to kill his girlfriend for falsely accusing him of rape, though I still see that as more of a Wilson vindication for Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas.

Citizen Barlow meets Garrett Brown again in the City of Bones, where Brown stands watch as the Gatekeeper. Barlow confesses his sin and repents and is allowed to enter. There he meets “spirits” who exhorts him to “remember me,” reminiscent of shadows in Dante’s Purgatorio. At one point, Barlow sees faces that all resemble his own, with tongues on fire, a metaphor cited in previous notes.

There is a subtle suggestion early in Scene 2 that Aunt Ester’s son, Junebug, was lynched.

Garret Brown’s obit.

Solly was Citizen Barlow’s spiritual father. But might he have been Citizen’s biological father?

The relationship between Black Mary and her brother Caesar Wilks goes up and down throughout the play. Ultimately, Black Mary disowns her brother. But we find out in Radio Golf that her brother never did disown her.

Aunt Ester explains how she became Ester Tyler and how she passes on the matriarchal identity to Black Mary.

There is a longstanding tension between Solly and Caesar Wilks. I think it goes back to Caesar’s “ruffian” days as an outlaw himself, a period he describes.

Interesting that August Wilson mentions John Hanson who Caesar describes as starting a riot. An internet search turns up two John Hansons. One, the President of the Continental Congress, the other, a senator who supported a program/policy to repatriate enslaved Africans to West Africa called the African Colonization Society, which resulted in the establishment of Liberia. There are internet rumors that the first John Hanson, President of the Continental Congress and hence, the first American President, was a free black from Maryland. If so, that was some riot he started.

I loved the quoting (and memorialization) of the William Cullen Bryant poem, Thanatopsis. Such classical beauty in poetry!

And finally, Eli’s eulogy of Solly brought tears to my eyes, as it does every time I read it.

“They laid him low. Put him in the cold ground.
David and Solomon. Two kings in the cold ground.
Solly never did find his freedom. He always believed
he was gonna find it. The battlefield is always bloody.
Blood here. Blood there. Blood over yonder.
Everybody bleeding. Everybody been cut
and most of them don’t even know it.
But they bleeding just the same. It’s all
you can do sometime just to stand up.
Solly stood up and walked. He lived in truth
and he died in truth. He died on the battlefield.
You live right you die right.”

postscript. One of my poems based loosely on Gem:

I know this coffee’s gonna be the end
of me. I’ve weathered storms, outlived a few
of my best friends and my worst enemies.
Each day I write a poem. Most are garbage
that revisions cannot save. Still, the past
fades and the future beckons – poetry
to write for the living and the unborn,
for those yet to come, and their tomorrows.
Two pennies in my pocket, two gold coins
to pay for the passage, two wings to veil
my face. We are going to the City:
a new level of organization,
a higher plane. Y’all know what all it means.
Put on your life vests. The ride is bumpy.

Cross-posted from Blogmas (https://raymmaxx.wordpress.com/2021/12/11/blogmas-day-11/ )

Tomorrow we meet by Zoom to discuss Gem of the Ocean, the ninth and penultimate play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle. In the play, Aunt Esther and her crew take Citizen Barlow on a journey by boat to the City of Bones, an under-the-Atlantic city built by and with the bones of those who did not survive the middle passage. In preparation for that journey, Barlow is instructed to find two coins, face side up, and a length of iron chain (as a tribute to Ogun, Yoruba god of iron).

In one fell swoop, Wilson ties together ancient (Yoruba, Egyptian), classical (Greek mythology), and Christian cultural archetypes.

The coins Barlow must find are to pay the ferryman, Charon, who steers the boat containing the souls of the dead over the rivers Styx and Acheron, an ancient Greek myth with Egyptian roots.

Aken was the patron and custodian of the boat named “Meseket” that carried the souls of the dead into the underworld in Ancient Egyptian mythology.
Charon, the ferryman, with the souls of the dead, headed to the underworld in Greek mythology.

The City of Bones has twelve gates, just as New Jerusalem is described in Revelations (Wilson doesn’t mention that, nor did he need to – everybody got it!), a city whose builder and maker is God (Hebrews 11:10).

After his journey, and upon the death of Solly, who had previously worked as a dragman on the Underground Railroad, Citizen Barlow placed the same two coins in Solly’s hands, an obulus for his troubles.

This play is the Mother of mixed metaphors!


 

Week #8 Notes: King Hedley II

Greetings, all: Hope you all had a great holiday time with family and friends. We had a nice road trip to North Carolina for Thanksgiving, visiting with extended family and folks in the old neighborhood where we grew up.

Concurrently, while home last week, I completed Dante’s Inferno and transitioned to Purgatorio. The transition held great meaning as I left Washington and reunited with family and friends from my childhood.

There are several quasi key events in King Hedley II that bear discussion. There is the death of Aunt Ester. There is the nonchalance with which King and Mister plot the jewelry store robbery, not to mention the sell of obviously stolen refrigerators, enough alone to, if caught, land King back in prison. There is the casualness with which King and Elmore discuss the murders they committed, nearly without remorse (I say nearly – we will get back to that). There is the decision by Tonya to get the abortion and King’s protests (ultimately she does not get the abortion – we will discuss that later also). There is, finally, the showdown between King and Elmore, spurred on by Mister where both decide to forego violence and take the path of forgiveness, The Key to the Mountain, Stool Pigeon would describe (the key, Dante says in Purgatorio, that unlocks the knot of wrath, yet another story), only to have Ruby fire the magic bullet that mistakenly (Wilson would have us believe) ends the life of her son while at the same time presenting his life as the fatted calf for sacrifice.

Whew, that was a long sentence and a long paragraph! And there are more side stories!

Aunt Ester

The Prologue sends us a signal that something really tragic is about to happen that will shake up the community. By the end of Act 1, Scene 1 we know what it is – the Death of Aunt Ester.  But before that revelation, all the other elements of the interlocking and overlapping plot lines are revealed: the mother-son tension between Ruby and King and King’s deep resentment towards his mother; the metaphor from Ruby about King planting his seed in bad soil; Aunt Ester’s cat watching the hole for two days; the stolen refrigerators mess; KIng’s first mention of dreams about wearing a halo; the announcement that Pernell’s cousin (King’s victim) is seeking revenge;  Elmore’s letter to Ruby announcing his return; Tonya and Natasha mother-daughter issues, and Mister’s marriage failure. And then the boom: Aunt Ester’s death.

Stool Pigeon points out that the Bible advises three days of grief while “some people,” i.e., African spiritualism, calls for mourning until burial. King had an ongoing relationship with Aunt Ester, whose grass he used to cut to keep clear the path to her house. He also ran errands for her to the drug store. She gave him a gold key ring (but not a key).    

The tale of the jewelry store robbery

It didn’t take King and Mister long to figure out they might come up short in their fund-raising efforts to open a video store, given the low profit margin on stolen refrigerators. But in the absence of GoFundMe and wealthy friends/family who could invest/contribute, they decided to rob a local jewelry store. No big deal – they’d don ski masks, stage the heist mid-day, and add the stolen funds to their investment kitty. Easy peasy. What is amazing to me is that they never paused to consider all the possible consequences of what they were planning/doing. It was just natural when King mentioned it for Mister to go along with it. Mind-boggling.

Murder as a rite of passage

In Act 2, Scene 2, Elmore and King have a sort of father-son chat, well maybe man-to-man is more descriptive, about what motivated them each to commit murder. Elmore regrets the future he took away from his victim, Leroy, who King later finds out was his true father. Later in Scene 3, King talks about passing Pernell’s tombstone and not knowing that Pernell had a son. He realizes in the same scene that murder didn’t make him a “big man.”  On the other hand, both agree that taking a life is no small task and is accompanied by a perverse type of power surge (my words).

Tonya’s abortion

Tonya (played by Viola Davis on Broadway that makes her presentation all the more powerful) gives us all the logic and justification why a poor woman, pregnant, would seek out the abortion option. As an aside, we later learn that Ruby visited Aunt Ester once, thinking she was an abortion provider. She eventually developed a spiritual connection to/with Aunt Ester, as did her son, King. But back to Tonya. Spoiler alert! Tonya never got the abortion. She says to King late in Act 2, Scene 3, “Your job is to be around so this baby can know you its daddy. Do that. For once, somebody do that. Be that. That’s how you be a man, anything else I don’t want.” I’ll leave it to you all to check out my previous session notes on what I consider the tremendous loss of human potential and human possibility since 1973 when Roe v Wade became the law of the land. Here are a couple of links.

Consolidated notes on King Hedley II

King and Elmore’s victory and King’s ultimate sacrifice

To make it short, when King learns that Leroy was his actual father, he considers exacting revenge on Elmore. Mister spurs him on, in fact, taunts him with cries of “blood for blood.” Meanwhile, Stool Pigeon reminds King and Elmore, in a metaphorical way, that forgiveness is the “Key to the Mountain” for both. Eventually Stool Pigeon’s advice carries the day, with King backing off and putting the machete in the ground and Elmore firing his bullets into the ground. But when Ruby hears Elmore’s gun fire, she assumes a different outcome and fires her gun without looking (we are led to believe). The fired bullet finds King’s neck, a mortal wound. KIng’s blood fills the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat, buried by Stool Pigeon in the garden. As the curtain goes down and the lights fade to black, we hear a faint “meow,” a suggestion that, well, you know what it means. We will discuss.
         
There is a lot more and I look forward to our Sunday meeting. It’s been two weeks and I have missed y’all!

post discussion notes 12/6/2021. I hope the “unpacking” of the final scene through a live reading was helpful. Let’s try that again next week with City of Bones scene in Gem of the Ocean! I’ll be reaching out for volunteers. King Hedley II is a complex play and several group members voiced their frustration with if not their dislike of the play in general. But we had a great discussion anyway! Riley Temple does an excellent job of summarizing the play in his book, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, as does Alan Nadal in four (yes four!) essays he edited in his book, August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth Century Cycle.

I hadn’t fully considered Ruby’s mental state at the play’s finale until we unpacked it and someone said, “Ruby has snapped!” As my sister-in-law observed when she visited us in Angola (and it may be equally applicable in August Wilson’s imagined world), it’s a wonder more people don’t “snap” given the daily pressures, frustrations and disappointments they have to endure. But again, it took role playing the final scene to fully bring that to light.

p.s. I love, love, love the imagery of the cat coming back to life and sounding the “meow” as the curtain falls and the lights fade to black!

Two more plays and our journey is done. Tighten your life vests and tuck those loose straps away. The ride is pretty bumpy at the end of the Cycle!

Week #7 notes: Seven Guitars

There were many distractions this week. But the show must go on!

I like to finish reading the play by Wednesday, write up my notes Thursday, and share them with you by Friday. But this week I am slightly behind schedule. I am going to list a few of these distractions for the sake of the historical record of our time.

Monday a member of my poetry group who lives in Poland posted on social media her efforts to work with Polish citizens to reduce hostilities directed against refugees fleeing into Poland from Belarus. I had read absolutely nothing in the US press about a border crisis between Poland and Belarus so I felt privileged to hear it from her first hand. I checked out some maps to actually see the various borders. A couple of days later I sent her a Langston Hughes poem I had previously sent to friends working the southern border crisis in our own country, Song of the Refugee Road, and included it in a poem I posted to my poetry blog here: https://thisismypoetryblog.wordpress.com/2021/11/17/whats-happening-at-the-poland-belarus-border/

Meanwhile, the jury deliberations in the Rittenhouse trial had us on the edge of our seats. When I saw those stacks of bricks being situated across Kenosha, I had flashbacks to the riots and destruction here in DC last summer (2020), a most unpleasant time in US history in my estimation.

Then the cantos we read from the Inferno this week, #30-#32, all had fascinating references to poetry and language that had me comparing translations (I have Esolen, Musa, Norton, and my favorite, Mary Jo Bang, a contemporary translation). I wish I could find a Zoom group doing Dante’s work. So far I haven’t found one. Or the right one.

OK. Seven Guitars. Of course, much has been made of the title and the implied numerology. Well, an internet search of “the numerology of number seven” only proves how much garbage there is on the world wide web! OK let’s roll the dice!

According to numerological studies, people with the number 7 are spiritual and in a constant search of hidden truths. They are explorers by nature and have a very different way of living life. Materialistic pleasures do not interest them. They are inclined towards the abstract and have an aptitude for art. Mostly, they are introverts.

It is believed that your guiding angel communicates with you by showing you repeating sequences of numbers. If you are seeing a sequence of three 7s, the angel number 777, as it’s called, it indicates that you are on the way to spiritual awareness.

https://mysticurious.com/facts-about-number-seven

Well, my first, middle, and last names all have seven letters!  777!

We meet seven characters in the play: Floyd, Vera, Louise, Hedley, Ruby, Canewell, and Red Carter. Wilson enumerates seven items or qualities in his mother’s life that are worthy of art. But you will be looking long and hard for seven guitars in the play. So it’s symbolic, a metaphor. Kushner goes on and on in his very long foreword about the “seven” symbolism.

Moving along, we see very interesting reactions among and between the seven characters. Floyd and Vera, Hedley and Louise, Hedley and Ruby, Canewell and Red Carter, and ultimately, Floyd and Hedley, to name a few. Let’s discuss.

Floyd has a forever thing for Vera. He messed it up once, a youthful indiscretion, perhaps. Now he wants Vera to go with him to Chicago and share his life forever. Vera is noticeably concerned, but she eventually gives in to Floyd’s irresistible charm, Louise’s warnings notwithstanding. Perhaps she should have paid attention to the counsel of an older woman.

I see a lot of depth in the relationship between Hedley and Louise, a lot more than just the landlord-tenant relationship. Louise is genuinely concerned about Hedley’s health. Of course, she may just be a caring woman but I am seeing something more. Hedley tells her, “You know a woman needs a man.” Later, Louise tells Hedley, “You ain’t gonna be nothing.” Sounds a bit personal. Later Louise tells Vera, “Hedley’s the closest I want to come to love . . . and you see how far that is.” But we don’t really see.

Hedley and Louise intersect at an unlikely juncture. Ruby, twenty something, arrives from Alabama, already pregnant. Hedley, 50-something, desperately wants to be a father. Over the course of the play, desire, intention and purpose all meet and Ruby decides to let Hedley think he is the father of her soon-enough-to-be-born child. Borgesian magical realism at its best, perhaps.

Canewell and Red Carter are guys in Floyd’s band, Floyd’s backup and support, so to speak. Canewell later becomes known as Stool Pigeon in the sequel, and Red Carter’s son, born in this play and named Mister, becomes best friends with Ruby’s son, King Hedley II. The relationships cross generations.

A subject came up in our discussion and I want to put a small pin in it for further exploration. Is it possible that there is a relationship between Canewell, who shows up twice, once in Seven Guitars (1948) and again in King Hedley II (1985) and the famous literary classic of African-American literature, Cane, by Jean Toomer?

Floyd and Hedley have their differences at many levels. (spoiler alert!)  Floyd idolizes Muddy Waters while Hedley prefers Buddy Bolden (old school vs. new in music). Floyd and Hedley go back and forth about what each heard Buddy Bolden say (ironically, Buddy Bolden left no recordings!). Floyd’s weapon of choice is a firearm while Hedley prefers a knife (and later, a machete). And both have a little thing for Ruby. But before the end, Hedley expresses his personal admiration for Floyd telling him, “You are like a king! They look at you and they say. . . this one is the pick of the litter.” At the end, in a kind of drunken stupor, Hedley mistakes Floyd for the ghost of Buddy Bolden bringing him money from his father (more Borgesian magical realism), and kills him with his machete.

Aside from his relationships with characters, Hedley brings us interesting information. Toussaint L’Overture, Marcus Garvey, voodoo, even insights on Joe Louis. The West Indian influence provides spice to the mix of characters. More on that in the discussion, hopefully.

I’d like to add just a thought here about the relationship(s) between Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Seven Guitars. Both are plays about the ins and outs of the recording industry. In Ma Rainey, the new upshoot, modernist (Levee), in a fit of blind rage, kills the black militant (Toledo), while in Seven Guitars, the old school (music-wise) traditionalist and black militant (Hedley), in a semi-drunken spree, kills the upshoot modernist (Floyd Barton, influenced by Muddy Waters). It’s almost an inversion of sorts. I’ll be sure to bring this up in our discussion.

Here is a link to my consolidate notes (six separate sessions) for Seven Guitars: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/random-thoughts-on-seven-guitars

To close out, may I share with you another one of my compositions? I call it Blues Villanelle (it has a repetition of two lines lines from Seven Guitars).

Notes on Two Trains Running – Veteran’s Day, 11/11/2021

Two Trains Running is not my favorite play in the American Century Cycle. Yet it is the one I’ve seen the most times on the stage. We saw it just a couple of years ago at Arena Stage, but our first time seeing it was at an off-the-beaten-path rather bohemian stage in London called the Tricycle. It was billed as the “English Premiere,” a bit of a misnomer, though in 1996 it may have been the first of any August Wilson plays to be produced and/or performed in London. I’ll have to look that up. Long story short, in my effort to “escape” the Embassy microcosm, I hung out in my then-girlfriend’s very multicultured world which consisted of her work colleagues, and folks from the former Portuguese colonies, the Caribbean, and South Asia. It made life in London VERY interesting.

The play is set in an important time in American history, the late 60’s, a time I recall, though it’s a time for which I don’t have memories of external events, just going to school, going to church, and beautiful childhood memories of life with my extended family, my tribe. Nothing that matches, except in retrospect, the characters and events of Two Trains Running. I mean, all that stuff was going on, even in Greensboro, but it was stuff for which I had no conscious awareness at the time. With that disclaimer, I’ll continue.

Wilson’s dedication simply states, “This one’s for Judy.” I take that to be an oblique dedication to his second wife, Judy Oliver, a social worker in St. Paul who he married in 1981. Perhaps she deserved more? They divorced in 1990. Nine years is not an insignificant amount of time. Wilson wrote six plays, the first six plays of the American Century Cycle, during the nine-year period. In news accounts, Wilson blamed the failure of the marriage on his work, saying at the end he and his wife had only spent three months together in the preceding five years. Four years later he married a young costume designer, Constanza Romero, whom he had met in 1987 on the set of The Piano Lesson at Yale Rep.

The epigraph is the closing couplet to a traditional blues tune made famous by Sleepy John Estes, “Diving Duck Blues.”

In Two Trains Running we have the first mention of the grand matriarch of the Cycle, Aunt Ester. That is the most important observation I can make on Two Trains Running and everything else I may say is really just a footnote.

In his foreword, Lawrence Fishburne says “Two Trains Running documents a turning point in the ideology of black people in America, when the promise of a new way of thinking (and living) arises.” Perhaps. But if so, it is a multidimensional turning point offering at least the following five choices: (1) the status quo (however that may be defined) in the midst of urban renewal upheaval; (2) Aunt Ester’s brand of local spiritualism; (3) Prophet Samuel’s brand of networked community (think Daddy Grace in Washington, DC, Father Divine in New York, and Elijah Muhammad in Chicago/Detroit, each with overlapping satellites in cities and communities across the country) promoting self-help (and self-enrichment to those fortunate to be in the leadership elite families) and a type of cultural/religious cohesiveness; (4) the cultural nationalism and political awareness offered by the slain Malcolm X, itself a dying movement, and finally, (5) the non-violence politics of the slain Rev. King, also in decline in the late 60’s.

Oh, and by the way, Holloway mentions remembering a time when Prophet Samuel was just Reverend Samuel, before he visited with Aunt Ester. Just like Reverend Avery in The Piano Lesson. So he establishes that tie. Later on, Holloway mentions remembering a time when Malcolm X’s group in Pittsburgh only had 12 members. When asked why he didn’t become #13, he responded that he always knew where to find Aunt Ester and hadn’t had any additional needs. Again, the Aunt Ester tie/choice/option.

To put a Dante spin on things, tiptoe-ing through this field of landmines, we are led by August Wilson the poet (portrayed by Holloway, the retired house painter) and August Wilson the pilgrim (portrayed by Sterling, recently released from prison). Rounding out the ensemble, we have Memphis the entrepreneur and Wolf the predator representing the status quo, and Risa representing the Prophet Samuel option. Unassigned is West the undertaker (though maybe he fits in the status quo), and Hambone, the oracle, who dies in the play.

It may be appropriate here to draw a comparison between the two funerals that frame the play, the exorbitant arrangements for Prophet Samuel vs. the meager setting for Hambone. Prophet Samuel, with diamond and gold rings on his fingers and rolled up 100 dollar bills in his hands, had people lined up around the block to view his body in its very opulent casket at West’s place. (Recall Berniece warning Boy Willie that “God’s gonna bless you and West is gonna dress you.). Hambone, at the same funeral parlor, but in a “welfare casket,” was visited by Lutz and a couple of folks from the diner. West mentions that Hambone’s body was covered with scars, which made me think of Risa’s self scarification. It also brought to mind lines from Dante’s Inferno (Canto #29)

As did each soul rake himself with the bite
of fingernails in the great maddening itch,
itch that will never find relief or rest,
and scraped the nails down the long stretch of scab
like a knife slicing scales from off a pike
or other fish whose scales are bigger yet. (79-84)

One may conclude that while Prophet Samuel represented the aggregate wealth and power of the black community, Hambone represented the eternal quest for justice. Both die, one in classic, opulent style at the height of his power and fame, the other as a pauper in his sleep. It turned out that the Malcolm X rally was a bit of a non-event, and as Memphis reminds us, “Dead men don’t have birthdays.” Speaking of death, Two Trains Running also has the only mention, in all of Wilson’s plays, of a person dying of a drug overdose.

An old friend from a former life used to say, “when you have too many foci, you lose focus.” I think that may be where we find ourselves in Two Trains Running (would that there were “just” two trains) and where black people found themselves in the late 60’s as a microcosm of where all Americans found themselves during the same, overlapping and intersecting period of social and political turbulence.

Riley Temple says the play is “short on plot, yet long on ideas,” a very precise way to say the play is all over the place. For a detailed synopsis, I refer you to the Huntington guide here: https://www.huntingtontheatre.org/august-wilson-monologue-competition/awmc-plays/two-trains-running/#Synopsis. I hope to distill a briefer synopsis by Sunday’s meeting.

Here’s a link to my consolidated notes on Two Trains Running: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/notes-on-two-trains-running

Here’s a link to the YouTube playlist: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

This is going to be short (I hope). My brain is all entangled in this thinking about Wilson’s second marriage and his half-hearted dedication to his second wife in this play. The effusive and loving intro/dedication to the third wife in Seven Guitars does not help. But I am going to just let it go.

I do want to say a word or two about the Hambone character and his representation of some eternal, aggregate quest for justice. That justice is not, nor will it ever be forthcoming in my estimation. That Sterling arrives late with the ham in bloodied arms to place in Hambone’s casket to me is just silliness – it likely gets Sterling in trouble and does nothing beyond the symbolic for Hambone or for his friends at the diner. In fact, they’d probably be better off cooking the ham and serving it at a dinner in Hambone’s honor.

It raises a more general question (and answer). Can the descendants of African slaves be somehow “repaid” for the crime against their ancestors? Are there suitable reparations? The economist in me says there isn’t, that slavery represents a sunk cost that cannot be retrieved/reimbursed, and that people are better off just going forward with their lives. Reparations became an election year discussion in 2020. Pity the fools who fell for it and allowed that discussion to influence their vote, one way or the other, to be clear.

Finally, I never noticed until this session the four year gap between Two Trains Running and Seven Guitars. But I think it is significant. Two different wives bookend the period. (I continue with my misgivings about the way the second marriage ended. “Ray, you just need to grow up!”). It’s my personal opinion that the final four plays take on a tragic nature, a somberness that was not evident in the first six plays. Greek tragedy at its finest. Going back to the Dante theme, we are more than halfway through a journey in this unordered American Century Cycle. But there is order. We see August Wilson the pilgrim as he winds his way on this journey. We see August Wilson the poet as he reports what he sees through the coded language of the blues. We see Wilson as the guide, Dante’s Virgil, steering us the readers through the fires of Hell, through Purgatory, and ultimately, to paradise. Here’s a sonnet that may fit the occasion:

I know this coffee’s gonna be the end
of me. I’ve weathered storms, outlived a few
of my best friends and my worst enemies.
Each day I write a poem. Most are garbage
that revisions cannot save. Still, the past
fades and the future beckons – poetry
to write for the living and the unborn,
for those yet to come, and their tomorrows.
Two pennies in my pocket, two gold coins
to pay for the passage, two wings to veil
my face. We are going to the City:
a new level of organization,
a higher plane. Y’all know what all it means.
Don your life vests. The ride may be bumpy. 

Notes on Week #5 – The Piano Lesson

First, here is a link to the full-length film adaptation: https://youtu.be/E8dUHxdeowE

And here is a link to the playlist: https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

I think this particular film adaptation is very important to the overall body of Wilson’s work because Wilson himself was on the set, directing, changing text positions, and creating new scenes in the film not possible in the stage production. We see an example of his standards for future film adaptations of his plays.

For this week’s review, I want to take a closer look, based on the play text, at how Sutter died. My opening hypothesis is that Boy Willie and Lymon actually did kill Sutter and dump his body down the well. At the end I want to explore the symbolism and metaphor of death in a well.

We know that Lymon is “on the lam” for a different reason. He was arrested for vagrancy, fined and sentenced to 30 days. Mr Stovall (where have we heard that name before?) pays his fine and contracts him to labor for a year to pay back the investment. Not wanting to work for Stovall, Lymon escapes and drives to Pittsburgh with Boy Willie. Of course he does not intend to return. He is, in effect, a fugitive.

Boy Willie is different. He flees with Lymon, but he has committed no crime that we know of. But we know he has a record and previously spent three years incarcerated on Parchman Farm.

The subject first comes up early in Act 1, Scene 1. Boy Willie tells Doaker and Berniece that he and Lymon are celebrating the death of Sutter at the hand of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. Doaker asks for details. Boy Willie immediately provides his alibi (without actually being asked): “About three weeks ago. Me and Lymon was over in Stoner County when we heard about it. We laughed.” Then he provides an interesting detail: “A great big old three-hundred-and-forty pound man gonna fall down his well.” When Doaker prompts Boy Willie about his unsolicited alibi, Boy Willie tells what is obviously a contrived story about working for Lymon’s cousin, then quickly changes the subject to the watermelons they have hauled to Pittsburgh to sell.

Smelling a rat, Berniece asks three times about how they acquired the truck (the getaway vehicle). Three times. Boy Willie claims Lymon bought the truck from Henry Porter, the name, by the way, of a British writer who served for 25 years as an editor at Vanity Fair. But that’s another story.

Berniece smells another rat about the truck and posits that Lymon may have stolen the truck. Again, Lymon doesn’t intend to return South, and later suggests he may sell the truck. But back to the murder mystery.

Later in the same scene, Sutter’s ghost makes his first appearance. Berniece sees the ghost, wearing a blue suit (strange for farming) and claims the ghost was calling Boy Willie’s name.

OK. Sideboard. Remember in Ma Rainey? After Levee’s mother was gang-raped, Levee’s father went out on a vendetta to kill the rapists. He killed four of them before he was himself tracked down. The revenge motive. Boy Willie’s father was killed when the sheriff and several men (including Sutter) set the box car on fire as he attempted to flee the scene of his crime, stealing a piano. One by one, all the people involved in that murder were killed by falling into a well, allegedly the actions of the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. But we know there is no such thing as ghosts. End sideboard.

Then, out of nowhere, in a seeming non sequiter, Lymon asks Berniece a question about Sutter’s ghost, “Did he have on a hat?” At that point, we know Lymon was at least at the scene of the crime.

Doaker has some great lines, both about his personal philosophy and about the history of the piano and the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. After the second appearance of Sutter’s ghost, Lymon and Boy Willie reveal how Berniece’s husband, Crawley, really died. Berniece rejects the story and instead blames Boy Willie.

Moving forward, early in Act 2, Scene 5, Boy Willie makes an interesting revelation. Speaking about a puppy he had when he was a child, Boy Willie riffs on his own stoicism, sounding a bit like Troy Maxson in Fences and Herald Loomis in Joe Turner reciting his lack of fear of death. When he took the dead puppy to the church after much prayer over it’s dead little body, and learning that praying in the church could not restore life to the puppy, Boy Willie proclaimed “Well, ain’t nothing precious,” and goes out and kills a cat in retribution. Later he says “That’s what I learned when I killed that cat. I got the power of death too. I can command him. I can call him up. The white man don’t like to see that. He don’t like for you to stand up and look him straight in the eye and say, I got it too.””

Yep. Boy Willie did it. In fact, he may actually be a serial killer, as earlier, when Wining Boy asked him how many men the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog had killed, he claimed “Must be about nine or ten, eleven or twelve. I don’t know.” Boy Willis may be a true psychopath.

OK, this may all be a stretch.

Now. Death by the well. I have seen a few wells. Out in what we used to call “the country,” every house had its own well. Some had pumps to bring well water into the house, but some hauled water out using buckets. We used to drink the well water from the bucket, using a steel ladle. Such memories. That well water was so cold and so sweet. Now, the well was surrounded by a type of housing that was built higher that we were tall, to keep children from falling down the well. Still it happened sometime. My father used to lift me up so I could see down into the well. I always wanted to see stuff as a little boy. If the sun was just right you could see the surface of the water and if the sun was just right, you could see your reflection on the water. You may see where I’m going with this.

“Narcissus, a beautiful youth, son of the god of the river Cephisus and the nymph Liriope, was born at Thespis of Boeotia in ancient Greece. He saw the reflection of his image in the clear waters of a fountain, and became enamored of it, thinking it to be the nymph of the place. His fruitless attempts to approach this beautiful object so provoked him that he grew desperate and killed himself. His blood was changed into a flower, which still bears his name.”  — Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary

Is it a stretch to consider that August Wilson may have expropriated the Narcissus myth to make a statement about human nature? There’s probably more to discuss. If you look closely at the Bearden painting from which Wilson found inspiration to write the play, there is a curious black mirror on top of the piano. Just saying.

Finally, and unrelated consciously to August Wilson, I wrote a poem about Narcissus some years ago. May I share it with you?

Narcissus

We stare into our computer screens –
it’s retina display, of course – clearer
than one’s reflection on a still pond.
The image we see of ourselves is sharp
and well defined – in Facebook and Twitter
and Instagram, and all the rest,

even in the poetry we write and post.
We fall in love with that image,
that reflection we see. We worship
the likeness we have created, validated
by likes and shares from all our imaginary
friends. We think we are godly, all knowing.

We believe we now know all of beauty.
Entranced, we cannot move away
to eat or sleep or love. We waste away.
We die. A drooping daffodil marks the time
and space, a date stamp of our delusion.

Finally, a link to my consolidated notes on The Piano Lesson: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/musings-on-wilsons-the-piano-lesson

Post discussion notes.

There seems to be a consensus that female characters are not as fully developed as male characters are. That surprises me because it seems a lot of space is dedicated to Berniece’s development track. Only a few people bought my theory that Boy Willie was a closet psychopath and serial killer. Well, I said it was a stretch. And I only got a couple of nods on my myth-of-Narcissus theory. C’est la vie!

Lots of discussion on Boy Willie and Berniece filled the space. Their relationship to each other, their relative positions vis-a-vis the piano, and the development of their characters throughout the play were discussion points. We agreed to a parallel between the “seance” in The Piano Lesson and the “Juba” in Joe Turner. Also, the lyrics to Berta, Berta gave us insight into the inner motivations of Herald Loomis in Joe Turner. Comparisons were made Zora Hurston’s Spunk and Toni Morrison’s Guitar in Song of Solomon (I’ll have to look these up).

Our discussion about the disposition of the family heirloom became a brief chat about erasure/cancel culture. I mentioned the current debate about changing the name of a DC high school from it’s original namesake, President Woodrow Wilson because of his racist practices that particularly affected DC blacks. Ed mentioned the name change of a law school in California for genocidal practices of its namesake, Serranus Clinton Hastings. I think the equating of selling the piano, which is both a family heirloom as well as an archive of the family’s history is a worthy discussion connected to The Piano Lesson. Related, I mentioned an op-ed I wrote several months ago about removing statues from the Capitol Rotunda was not well-received by readers of the Washington Post.

There will be more tomorrow when I watch the recorded video.

Post-post notes. The Piano Lesson really lends itself to what we have discussed earlier as a Dantean analysis (as mentioned last week, I am engaged in a daily reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy and I can’t seem to prevent it from spilling over into Wilson’s work, and vice versa. Might open up some new possibilities). In Dante’s world, literature is analyzed on four levels or layers or using four approaches – the literal, the moral, the allegorical, and the spiritual/mystical. Shall we proceed?

The literal, for The Piano Lesson, is easy. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy farmland and Berniece wants to keep the piano as a family heirloom. at the moral level it begins to get bit hazy. As stolen property, Sutter’s ghost has the strongest claim, perhaps. Beyond that, however, I think Boy Willie has the strongest claim in his plan to sell the piano and share the proceeds equally with his sister. At the allegorical level, the piano has acquired family heirloom status, preserving the history of the family as a record, and as a container for the family’s collective hopes and aspirations. The Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant, I say in a previous post. So Berniece has the strongest claim. At the spiritual/mystical level, Berniece’s final emergence as the high priestess of the spirit of the piano, calling on the ancestors and receiving their affirmative response, awards the piano to Berniece. And that’s how it all ends. Boy Willie returns to Mississippi, Berniece keeps the piano, and Sutter’s ghost departs the house (we hope!).

What about August Wilson the poet vs August Wilson the pilgrim in the play?

Week #4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: Notes. 10.28.2021

All:

I can’t sleep, or I don’t sleep well on these Joe-Turner’s-Come-And-Gone (JTCG) weeks. (It might be the mid-afternoon tea.) This week has been no exception. The imagery and the action is so alive it sets my imagination into overdrive. I can’t sleep until I’ve finished and until we’ve met to discuss it, although I know the ending like the back of my hand. Plus, it’s my favorite play in the cycle. Anyway, here we go.

First of all, JTCG is the second of the plays in what I like to call the Bearden period, the three August Wilson plays inspired by Romare Bearden collages. See excerpts from the three day short course that focus on the Bearden collaboration here: https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/august-wilson-american-century-cycle-f1d.

The play was originally named for the Bearden collage which inspired it, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket. The play’s title was changed in the third draft to reflect Herald Loomis’ period of court-ordered peonage at the turn of the century, just 35 years after emancipation. You all know the story. There were two blues personalities with the name Joe Turner. There was the song about the benevolent Santa Claus-like figure, Jim Turner, who brought wood and fuel to houses after flooding and fire wiped out a western Pennsylvania town. And there was Joe Tunney, brother of Tennessee governor Pete Tunney, who would capture “vagrant” black men and use court proceedings to lock them up and force them to do farm work for seven years. You have to listen carefully to the blues song to know which is being referred to. It’s almost a “double-consciousness” thing, and definitely a play on words that requires digging beneath the surface of things.

I want to say just a few words about Seth Holley. Entrepreneur and craftsman, Holley was born to free blacks in Pennsylvania who accumulated enough capital to build and run a three story boarding house, which he inherited. The boarding house becomes a meeting place and a transfer point for blacks migrating from the South to the North during the Great Migration. It also serves as the setting for the play. Seth warns tenants in a couple of places that “this is a respectful house.” We will hear a similar refrain much later in Gem of the Ocean, set one decade earlier about Aunt Ester’s home, “a peaceful house.” While Seth may be far removed from southern culture, though, he is the one who initiates the Juba on Sunday afternoons after dinner, demonstrating that the down home culture is still in his DNA.

Bynum plays the role of the oracle, the spirit man, but a person still in search of his own personal fulfillment. It’s why I included those Maslow articles in the syllabus. Dialing the clock back a few decades, which happens often, thematically, in JTCG, an enslaved person could never attain self-actualization, because he was a slave. But he (or she) could reach a state of self-transcendence, which is why it is so important to understand how Maslow got it wrong and how he tried to fix things in his later writings. A different conversation, but an important one in understanding the depth of Bynum’s character development. By the way, I think Bynum has some of the most poetic lines in all of August Wilson’s plays. My suspicion is that Wilson identifies closely with Bynum in his search for his “Shiny Man.” Attached is a paper written by a graduate student and presented at the 2018 August Wilson Society Bi-annual Colloquium that focuses on Bynum’s search.

Herald Loomis is foreshadowed in a conversation between Bynum and Selig about the meaning of life. Bynum relates a story his father told him about the “Shiny Man,” referred to as “One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way.” Isn’t that the meaning of “herald?” Well. Also sounds like John the Baptist. But that’s a much different story.

“Heralds are messengers sent by monarchs or noblemen to convey messages or proclamations—in this sense being the predecessors of modern diplomats.” So says Wikipedia. Perhaps a different angle from which to understand the Loomis character.

So when we meet Herald Loomis later in Act 1, we know by his name that he is going to be someone special with respect to Bynum, and by extension, to the plot development of the whole play. Loomis wears a long black coat, just like Solly Two Kings, the retired underground railroad conductor who continues smuggling family members from down South in Gem of the Ocean. Herald is recovering from unspeakable horrors during his kidnapping and forced servitude on Joe Turner’s farm for seven years. He seeks to reunite his family and especially, to reunite his daughter with her mother. He is a strange bird, always moody, always in a funk. Wouldn’t you be if you had seen the world through his eyes? But Herald Loomis becomes Bynum’s project, and through him, Bynum figures out the true “meaning of life.”

Selig is an interesting character. Seller of house wares door to door, Selig travels throughout the region. On his travels out of town, he often carries folks with him to nearby destinations. Bertha is convinced that’s how he knows people’s locations and can find them for other people. Selig, however, says he is in the People Finding business, claims there is an art to it, and rationalizes charging a fee for doing it. Selig also claims connections to blacks through his father who worked with slaveowners to find and capture runaways, and through his great-grandfather, who was a crewmember on trans-Atlantic slave trade ships.

The biggest known secret in the whole play is that everybody knows the woman Herald Loomis is looking for, and her location, but nobody will tell Herald. And I suspect Herald has figured that out before the end of Act 1. And I suspect that is why he acts up at the act’s closing, both acts, though no one mentions that he may have a hidden cause for his behavior because then they’d all be caught in their collective lie.

Going slightly below the surface, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is a tale about people in motion and transition. There are no static characters in this play. There is forward motion and backwards motion, there are combinations formed and recombinations. And yet, there are no drama queens in this, the largest ensemble of any Wilson play. There are no divas. The lack of a central protagonist, like Troy Maxson in Fences, may cause theater-goers to see this as a rather boring story. But they would be mistaken. This play seethes and overflows with elements of real human drama, the stuff, Shakespeare would say, “that dreams are made of.”

OK. I’ll stop here.

Ray

p.s. It’s not easy arranging your schedule to find time to sit down and read a play each week for ten weeks. But I think it is worth it, “vale a pena” as the Portuguese would say. First, you get important bragging rights for the rest of your life. Just like me reading all 100 Cantos of The Divine Comedy. But most important of all, you get initiated into this August Wilson view of the world, which, in these times, I believe, is both a meditation and a medication for our ills, or as Wilson says in The Play, “a song which is both a wail and a whelp of joy!” Please stick with it. And with us.

Consolidated session notes (long read!): https://raymondmaxwell.substack.com/p/fieldnotes-on-joe-turners-come-and

Post-session notes

We talked about how Herald Loomis and Martha Pentacost hardly exchanged words when they were united. It was obvious that both had moved on. Perhaps, I speculated, their separation began before Loomis’ kidnapping. We noticed how, when Loomis began to “act up” at the play’s end, Martha tried to talk him down and back from the edge, using biblical scripture, the 23rd Psalm, but to no avail. But revealingly, Martha showed no fear of Loomis, even after he brandished a knife, and I suggested that perhaps she was accustomed to that type behavior from him. Meanwhile, even before Martha’s return, Loomis made a strong play for Mattie Campbell, demonstrating again his willingness to move on.

Here is the Youtube video of our discussion: https://youtu.be/sjTzuq3Oa4E

Scene-by-scene synopsis

Act 1, Scene 1: We meet Seth and Bertha, owner/operators of the boarding house. Bynum enters, resident rootsman. local voodoo guy. Selg enters. Retail merchant who sells housewares that Seth makes – pots, pans, dustpans. Long discussion between Selig and Bynum about Bynum’s vision and a man he hopes Selig will help him find. Jeremy enters. Young, recently arrived from North Carolina. Loomis arrives with his daughter, Zonia, in search of his wife. Mattie Campbell arrives in search of her ex who left her. Seeks assistance of Bynum and his rootworking. Jeremy connects with Mattie who lives in a different location. Zonia connects with Reuben.

ore interactions. We learn of Selig’s ancestry. Father helped located and return runaway slaves. Great grandfather worked on trans-Atlantic slave ships cruises.

Act 1, Scene 3: Molly Cunningham enters and becomes a resident. Jeremy tries to connect with Molly and forgets Mattie. IN the sate directions, Wlson describes Molly with the words of a blues classic, Walking Blues: “She is about 26, the kind of woman that could break in ona dollar anywhere she goes.”

Act 1. Scene 4: After Sunday dinner, Seth leads the group in a Juba. Loomis walks in and acts up/goes off. Bynum talks/walks Loomis back from the edge. Loomis says his “legs won’t stand up.”

Act 2, Scene 1:Seth decides to evict Loomis, but allows him to remain until Saturday. Molly seeks to understand BYnum’s voodoo. Molly and Mattie confer about men and life. Jeremy makes a play for Molly.

Act 2, Scene 2: BYnum reveals to Loomis he knows Loomis is a Joe Turner alum. Best lines in the play.

Act 2, Scene 3: Bertha mentors Mattie bout men. Mattie and Loomis connect.

Act 2, Scene 4: Reuben and Zonia romance and plan for the future.

Act 2, Scene 5: Mattie connects with Zonia. Loomis leaves the house. Bertha mentors Mattie. Martha Pentecost arrives (returns). Loomis returns to the house, confronts Martha, accuses Bynum and starts acting up again. Martha tries to calm Loomis down, to no avail. Loomis cuts himslef, self-baptizes. Loomis leaves and Mattie follows behind him.

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!