Notes on Session #4 of Radio Golf

As we turn the bend and complete the ten-play cycle with Radio Golf, I find my normal sense of humanism about all things evolving to a slight skepticism that I hope I can resolve or at least work through by writing about what I have read this week.

I want to start with Harmon’s keen eye for detail in interior design that sets him off from his two contemporaries in the play, his wife Mame and his business partner, Roosevelt. Harmon takes note of the hand-tooled embossing on the tin in his office. Mame’s response, “Then take it down and sell it.” God bless her soul, she is just cut from a different cloth. Unrelated (or perhaps not), when in the same scene Roosevelt asks Mame about her new job as the Governor’s press rep, she says, “If they find out I’m too excited about that job they’ll determine I must not be qualified.” To which I wonder, well, is she qualified or isn’t she? A truly qualified person should not have to add that step into the system of equations, racial considerations aside.

In Act2 Scene2, Roosevelt decides to leave his job as VP at Mellon Bank. He barges into his boss’s office, ignoring all protocol, and says “Kiss my ass, I quit.” That might have gotten some laughs from the audience, but what kind of professional does that? I mean really? And hasn’t he considered that his attractiveness to his new financier, Bernie Smith, is tied to the big picture, which includes his employment at Mellon Bank? I wrote in the margin, “bad move.”

Getting back to interior design, in the same scene, Harmon and Roosevelt are discussing the house at 1839 Wylie and Harmon asked Roosevelt if he has even been inside the house. Of course Roosevelt hasn’t, because he pays no attention to detail. Harmon goes on and on about the architectural style of the house and the solid foundation, the beveled glass trim on every floor, the large stain-glassed windows and the hand-carved balustrade on the staircase. All this is reminiscent, as Elam points out, of The Piano Lesson and the piano, which is both an archive and a Holy Grail for the Charles family. And what is Roosevelt’s response? “. . . people don’t like that kind of shit anymore.” When Harmon says the house smells like a new day (a very symbolic reflection), Roosevelt blames it on the mothballs. Roosevelt has a bit of cash and a Cornell degree, but he totally lacks class.

Further, the way Roosevelt flaunts Old Joe’s criminal record, as if it makes a condemnation of Joe’s character, and the way he dresses down Sterling late in Act2 Scene 4, or tries to dress him down, demonstrates not only his lack of compassion, but his total hatred for those less fortunate than he. On the other hand, towards the end of the play, we see an alignment between Harmon and both Old Joe and Sterling that shows Harmon’s sense of community and his social awareness, the fortunate circumstances of his birth notwithstanding.

So there is a basic incompatibility, between Harmon and Roosevelt, and perhaps even between Harmon and Mame. Harmon and Roosevelt are united by their time at Cornell and their love of golf, though upon close inspection, even those two things reflect greater differences than similarities between the two. Harmon and Mame are united by marriage and a dream of mutual accomplishment and achievement. But when Harmon backs away from “the plan” and decides to try to do the “right thing” about Aunt Ester’s house, we see Mame backing away ever so slightly.

Harry Lennix and the Elam article, Radio Golf in the Age of Obama

Harry Elam gives us much food for thought in his article, “Radio Golf in the Age of Obama.” He asks 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 he leaves out an interesting detail. The actor who played Harmon Wilks as the play toured and made it 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 a an educated south side African-American.” Life follows art.

In a very interesting repetition highlighted in the Elam article, Harmon’s grandfather, Caesar, says to the then Aunt Ester, “Now you know Miss Tyler, you got to have rule of law other wise there’d be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” And Harmon “mansplains “ to Mame and Roosevelt, “You got to have rule of law. Otherwise it would be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” I say “mansplains” partly in jest, but partly to illustrate that Harmon speaks from an implied sense of authority when he needs to make a point, much as he “mansplains” to Mame in the beginning of the play, “ Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight,” a statement that Mame is correct to question, in my opinion.

Elam introduces us to Pierre Nora’s Lieux de Memoire, sites of memory, as a way of analyzing the importance and significance of Aunt Ester’s house, the intersection of history and memory in “moments of history torn away from moments of history.” Finally, Elam connects Harmon’s warrior spirit to that of Solly and Citizen in Gem, Loomis in Joe Turner, Levee in Ma Rainey, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Floyd Barton in Seven Guitars, Troy in Fences, Sterling (same Sterling) in Two Trains Running, Booster in Jitney, and King in King Hedley II.

Here’s a sonnet to celebrate completion of the cycle:

confined to quarters – a sonnet and a farewell to Wilson’s ten-play cycle

What must we conclude when the cycle ends?
Is there cause for hope, for optimism,
A balm we can surely find in Gilead?
Or isn’t all just a wink and a nod,
Yet another slave narrative that shows
the futility of our pleas for peace?

As a teen I thought Robert Redford might
Someday be President. I mean, Bobby Seale
Didn’t really stand a chance and Redford
Was at least a man of action. But there
was no great art in his films, well, except
in that spy flick he did with Dunaway –
Who had been my secret crush forever –
Where, under duress, she said, “This is . . . unfair!”

 

Consolidated notes from Sessions #1, #2, and #3

Youtube playlist

 

Consolidated notes on Radio Golf

Session #1.

Very first impression: my wife and I saw this on stage in Baltimore in 2006. It was still “fresh off the press,” being performed across the country, not yet ready for prime time on Broadway. Reading it now, at the end of the Century Cycle, I realize that I missed a lot of the plot action when I saw it performed in 2006. It seemed at the time to have no context, no unifying structure. But this time, it all makes sense.

This study guide has good background material for all of Wilson’s works.

https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Documents/Study%20Guides/0607%20Season/RADIO%20GOLF%20Student%20Guide.pdf

Characters and their relationships in previous plays:

  • Harmon Wilks, grandson to Caesar Wilks 100 years before in Gem of the Ocean.

  • Old Joe Barlow, son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean. (Recall Black Mary and Caesar Wilks were half siblings).

  • Sterling, older and wiser but still Sterling, from Two Trains Running.

  • Mame Wilks, wife of Harmon.

  • Roosevelt Hicks, college buddies with Harmon at Cornell.

  • 1839 Wylie Street, home of Aunt Ester, willed to Black Mary, left to Old Joe Barlow, her son with Citizen Barlow, purchased by Harmon Wilks for delinquent taxes, sold to Bedford Hills Redevelopment run by Roosevelt Hicks and Harmon Wilks.

There is a lot to be said about the reappearance of the Barlow and Wilks families from the first decade of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean. I saw Caesar Wilks previously as a type of “godfather” figure and that was borne out in his and his son’s paying of the taxes on Aunt Ester’s house for all those years. We saw the chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary at the end of Gem. Happy to see that worked out. When Mame says “I tied myself so close to you that there is no me. I don’t know if i can carry this any further,” I immediately thought about Rose in Fences, who mentions a similar submergence of the wife’s personality into that of the husband’s. I personally think Mame and Harmon will make it, but the path immediately ahead will be rocky.

It appears that Roosevelt gets his way in tearing down Aunt Ester’s house. But the story may not end there. I suspect the Roosevelt/Harmon relationship, business-wise and socially, will not survive this dramatic breech of trust.

The play treads all so gingerly on the subject of gentrification, which is bound to accompany redevelopment of the Hill district due to its close proximity to the center of Pittsburgh.

Radio Golf. What’s in a name? Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a white businessman Harmon 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 (his humble origins are betrayed by his first name) the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat. It’s the Cosby/Huxtable family all over again except we never see the children. But they are there.

From the Urban Dictionary:

Huxtable: A reference to an “upscale” or “Upper Middle Class” black person or family. NOT derogatory when used by white people, but can be derogatory if used by blacks, about blacks. Derived from the Huxtables on the Cosby Show. Also used to define “poser” black families, trying to act “white”

On the subject of golf, Roosevelt’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1 where he reflects on his first experience hitting a golf ball was both stirring and moving. Poetic, in fact. But the same monologue also betrays Roosevelt’s deep-seated sense of insecurity, if not inferiority with regard to race.

And who is this play’s Wilson Warrior? Which character shows the greatest transformation? Which one “finds his song?” Harmond Wilks has my vote. While Sterling and Old Joe have the best lines in the play, the most poetic monologues, Wilks goes the greatest distance in his discovery of his roots and his changing outlook to reflect that discovery. Radio Golf extends the Wilsonian vision to the black middle class and gives them as a class their own separate hero. I think that is a good thing.

Finally, this play is a huge advertisement for genealogy. AncestryDNA should not only be thrilled, they should be tripping over themselves to underwrite local productions of the #AmericanCenturyCycle.

postscript.

Here is the NYTimes review of the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf.

Events of the 1990’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447

Session #2. 

Radio Golf is dedicated to Benjamin Mordecai, former managing director at Yale Rep, co-director of all ten of August Wilson’s plays. Like Wilson, Mordecai died at age 60, just a few month’s before Wilson’s passing.

The play has the smallest ensemble cast of any play in the cycle with five characters. Sterling has appeared before in Two Trains Running. Harmond Wilks is the grandson of Caesar Wilks, who we remember from Gem of the Ocean, and Old Joe Barlow is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also of Gem of the Ocean. Radio Golf is an intergenerational family play at the end of the Wilson Cycle.

Roosevelt Hicks is Harmond’s business partner and was his college roommate at Cornell. Roosevelt speaks in a loose Negro dialect most of the time (compare his language to Harmond’s more standard English), suggesting he does not come from an educated family background like Harmond obviously does. He places high value on superficial things, like golfing, and business cards, and falls prey to get rich schemes like being the minority partner in the radio station purchase and front man for Bernie Smith, a rich white business guy. He says that without his new business cards, people on the golf course will think he is the caddie. Roosevelt is an insecure man.

Harmond want to put his campaign office in the predominantly black Hill District, while his wife wants him to locate in the more affluent white section of Shadyside. Harmond explains, “You don’t understand. Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight (italics mine).” Harmond understands politics at its essence, while his wife is operating on the superficial transactional level.

Sterling went to high school with Harmond and his brother, Raymond. But Sterling has had a troubled life, in and out of jail and trouble. He seeks employment, yet does not have the required union certifications. His remark to Harmond and Roosevelt that they should call him back for work before the phone company cuts off his phone does not inspire confidence.

In a conversation between Roosevelt and Harmond and the end of Scene 2, Roosevelt notices something and bolts to the door, saying “Hey! Hey! Get off my car!”  Could it be a cat? Could it have been the cat resurrected at the end of King Hedley II? Could it be the spirit of Aunt Ester?

Moving ahead to the end, once Harmond establishes his family connection to Old Joe Barlow and to the property at 1839 Wylie Ave. (which was illegally acquired, Harmond discovers, by the property development company), he attempts to do the right thing by redrawing the plans to preserve Aunt Ester’s house intact. At the play’s end, Roosevelt turns on Harmond, and we don’t know what is about to happen to the house, whether it will be demolished or not. But Harmond has made the right and correct decision. He echoes Ma Rainey in his description of Roosevelt’s betrayal, “After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?” Roosevelt says twice he is not anybody’s whore, which indicates that he is in fact somebody’s whore.

Harmond paints warrior markings on his face, like Sterling did earlier, then exits the office. Harmond is redeemed and the spirit of Aunt Ester lives!

Here are some review notes:
Huntington Theatre Company production of Radio Golf, 2006.

New York Times review, Broadway, 2007.

Late entries.

Joe Mott, who Old Joe mentions in Scene 4 reminiscing about his WWII battle experiences, is also the name of the black bar owner/gambler in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. August Wilson maybe is establishing a connection to Eugene O’Neill through one of O’Neill’s characters.

Hail! Hail! The Gangs All Here! was popular among troops in WW1 and WW2 though it had earlier antecedents. More recently, it was featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slauterhouse-Five. I think the Vonnegut may have been the connection Wilson was making. There is a bit of irony here. Songs from other plays are steeped in blues and spirituals, yet here are two Cornell graduates singing this very Irish/Celtic show tune.

Blue Skies, an Irving Berlin song from the musical Betsy (1926) was later made popular by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was also one of the first songs featured in a talking movie, sung by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

Sam Green, a grocer mentioned in the play, in real life was definitely someone Wilson would have wanted us to know about. Sam Green, enslaved in Maryland, was arrested and convicted in 1857 for having in his possession a copy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After much protest from the abolitionist community, Green was freed in 1862 under the condition that he leave Maryland. The family emigrated to Canada where young Sam Green Jr. had previously escaped to. After Emancipation, Green returned with his family to Baltimore and became involved with running the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University.

Session #3.

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

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

Let’s work backwards for better detail resolution.

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

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

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

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

More later.

p.s. The Radio Golf Play game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radio Golf – post-class thoughts

  1. Harmond as Job, Harmond as Wilson warrior.

  2. Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt.

  3. Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?

  4. Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record.

  5. Aunt Ester’s house, architecture and carpentry as archive.

  6. Military veterans in the Cycle.

The above list details a few of the ideas we discussed in our final group discussion of the session.

The Job story. At the end of Radio Golf, Roosevelt has used Bernie Smith’s money to buy Harmond out. Harmond has lost his stake in the project and his voice in its management. He has lost a long term friendship with Roosevelt in a broken business relationship. Curiously reminiscent of language in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Harmond, in obvious disappointment, tells Roosevelt,

Enter Roosevelt Hicks.
The shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile.
How much he pay for something like that?
After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?
A hundred dollars?
Three hundred dollars?
Or are you one of them high-class whores?

Harmond has apparently lost his shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Mame, has correspondingly lost her spot on the shortlist to become the Governor’s press representative. Mame, in a Rose Maxsom moment, says,

“You jumped but I’m falling too.
I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks.
That’s all the governor sees.
All any of the other board members see.
What all our friends see.
I tied myself so tight to you
that there is no me.
I don’t know if I can carry this any further.

We are left to wonder if Harmond’s marriage is salvageable. Harmond loses all, just like Job in the Bible. At the end of the play, outside the text but in the director’s notes, we see Harmond painting lines of his face, like Sterling did earlier when he tells Roosevelt, “I learned that from Cochise. We on the battlefield now,” though Harmond reveals to us in his final monologue with Roosevelt that he was always on the battlefield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the old Negro spiritual:

I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord,
and I promised Him that I
would serve Him ’til I die;
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.

We believe that it all works out for Harmond because that’s what Wilson wants us to believe. Harmond retains his family real estate business, effectively putting Roosevelt out of the office at the end and tearing down the Tiger Woods poster (too bad on that one, given Tiger’s recent greatest comeback of all time). Just as it all works out for Old Testament Job. After enduring all of God’s trials and tribulations, Job is a better man. Riley Temple, in his classic work, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, compares Harmond Wilks to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a sort of reborn Adam with a quickening spirit.

The Jacob and Esau story. I mentioned in our discussion without giving it full thought at the time the story of Jacob and Esau, then backed down when I wasn’t able to carefully articulate the subtle nuances of the comparison. I still am not, but i think it is worth mentioning and memorializing. In the play we have allusions to the relationship between the twin brothers, Harmond and Raymond, with Raymond bolting from the father’s plan early to attend an HBCU followed by his decision to enlist, which led to his unfortunate and untimely demise as a soldier in Vietnam. Harmond, on the other hand, stayed with his father’s plan for him and almost made it to the mayor’s office, which could have been followed by the Senate, and perhaps even the White House. We will never know, though we can venture to speculate that Harmond Wilks might have been better equipped to occupy the White House than Obama was. Back to the discussion. In a way of thinking, Raymond sold his birthright to pursue an independent track, leaving the “promise” to Harmond. Similarly, Harmond and Roosevelt extend the Jacob and Esau story, except this time, it is Roosevelt selling his birthright for immediate, temporary gain, again, leaving the “spiritual” and “metaphysical” promise of saving the community to Harmond.

Who stole the golf clubs? Did anyone else find it curious that the golf clubs went missing from Harmond’s trunk, only to be purchased by Sterling, who in turn sold the the clubs back to Harmond, later accusing Harmond of “receiving” stolen property (with an implied threat of future blackmailing)? Did anyone else connect the dots and conclude that it is a high probability that Sterling actually stole the golf clubs in the first place? Why else would he return Harmond’s payment that was to cover his own payment to the fence (the alleged intermediary who actually stole the clubs, and an allusion to yet another August Wilson play) in the first place? We play Sterling cheap at our own peril. Sterling is a messenger from the past (Two Trains Running) just as Elder Joe Barlow is a messenger from the past (Gem of the Ocean), both present to serve as midwives for Harmond’s spiritual birth as a Wilson Warrior.

Life as a record. Roosevelt, after consulting with the local police department, is only too happy to attempt to smear Old Joe’s character by citing points on his police rap sheet, thereby somehow harming Old Joe’s claim to the property at 1839 Wylie (Ad hominen fallacy). In Act 2 Scene 3, Roosevelt reads the list, to which Harmond replies, “All that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean anything. i don’t care if he’s a criminal. We can’t tear down his house.” Roosevelt again shows us a vile side of his character.

Aunt Ester’s house as the archives. We don’t know what Harmond studied in school, but he has a definite appreciation for interior design. In Act 2 Scene 2 he describes the interior of Aunt Ester’s house:

“It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. You don’t see that too often. . . .You should feel the woodwrok. if you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. And old language. And there’s this smell in the air . . . .The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.”

One senses, through Harmond’s discovery and descriptions, that the lives of generations of families are carved into those walls, recorded in those carpentry fixtures, much like a primitive archive, much like Berniece’s piano in The Piano Lesson. Early in the history of record keeping, records and data were carved into walls, as displayed in this John White Alexander mural at the Library of Congress. The series of murals is entitled, “The Evolution of the Book.”

Let’s take a brief look at the military veterans among August Wilson’s characters, Solly Two Kings (Civil War) in Gem, Floyd Schoolboy Barton (World War 2) in Seven Guitars, Gabriel Maxsom (World War 2) in Fences, Doub (Korean War) and Darnell “Youngblood” Williams (Vietnam War) in Jitney, and Elder Joseph Barlow (World War 2) in Radio Golf. Today, on Memorial Day weekend, my attention is drawn to Elder Joseph Barlow, Old Joe, and specifically, his monologue near the end of Act One where he describes his participation in a World War II battle. In his story, Joe Mott, the flag bearer, gets shot in battle, and Joe Barlow picks the flag up and carries it throughout the battle and until the day of his discharge. You have to read it and I won’t spoil it for you. But here’s the deal. Joe Mott was also the name of a character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the name shows up here in this setting. With August Wilson, there are no coincidences.

Fresh reactions to Radio Golf at Everyman Theater in Baltimore – 11/3/2019

Let me begin by saying this is the second time I’ve seen Radio Golf on the stage. The first time was nearly fifteen years ago, also in Baltimore, playing the regional theaters pre-Broadway.

Also, I am reading a book in preparation for the Spring 2020 session to sharpen my ability to look at a play analytically. David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. So that informs somewhat my review.

Finally, my GPS was on the blink and I missed the downtown exit and was five minutes late arriving at Everyman Theater, so I caught the first scene of the first act on a closed circuit screen, but got the rest of it on stage.

Altogether, it was a marvelous and amazing performance. Both Harmon (portrayed by Jamil Mangan) and Roosevelt (performed by Jason McIntosh) were compelling, convincing, and magnificent. In fact, by the end of the play I really disliked Roosevelt, emotionally, in a way I hadn’t from the mere reading and discussion of the play. He got to me. That must mean he really nailed his role. Charles Dumas as Elder Joe Barlow was delightful, personable, and charming and worked his way into everyone’s heart, including my own. Anton Floyd simply killed it as Sterling Johnson, the hard luck orphan and ex-convict from Two Trains Running, having become quite the wise man over the the 30 years since his first appearance in the Cycle. I thought Mame Wilks was a bit weak, in fact, the weakest link in the ensemble, but I find myself questioning whether it was the acting, or perhaps Wilson wrote her role as not quite as compelling as, say, Risa, or Rose, or Berneatha, or many of Wilson’s other female character-types. When she says at the end, “I’m still standing here,” it rings a bit hollow and you wonder if their relationship will last or if, perhaps, she might run off with Roosevelt! At the same time, you wonder if Mame is right, and if Roosevelt is right, and if, perhaps, Harmon has taken this family thing too far. Then you remember Ceasar Wilks and Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean and you know that Harmon really is trying to do the right thing.

The stage setting was stunning and definitely added to the flow of the dramatic action. Bravo Zulu to Everyman Theater!

On substance, the staged production really accentuated the deterioration of the relationship between Harmon and Roosevelt. I could feel the tension between them growing, even while the “frat-boy” aspects of their college days managed to manifest itself in the plot development. I identified very strongly with Harmon, and I found myself almost despising Roosevelt for a number of reasons. And I also found myself anticipating action throughout, and I think that comes less from reading the play repeatedly and more from the actual acting and the practice of forwarding in the plat. The sound effects were also telling, especially the sound of the bulldozers at the end of the play.

Preview YouTube video Hail, Hail, the Gang’s All Here

King Hedley II notes (5.5.20)

First, I note that this is the only play in the cycle named for an ensemble character.

Prologue

King Hedley II is one of only two plays in the cycle that contains a formal prologue, 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, Two Trains Running and Radio Golf have neither prologues or scene setters and, instead, plunge the reader or playgoer directly into the action of the first act.

Additionally, the Prologue in King Hedley 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. As readers and playgoers, we are placed on warning of ominous things to come.

The Halo

King seems obsessed throughout the play with the existence of a halo around his head and his concern that other people may or may not be able to see said halo. (A halo is a circle of light around the head of a holy figure, whether a saint, an angel, or a god). Why might King be concerned about having a halo? On three separate occasions, King’s halo is the subject of conversation: between Mister and Tonya in Act 1 Scene 1; King asks Stool Pigeon in Act 1 Scene 2; and in Act 2, Scene 1, King asks Elmore. On one level, it appears King is seeking affirmation or approval or recognition from his closest friends. But on another level, we have to ask the question, is King OK mentally? Based on other things he has said and decisions he has made, I think we have to wonder about King’s mental health state.

Of course, that begs a different, bigger and broader question. How much of this life of incarceration, joblessness, and government-sanctioned mistreatment can a normal person be expected to take and to endure before they mentally reach a breaking point? And is that the goal? And is that what August Wilson is pointing out in the cycle of plays? These are questions that might arise and need to be considered.

Criminal Activity

King and Mister have a couple of on-going criminal activities they are involved in. They seem to move into and out of criminal activity and back to their “normal” lives with ease and without a second thought. That is slightly concerning.

King and Mister are hustling stolen refrigerators with a guy King served time with to make money to invest in a video store (that may be a pipe dream, but it seems plausible). When Elmore arrives, he is easily drawn into the refrigerator hustle because it makes money (it’s funny, I found myself comparing this hustle to the practice in Fences of buying furniture and appliances from a door-to-door salesman who has inside knowledge that people have been refused credit. While usurious, this is considered completely legitimate.)

When hustling refrigerators is not turning over cash fast enough, King and Mister decide to rob a local jewelry store. King is an ex-con (I’m not sure about Mister but it seems like he might be) and one would think he would think twice about something that might land him back in prison. But no! Without much forethought or planning, they decide on the spur of the moment to rob this jewelry store! And it appears they get away with it!

It appears that the threat of incarceration is no longer a disincentive to criminal activity. That is a worrisome state!

Death of Aunt Ester

At the end of Act 1 Scene 1 we learn that Aunt Ester has died. That singular event controls and forms the pivot for the remaining of the action and plot development of the play. There is no longer a source of wisdom in the community, nobody to go to for counseling, soul-washing, or just friendly motherly advice. It’s a big loss to the community and to the ensemble, many of whom had previous interactions with Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester’s house reappears in Radio Golf in a central role, but absent any magical realism injections, Aunt Ester’s direct influence is done.

Neesi

Neesi was apparently King’s first love and Tonya thinks he is still carrying a torch for her. There is an interesting process Wilson uses to weave Neesi into the story line and into our minds as readers and playgoers. King introduces her in Scene 2 in the imperfect past when he tells Mister he used to tell her he wanted to have a baby. Then, a bit later, King talks about not being able to get Tonya off his mind now that he is with Tonya. Then a few lines later he mentions that she testified against him, betraying his trust. Then, and only then, we learn that Neesi got killed in a car accident and because he was in prison King wasn’t able to get out to go to the funeral.

Miscellaneous

I’ve written earlier about King’s sense of honor, and about his cavalier attitude towards committing murder. I don’t think I’ve written or even mentioned King as the quintessential Stoic (within bounds). King is aware of the limits of his control over things, i.e., his judgements and opinions, not external things. He says in Scene 2,

“I set me out a little circle and anything come inside my circle I say what happen and don’t happen. God’s in charge of some things. If I jump in and shoot you I ain’t gonna blame it on God. That’s where I’m the boss . . . I can decide whether you live or die. I’m in charge of that.”

Let’s look for a minute at another silent character, Walter Kelly. We are first introduced to Walter Kelly in Scene 2 in a conversation King is having with his mother, Ruby. He says to her, “Go on now and leave me with my business. I don’t need you to tell me nothing. Go tell Walter Kelly.” (p.43). At this point, we don’t have any notion who Walter Kelly is, but we assume he is someone Ruby had some dealings with while she was away during King’s youth. Then, in Scene 3 (p.50), Ruby spills the tea. In a conversation with Mister, she reveals that Mister’s father, Red Carter, introduced Ruby to Walter Kelly in East St. Louis. Kelly, a musician, was putting his band together and wanted Ruby to sing with him. Then, later on, in Act 2 Scene 3 (p. 83), Ruby, in a bit of locker room talk with Tonya, gives us explicit details about their break-up while explaining her decision to stop singing.

One more little thing and I will stop. In Scene 2 (p.28), there is an exchange between Ruby and Stool Pigeon that seems a bit of a non-sequitur.

Ruby: You old buzzard! Go on in the house!
Stool Pigeon: I don’t want you, woman!

Why would he say that to her without barely a provocation? There must be history there (no evidence of bad blood between the two in Seven Guitars. Maybe its just a one off).

Finally, I wrote a great deal in previous sessions about Tonya’s decision to get an abortion. However, on close inspection, it appears that Tonya didn’t even get the abortion despite all her protestations and justifications. At the end of Act 2, Scene 3, Tonya says to King, “Your job is to be around so this baby can know you its daddy.” There was no abortion and its mention was just a red herring by Wilson to get us thinking about it.

Consolidated notes on King Hedley II

YouTube Playlist on King Hedley II

Notes on Jitney for 05.04.2020

Let’s start by defining the term. A Jitney is an illegal taxi service, operated outside the rules and fee structure of the city where it exists. Usually, there has been some problem with cabs picking up black riders, for whatever reason. So jitney systems arose to meet the unmet demand for transportation among black residents. Also referred to as gypsy taxis, though gypsy taxis normally operate as independent units while Jitney services operated as a group or network of cars and drivers from a central location with a standardized billing structure. A precursor, if you will, a forerunner to Uber and Lyft.

Jitney is distinguished from all other plays in the cycle in that it is the only play written in the decade in which it was set.

It helps to review notes from previous sessions. I can focus on things that were not emphasized earlier.

We did not focus in previous sessions on the fact that this is the only play in the cycle so far that has two military veterans, Doub and Youngblood. We see a bit of resulting bonding between them early in Act 2 Scene 1, brothers at arms. Everyone else exits and they have the space to themselves to talk about their experiences in the military. It is a beautiful father-son type chat and Doub gives Youngblood some useful advice, life hacks.

There are not that many military veterans in Wilson’s plays, even though Wilson himself spent a year in the military. If we stretch the definition, we can say Solly Two Kings served in the Civil War, but certainly Gabriel Maxsom and Floyd Barton served in World War II, Doub in Korea, and Youngblood in Vietnam.

In fact, Youngblood is the big beneficiary in this male-dominated work environment. We don’t get any information about Youngblood’s actual father, but he gets “fathered” by all the other members of the group at various times. Lucky him. Even in his often strained relationship with Turnbo, he receives fathering and mentoring. I imagine Wilson was consciously or subconsciously replicating his own experience with father figures, whether his own absentee father, Frederick Kittel, or men in the neighborhood who took an interest in him, or David Bedford, the man who married his mother after his father’s death, all of whom, it may be argued, find expression among the older male characters in his plays.

Three characters in Jitney are old men who either “survived” failed marriages or were unlucky in love in general. Shealy, the numbers running and hustling driver, was “cursed” by Rosie and sees her face in every woman he meets. Fielding, the alcoholic former tailor driver who is still in love with his wife, has been separated from her for twenty-two years (who counts years of separation?). He tells us that three times over the course of the play. Philmore, the gainfully employed elevator operator, has been “put out” by his wife.

Doub refuses to speak about women or money, though we find out in conversation he has a railroad pension, like Doaker in the Piano Lesson. Finally, Turnbo, who knows everybody’s business, chapter and verse, makes no mention of a love life, and some observers have said he may be a closet homosexual, though I never got the full story. Something about his obsession with other people’s lives may have sent that signal. There is also something strange about the name, Turnbo, that may suggest he “turns about” from what might have been considered “normal” behavior in a heterosexually normalized 70’s environment.

I am certain we will talk at length when we meet about the Becker-Booster father-son relationship in the play and how it all plays out. All other things being equal (of course they re not; they never are), while I understand Becker almost intuitively, my deepest sympathy lies with Booster. We can do a vote in class before we discuss it.

Jitney is the second play in the cycle where we get to take a cold hard look at urban renewal, the first being the loss of Memphis’s diner in Two Trains Running. The Jitney station is about to be boarded up under the guise of improving the city. In most cases, in fact, urban renewal destroyed the black business community by building big highways and large scale building projects that destroyed business-to-business revenue and black business concentration in cities wherever it was applied. Accompanying the destruction of the black business community like a one-two punch came the resettling of black neighborhoods out of the city center and into suburban locations. Ultimately, black families were broken up, although that was only a side effect. Certainly, communities and neighborhoods lost their cohesiveness, their physical unity. A lot to be said here. A good read is the spatial deconstruction stuff you can still find online by and about young Howard student, housing and rape awareness activist Yolanda Ward, who was mysteriously murdered before reaching her prime as a social activist. Here is her obituary.

YouTube Playlist

Session #3, #2 and #1 Consolidated notes

Some notes on Two Trains Running (04.27.2020)

Two Trains Running, set in 1969, covers a lot of territory. Let’s get started.

There’s much to be said, written and discussed about the play’s title, Two Trains Running. Wilson reveals in an interview with the dramaturg, Richard Pettengill, that

“There are two ideas in the play, or at least two ideas that have confronted black America since Emancipation, the ideas of cultural assimilation and cultural separatism. These were, in my mind, the two trains. I wanted to write a play about a character for whom neither of these two trains were working. He had to build a new railroad in order to get to where he’s going, because the trains are not going his way. That was the idea when I started out exploring.”

There is an element here from the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues tune, whose lyrics, or an excerpt of them, form the epigraph of an earlier play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:

“They tore the railroad down
So the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
Build me a railroad of my own.”

And there is a second glimpse into this idea, I think, in the following Doaker monologue in The Piano Lesson, Act 1, Scene 1:

“They go so many trains out there they have a hard time keeping them from running into each other. Got trains going every which way. Got people on all of them. Somebody going where somebody just left. If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.”

That gets us to a starting point, at least. But as we learn from reading the play, it is only a framework, these two trains. Because in the play we see not two but four options pointed out, though at this point, it is suggested that only three are plausible. By 1969, the accommodationist model highlighted by Kingian non-violence has long since been abandoned and only receives fleeting mention in the diner discussions. What’s left are three discussable routes to inner and outer peace and progress, Prophet Samuel, Malcolm X, and Aunt Ester, and these three receive the bulk of mention as the play unwinds.

to be continued.

Youtube playlist

Session #3

Session #2 (including Carole Horn’s notes)

Session #1

Some thoughts on this read of Fences (04.19.2020)

First, the epigraph, or an interpretation of it, shows up in one of Rose’s monologues in Act 2, scene 3:

When the sins of our fathers visit us
We do not have to play host.
We can banish them with forgiveness
As God, in His Largeness and Laws.

Second, the play is clearly another Wilson tragedy, but while it lacks the Greek Chorus of Seven Guitars or the prologue of Gem, “The Play” more than suffices as a prediction of things to come. Moreover, let me note here that while the first paragraph addresses Wilson’s father, the second addresses his mother and her ancestral line. The third and final paragraph brings it home to the play’s present setting.

My practice is to include references to the passages I have highlighted or added comments and margin notes to on the present read. I will continue to adhere to that protocol.

A couple of things stand out for me in Scene 1.

Bono mentions of Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, both historic personalities, somewhat legitimizes the play in a historical time setting. Troy establishes his philosophic credentials as a Stoic, facing death squarely and honestly (memento mori) and having no fear of Satan. Lyons connects to Ma Rainey and the blues tradition, describing music as something that “helps him get out of bed in the morning” and “makes him “feel like he belongs in the world.” Lyons also pushes back when Troy makes a derogatory comment about how his mother raised him, saying “You don’t know nothing about how I was raised.”

Scene 2 introduces us to Gabriel, Troy’s brother, slightly disabled from the war, WWII. Again, Wilson forces us to acknowledge the existence of the disabled and how we must offer them a reasonable accommodation in our lives. We saw this with Hedley in Seven Guitars, with Sylvester in Ma Rainey, and to a limited extent, with Herald Loomis in Joe Turner. And we will see it again. Wilson exhibits a high sensitivity to the needs of the disabled and the mentally and intellectually-challenged.

Scene 3 introduces us to Cory, Troy and Rose’s youngest son, and his relationship with both. Note: It’s not a very conspicuous introduction, and it is almost as if Cory had always been with us, just hidden.

Scene 4 reveals that Troy’s “going to the Taylors” to watch TV is really code word for going to see “That Alberta girl,” as Bono calls her. Bono senses early that Troy’s catting around with Alberta is not kosher. Bono introduces “Searching out the New Land” and “the walking blues.” And we learn about Troy’s relationship with his father.

Act Two Scene 1 opens and closes with Troy, Rose and Cory, the central three-way relationship in the play. Troy reveals that he has been unfaithful. Cory has lied to continue playing football. Rose questions Troy’s infidelity. Cory reaches strike two with his father.

Scene 2 is Troy and Rose exclusively. Troy’s functional illiteracy is fully exposed in the process of getting Gabriel committed. And Alberta dies in childbirth.

Scene 3 is a short scene wherein Rose establishes that she will be a mother to Troy’s new baby, with a reflection of the language of the play’s original epigraph.

Scene 4 shows Troy’s total unraveling, and because today is April 19, I wrote a poem about it for my daily submission to NaPoWriMo:

Fences – Act Two, Scene Four. Troy’s slow descent into Hell.

In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Loses all that was once near and dear.

The cherished love of his wife is broken
After her decision to not refuse
The result of his infidelity.

He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true 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.

Scene 5 is the Troy funeral scene.

****************

Session #3

Carole Horn’s Notes

Session #2

Session #1

YouTube Playlist

Notes on Seven Guitars 04.12.2020

Let’s start with a recognition of the play’s dedication, to Wilson’s wife,  Constanza Romero, and the Note from the Playwright, a sweet inscription to Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, that details both his attention to character development and his recognition of culture as a prime mover of history. He spells out the play’s name, Seven Guitars, as an analog and a surrogate for the content of his mother’s life.

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 villanious 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 of 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, 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, later acknowledging the “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. 

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 as 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 he abandoned her earlier for Pearl Brown that he must now overcome, despite negative reinforcements from the landlady, Louise. Things are not looking good for Floyd.

Then in a reversal of fortune, Floyd comes into a bit of cash (from illegal activity, nonetheless), buys a new electric guitar, a new dress for Vera, and makes his date at the dance club, all to a rousing success. Collapsed into the same event, there is recognition of Floyd’s musical talents. 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 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 magical realism in the initial and final scenes of the play. Canewell, Vera and Hedley all see the six angels who escort Floyd into heaven. I have no interpretation for why those three in particular see the vision, except that 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, and Hedley “fathers” the next tragic figure, King Hedley II, in the only play in the Cycle named for a character.

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


Post group discussion: Seven in numerology. One source says seven means wholeness, completion and comprehensiveness. Another source goes into the symbolism of seven: seven is the number of the spiritual quest. Seven, a prime number, is popular in both religion, i.e., seven throughout Revelations, seven in the monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), seven in Freemasonry, mythology and Theosophy, seven in Greek and Roman mythology, and in culture, i.e., Seven Habits, Seven Secrets, Seven deadly sins, etc., etc., etc.

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. So the two are bookends “housing” the whole play. Also interesting 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.

Post-Session #3

Pre-Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

YouTube PlayList

Some notes on The Piano Lesson 04.05.2020

Toni Morrison’s Foreword

Toni Morrison’s foreword, first of all, left me breathless. Too bad it was not included in her last collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard. In the foreword she writes,

“It was in reading the text that I was struck by the beauty and accuracy of August Wilson’s language, as well as the richness waiting to be mined from the interstices between performance and text, between stage and the readerly imagination.”

She goes on to point out the “narrative threads” that figure most prominently the the unravelling of the plays central plot, the life of the truck that Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in and constantly go back to throughout the play, and the fear (and suspense) that animate the play.

The truck barely makes it to Pittsburgh with breakdowns, loss of breaks, failure of the radiator, etc., then throughout the play it reminds us that although the truck provides mobility, it only barely does so. There are the watermelon selling escapades (an inside joke) off the back of the truck, and there is Grace as a willing passenger for both Boy Willie (one night) and Lymon (another day). Ultimately the truck is to be the vehicle that takes the piano to its new owner (although it never happens) and alternately, the vehicle that Lymon uses to resettle in Pittsburgh since Boy Willie aims to return by train.

I’ll stop here so as not to spoil for you the reading. If anybody doesn’t have the version that has the Morrison foreword, I’ll send it out separately.


The weird end of the play.

A mixture of weird events marks the end of the play, presenting what is bound to be a super challenge for any stage director. In a few pages at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, we go from Boy Willie’s wrestling with Sutter’s ghost, to Avery’s failed attempt to bless the house, to Berniece’s calling on the ancestors as she plays the piano which finally puts the ghost’s expressions to rest. There is a type of time collapse that takes place that can only be attributed to and explained by Borgesian magical realism.

We have mentioned that Wilson cites his top influences as the 4 B’s, Baraka, Bearden, Borges, and the Blues. On the surface, we are aware of Bearden’s immediate influence. His collage, The Piano Lesson, provides the primary inspiration for the play. We find in Borges magical realism a possible explanation for the appearance and reappearance of Sutter’s Ghost as well as the rapid recovery from an intense spiritual experience at the very end of the play.

This passage comes from an earlier blog post.

The repeated appearance of Sutter’s ghost and the whole yarn about the Ghost of the Yellow Dog are vital elements in the unfolding of the play’s various plots. Every time Boy Wille and Lymon try to move the piano, they hear the sounds of Sutter’s ghost. Berniece sees Sutter’s ghost at the top of the stairwell, holding his head. Doaker sees the ghost but remains silent about it. Maretha sees the ghost upstairs and is traumatized. Avery fails at expelling the ghost from the house, Boy Willie has an actual physical altercation with the ghost and gets thrown down the stairs (better than the well, I’d say!), and ultimately, Berniece returns to playing the piano, calls on all the ancestors (a la Toledo’s African conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

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


Wilson addresses issues in The Piano Lesson in several interviews. He refers to Boy Willie as the heroic figure in the play, yet he calls his character development static as opposed to dynamic: Boy Willie enters with a firm plan, reflected, not coincidentally, in the play’s epigraph, lyrics to a blues song by Skip James that becomes a sort of mantra that Boy Willie recites throughout the play. He lets on in conversations that he admires Boy Willie’s intention to return to the south and buy land, farm that land, and secure financial independence. Yet he says Berniece is the star of the play and that the play is about Berniece, not Boy Willie. It is Berniece’s character that develops and evolved, and at the end she breaks through and does what she must to quiet Sutter’s ghost. He mentions that in the first write, he gave Berniece some very “feminist” lines that were eventually removed as it would have been out of place for 1936. When Wilson is asked whether or not Berniece and Avery eventually get married, he expresses doubt, explaining that Avery’s accomodationist tendencies are unlike character traits of other men in her life, her father, her first husband and her brother, for example.

Wilson refers to The Piano Lesson as his best play.


The relationship between Boy Willie and Beniece

There are several clues in the play that give us important information about the brother sister relation. A few facts are important. Berniece is five years older than Boy Willie. Following the murder of their father, Papa Boy Charles, their mother was essentially so emotionally impaired (there are subtle hints of this) that she was no longer able to effectively parent her children and Berniece more or less took over at Boy Willie’s mother figure. This became very apparent in the scene where Maretha is having her hair ironed and Boy Willie criticizes the way Berniece speaks to her daughter (as if she may have spoken to him like that in his childhood (my interpretation)). This tension overrides their relationship throughout the play.


Finally the question of the hour. Does Lymon sleep with Berniece?

**********

During our group discussion we talked about how the idea to divide the proceeds from the sale of the piano was a concept that seemed to have evolved during the course of the play. Someone mentioned that in the case of a dispute like this over jointly held family property, the proper recourse would have been to sell the property and split the proceeds across the heirs or family members with a claim on the property. When Boy Willie first arrived, he was dead set on selling the piano and taking the proceeds to buy the property down south. Later on he modified his position to share the proceeds with Berniece, half and half.

Another discussion we had was the three part or tripartite religious spiritualism that ranged from the otherworldliness of magical realism, to elements of African spirituality, to more traditional Christianity and how issues and events moved back and forth on that spectrum, perhaps positing that the African Spiritualism in the middle was somehow the golden mean. Avery, then, represented the traditional Christian faith, Berniece ended up representing the African spirituality, and Boy Willie wrestling with Sutter’s ghost represented the Borgesian magical realism and otherworldliness clearly distinct from anything else mentioned.

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes

Some random notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 3.26.2020

“The Play” stands out as one of the great introductions in the Cycle series and an excellent example of August Wilson’s talent and skill as a poet. It describes 1927 Chicago and its residents graphically and with deep feeling, so much so that one wonders why anyone might still call the plays the Pittsburgh series. Of course, we know why, every other play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. But with Ma Rainey, Wilson makes a statement that he is not owned by Pittsburgh or any other geographic location.

His description touches on a broad cross section of society’s inner city, the crooked and the straight, yet he leaves space in the imagination of the reader with his haunting “somewhere” alliteration: a man wrestling with the taste of a woman in his mouth; a dog barking; the fallen moon breaking into 30 pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver suggests betrayal, the denial of Peter, and in Exodus, the price of a slave.

The passage is also reminiscent of the poetry of Frank O’Hara, especially The Day Lady Died, do this and do that, a list of descriptive everyday activities. Surely Wilson must have been familiar with O’Hara during his poet days in the 60’s.

He closes with a reference to being both a victim and the ten thousand slain. There is the ten thousand in Xenophon’s Anabasis, ten thousand mercenaries who marched from the Mediterranean to Persia, but most of them lived. There is a ten thousand slain reference in Romeo and Juliet. There is the biblical reference of David’s slain ten thousand. We have many choices.

The epigraph, a Blind Lemon Jefferson song lyric, is significant in Jefferson’s similarity to Ma Rainey. Called “the Father of the Texas Blues,” Jefferson was one of the first solo guitarists to achieve monetary success as a commercial performer. The whole song is on the YouTube playlist.

We have discussed Levee is previous sessions. There’s always more to say about Levee. He’s an anti-hero, brash, impolite, unendearing, tragic, but central to the plot. In fact, the play could have easily been called the Adventures of Levee Green but it wouldn’t have made any money! Levee was traumatized as a child and once we learned about it our hearts poured out for him. But Levee refused to live by the rules, and he met a tragic end. From the music side, he saw himself as a modernist, breaking away from the old restrictive bonds. He was the archetypal Louis Armstrong, who also played for Ma Rainey as a young man. But he couldn’t get along with anybody, not Ma, not his fellow band members, not even Sturdyvant. I think Levee was deeply unhappy. Authentic but deeply unhappy.

Levee refers to himself in the third person. He tells his fellow band members, “Ain’t nothing gonna happen to Levee. Levee ain’t gonna let nothing happen to him.” He is stepping outside of himself, outside his own tragic story. At the same time, he is beginning to establish his brand. Later in the same scene, Levee proclaims, “I’m Levee. Just me. I ain’t no imitation nothing!” And further qualifies, “I ain’t no imitation white man. And I don’t want to be no white man.” Definitely the anti-hero.

Slow Drag, Cutler, Toledo, all great characters. I would have liked to hang out with such a crew. Although a tragedy, reading Ma Rainey always lifts my spirits. I have more margin notes in Ma Rainey than in any other play in the series.

Addendum: Some thoughts on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Ma Rainey is set in a combined recording studio and band room. The story being told is primarily about music and its reproducibility for the mass market. Ma repeatedly makes the distinction between the people who may buy records and her fans on the road, with a decided preference for the later. Ma says, “I ain’t playing with you, Irvin. I can walk out of here and go back to my tour. I don’t need to go through all this.” Later she says, “What I care about Bessie? I don’t care if she sell a million records. She got her people and I got mine. I don’t care what nobody else do. Ma was the first and don’t you forget it.”

Benjamin distinguishes between live art that served a purpose in magic and religious rituals, and mechanically reproduced art that “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Many years ago I saw a jazz group, Spyrogyra, in their early days, perform in a venue in Providence, Rhode Island that was not much larger than a very large living room. Prior, I had only heard their music on cassette tape. There was magic and an energy exchange ritual between performers and observers in that living room that could never be replicated with the finest of recording devices. The same thing happened when I went to a very young Wynton Marsalis concert in a tiny auditorium at Old Dominion University after only having heard his music emitted via speakers and a turntable. Emancipating a work of art from dependence on ritual has its place, but the experience is just not the same.

Ma says, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out (exhibition value) but they don’t know how it got there (cult value). They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better (again, exhibition value). You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life (cult value).” Benjamin cites two planes on which works of art are received and valued, the cult value where artistic production connects to ritual artifacts that serve a limited cult of elite observers, versus the exhibition value where art practices are freed from ritual with increased opportunities for “distribution.”

A “meta”- example that the play demonstrates is the distinction between seeing a play performed on a stage versus seeing it as a movie, performed on a screen. There is an interaction on the stage, and an energy exchange that flows off the stage into the playhouse that you just don’t get watching a film. There are, however, degrees of freedom granted to the film director and the cinematographer that do not exist for the stage director. And vice versa. And animation takes film direction to an all new height, I suppose.

Some interesting tidbits from the Sandra Shannon interview with August Wilson on Ma Rainey.

  1. Broadway producers offered Wilson $25,000 for his play but with no creative direction. They wanted to turn it into a musical. Although Wilson was only making $85 per week as a short order cook at the time, he rejected the offer. Then he contacted Lloyd Richards at Yale Rep, who gave him full artistic direction.
  2. The key actor in the first Broadway production of Ma Rainey, Theresa Merritt, was locked out of her hotel room during the production because she insisted on paying weekly instead of night to night. She moved to the Hilton, where she found flowers and fruit in her room.
  3. The cast arrived at Manhattan Records to record Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the production. The producer met them and said, “You boys come on it. I’ve got sandwiches for you.” This was 1985. But just like in the 1927 play. Theresa was late, and when she arrived, she complained about the heat in the studio. The heat never came up. They recorded in their coats.

YouTube playlist

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Ma Rainey Obituary: Overlooked No More

The Queer Lady Who Reinvented the Blues

A few random thoughts on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 03.15.2020

Like Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG) begins with a statement, except it is more like a scene setter than a prologue. And in similarity to Gem’s allusion to the Tuesday divinity in the Yoruba religion, Ogun, JTCG opens with a subtle yet direct hymn to the deity, Ogun, also known as the God of Iron, with repeated references to steel, steel mills, and the steel-like nature of the human soul, malleable, shapable, adaptable. As such, JTCG is a tragedy, a near-Greek tragedy, with a character, Herald Loomis, who is brought to total destruction and ruin, almost, nearly. And the scene setter is a sort of Greek chorus, almost. Yet Loomis survives, and is redeemed and transformed, more in keeping with Judeo-Christian tragedy. We will continue to track these traces of Greek, Judeo-Christian, AND Yoruba dramatic elements as we proceed through the cycle.


All the literature on JTCG mention as a central theme in the play the false promise of emancipation. Loomis gets caught up in the system of peonage, a type of court-sanctioned return to slavery. Without committing any crime, he gets swept away and forced to do hard labor for seven years in a kidnapping/sharecropping system that basically prolonged involuntary servitude. So much for emancipation. Upon completion of his term, he seeks to regather the far flung pieces of his life. An incredible challenge awaits him as he seeks to reunite his family.


The boarding house run by Seth and Bertha is slightly reminiscent of Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The two plays get compared from time to time, but the similarity is only superficial (the name, Joe Mott, a character from Iceman, does show up in Radio Golf, the final play in the cycle). Yet, each resident has his or her story, the individual plot lines intersect or intertwine at times, and each resident benefits from the experiences of every other resident. And every resident, though temporary, is a part of the great migration North after emancipation. In that regard, the house is a sort of archeion, housing the records and data, through human stories, narratives, and lived lives, of the Great Migration.


I noticed an interplay of the words “bind,” “bound,” and “bond.” Bynum “binds” together those who cling. Jeremy gets his “bond” paid when he is thrown into jail for public drunkenness. And “bound” is the past participle of bind, an action completed in the past, but also related to “bondage,” which is how characters refer to the period of enslavement. In a possible connection to Wilson’s brief experiment with the Islamic religion, the first revelation in the Holy Qur’an, A Clot of Blood, is also translated as “a clinging thing,” in reference to the clot of congealed blood that becomes an embryo and illustrates humankind’s humble origin. But that may be a stretch!


Loomis, though formerly a church deacon, has decidedly rejected traditional religious faith. At the end of both Act 1 (Holy Ghost) and Act 2 (Jesus) Loomis demonstrates his disdain for Christian faith and beliefs. It’s almost like two bookends and it is almost as if Wilson wants to send this message in a very strong way.


Early in the play Bynum references the cleansing power of blood and bleeding and Herald Loomis makes a similar reference at the end of the play. A cleansing ritual. Again, bookends almost. I don’t know what it means beyond the Christian representation of communion and the imbibing of Jesus’ blood and his flesh in a sacred ritual. But I do know Wilson included it and placed it where he did, twice, for a reason.


Finally, just a note on Romare Bearden, whose painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, was a piece in The Prevalence of Ritual exhibition that provided Wilson the inspiration for JTCG. Here is the image:

Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket

Wilson wrote, in the Foreword to Myron Schwartzmann’s “Romare: His Life and Art,”

“My friend Claude Purdy had purchased a copy of The Prevalence of Ritual, and one night, in the Fall of 1977, after dinner and much talk, he laid it open on the table before me. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at this.” The book lay open on the table. I looked. What for me had been so difficult, Bearden made seem so simple, so easy. What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I don’t recall what I said as I looked at it. My response was visceral. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

p.s. How did I leave out Wilson’s memorialization of the 23rd Psalm in the final scene, as Martha Loomis (now Pentecost) recites it trying unsuccessfully talk down her husband, Herald, from hurting someone with the knife he has drawn. Luckily, Bynum helps Loomis back down on his own in a way that is reminiscent of Toledo’s description of “African conceptualization” in Ma Rainey (next week) and Berneatha’s calling on the ancestor spirits in Piano Lesson (two weeks hence).

Addendum: 3/22/2020. Two characters from GEM reappear or are mentioned. Selig, the pot seller and people finder shows up in both. Still trying to figure out the bid deal about dustpans. I heard a story once about how, in the slave quarters, they would use brooms to sweep the ground down to a hard surface to prevent the growth of weeds and that it kept rats away. Maybe that practice migrated North.

Rev. Tolliver is another name that repeats, performing the funeral for Garret Brown in GEM, and leading the congregation in its move North in JTCG.