Email #2

Hello all:

1. I am attaching a couple of articles/interviews for your reading in preparation for our first meeting Monday, March 2nd. The John Lahr piece from the New Yorker has become so “definitive” over time that excerpts of it are used as the foreword to one of the plays in the hardback edition. The interview with Derek Walcott contains gems and richness that makes it unique among Wilson interviews.

2. A couple of you have emailed me with questions about the Arena Stage production of Seven Guitars. I have held off on finalizing plans to attend, though we intend to see it. There is as of yet no plan to try to see it as a group, but that certainly is something we can discuss next Monday.

3. I thought we would use the first meeting to discuss the attached readings and set the tone of the study group. It is always interesting to know how and why folks come to choose this study group, what you hope to get out of it (learning objectives), and the always interesting backgrounds we all bring to the group that may contribute to our understanding of the plays (learning subjectives). Then, on the second meeting, Monday, March 9, we will take the plunge into the first play, Gem Of the Ocean.

4. It is a good idea now to begin making arrangements to acquire the first three or four plays. If you are lucky, you can find a few at local public libraries, but in past sessions, most end up purchasing the books online or at local bookstores.

5. I’ve been maintaining YouTube playlists for each play through the past sessions. I will make those links available weekly, in advance of our meeting, as well as links to blog posts I’ve been making on each play. But the main work is to actually read the play, engage with the text, and be prepared to discuss when we get together in the study group. In previous groups, we have started out with each participant bringing in a passage to read and discuss. Something else to talk about when we get together on the 2nd.

6. OK. Enjoy what remains of the weekend! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Reading schedule for Spring, 2020

All: A proposed schedule. This will be the first session of not plunging into the first play in week one. But it means devoting a whole week to the important first play, instead of sharing that first meeting with getting to know one another, also an important part of the the study group. Of course, everything is subject to negotiations.   

Week 1:  March 2, 2020 – Introduction, discuss interview and selected readings

Week 2: March 9, 2020 – Gem of the Ocean (2003).  Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.

Week 3:  March 16, 2020 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984).  Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 featured in a Romare Bearden painting, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 4:  March 23, 2020 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982).  Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Week 5:  March 30, 2020 – The Piano Lesson (1986).  Synopsis: Set in 1936 and named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Week 6:  April 6, 2020 – Seven Guitars (1995).  Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.

Week 7:  April 13, 2020 – Fences (1984).  Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete

Week 8: April 20, 2020 – Two Trains Running (1990)..  Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.

Week 9: April 27, 2020 – Jitney (1979).  Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.

Week 10: May 4, 2020 – King Hedley II (1991).  Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.

Week 11:  May 11, 2020 – Radio Golf (2005) and wrap up.   Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.

March 2 start of the August Wilson American Century Cycle at OLLI-dc.org

We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!

Who visits this blog?

I would love to know who the folks are who visit, how they are attached to or engaged with August Wilson plays, and how they found this blog.

Please leave a comment, or feel free to email me at rdmaxwell@protonmail.com.

Thank you for visiting!

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 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.

Jitney @ArenaStage

Seeing Jitney @ Arena Stage week was an unforgettable experience. It was my first time seeing Jitney on the stage, after reading it at least a half dozen times for three sessions of the OLLI study group.

The stage/set was astounding, multidimensional, reflecting the passage of time through highlighting and darkening the skyline through the windows and on the background scene. The music opening each scene took the play to a new audio level, a nice blend of old blues and 70’s period jazz tunes. The ensemble cast had such a chemistry, with their well-rehearsed lines and with their spontaneous and improvised gestures between the lines. Finally August Wilson’s poetry wove it all together and made it into a total work of art. Might sneak back for a repeat!

I have to mention here an amazing thing the cast did at the end of Act 2 Scene 3. Booster comes into the station not knowing that his father is dead. When Doub tells him, Booster hits Doub in the face, then the folks in the station wrestle Booster down to the floor. In a bit of director’s license (I later discovered in conversation with the cast that it was Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idea and they worked on it for nearly an hour in rehearsal), all the folks in the station did a laying of the hands on Booster. It was a very powerful and a very spiritual gesture, a transference and a healing, something Toledo in Ma Rainey might have called an African conceptualization. While the play directions say “the lights fade to black,” in actuality the lights were trained on Booster and the hands of the station guys spread about Booster on the floor, in a way that only their hands and Booster were illuminated. Then the lights stayed there for a few moments before fading to black. Ah, I wish i could have taken a photograph!

August Wilson Festival – Designers Panel: Building the World of August Wilson

(Note: Wrote this for my poetry group. More details to follow for August Wilson aficionados).

Morning coffee. Trader Joe’s Ethiopian. Got something called Lifeboost on order. Report to follow . . .

Last night my wife and I attended the first of several events marking 70 years of operation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Long story short, Arena Stage, a venue for plays, readings, performing arts, and most recently, really interesting civic discussions, came into existence at a time in the city’s history when there were two performing arts venues. One allowed blacks to perform on stage but they couldn’t attend performances and sit in the audience. The other allowed blacks to attend and sit in the audience but they couldn’t perform on the stage. Won’t go into names since both venues still exist, but it was a real mess. Such was the design of American-styled apartheid. Some civic-minded folks from both sides got together and Arena Stage was born, allowing both performance and attendance by all segments of society.

And there is a second tie in for me. To commemorate 70 years, Arena Stage is doing what they call a Giants series, featuring the works of playwrights whose work has been performed most often there. And at the top of the list is my favorite playwright, a former poet of note, whose series of plays I have been “teaching” in the ModPo sense and mode for the past two years, though face-to-face and not online, the bard from Pittsburgh, August Wilson.

Last night’s lecture/discussion focused on stage and set design and featured an expert in actually building the set, and expert in composing music to accompany the plays, and an expert in costume design (who just happens to be the widow of August Wilson and the executor of his estate). Amazing discussion about these pieces of a dramatic production that sort of sit in the background while we focus on the play’s performance, and yet have a far-reaching effect on developing the whole work of art. 

Thursday there will be a discussion of food and cooking in the ten-play series that covers each decade in the 20th century, aptly called the American Century Cycle.

By this time, you may be rolling your eyes. Relax, it is just coffee talk!