A Layman’s Guide to the American Century Cycle
Consolidated noted from all five sessions of Radio Golf transferred to substack here:
Gem of the Ocean notes transferred to substack here:
King Hedley II notes transferred to substack here:
Consolidated notes from Seven Guitars transferred to substack here:
Consolidated notes from Two Trains Running transferred to Substack here:
The Piano Lesson consolidated notes on substack here:
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone consolidated notes are here:
Fences consolidated notes transferred to substack here:
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes on substack:
Jitney consolidated notes on substack here:
Consolidated noted from all five sessions transferred to substack here:
In the final two plays of the Cycle, August Wilson performs double duty, at least. One, in Radio Golf he tightens up any loose ends that remain in the narrative arc of the century of plays. Two, he establishes himself and his work as heir to the rich legacy of both the proto-Harlem Renaissance great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the great American dramatist, Eugene O’Neill.
Here’s a list of connections to loose ends tied of other plays in the Cycle:
The hand tooled tin in Aunt Ester’s old house connected to the tin burning in the factory Solly set on fire in Gem of the Ocean.
Sarah Degree, for whom Harmond wants to name the new community health center, was first mentioned in Seven Guitars, then in Two Trains Running, and is an actual person from Wilson’s childhood who used to take the community kids to Sunday school.
Model Cities Program relates to urban renewal efforts in Two Trains Running and Jitney.
Sterling wanted “to know what it was like to have some money” in the same way that Floyd Barton “wanted to know” what it would be like in Seven Guitars.
Bucket vs. Cup analogy. In Two Trains Running, West tells Sterling to get a cup instead of a ten gallon bucket, i.e., to lower his expectations. In Radio Golf, Old Joe complains that at the Mission, missionaries were drilling holes in the bottom of cups.
Old Joe tells Harmony if he gets elected, the city will only give him half the keys. In King Hedley II, the only key that matters is the Key to the Kingdom (forgiveness).
America as a giant slot machine that requires the right quarters ties to the jukebox at Memphis Diner (Two Trains) that never works when quarters are inserted.
Old Joe tried to tell people at Hill House that he wasn’t a dog, just as Hedley proclaimed in Seven Guitars, “the Negro is not a dog.”
Old Joe refers to Roosevelt as the King of the Barnyard Rooster, described previously in Seven Guitars.
The cat that appears on Roosevelt’s car is the resurrected cat from King Hedley II, the spirit of Aunt Ester revived.
Mame’s reduction of the religious “miracle” of a preacher putting his hand in a boiling cauldron to just “a Negro from Mississippi with some dry ice.” Does it resolve the ghost appearances in The Piano Lesson?
Sterling recounts his consultation with Aunt Ester in Two Trains as advised by Holloway.
Old Joe establishes his direct descent from Black Mary (she was his mother) who later was the successor to Aunt Ester.
Harmond and Old Joe are able to trace their common ancestor, Henry Samuels, who was the father of both Caesar Wilks and Black Mary.
Woodwork in Aunt Ester’s old house has carvings, faces and letters in it, seeming related to Berniece’s piano as a family artifact.
In Old Joe’s police record, Roosevelt makes fun of mention of a journey to the City of Bones.
Mame sounds a lot like Rose, in that she submerged her identity into that of her husband’s.
And there are more . . .
OK, so what’s this Paul Laurence Dunbar and Eugene O’Neill talk? First Dunbar.
I opened with the most often anthologized and most often recited poem of the Dunbar body of work, We Wear the Mask. Very appropriate for life today with COVID. In Gem of the Ocean, before embarking on the journey to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Solly and Eli to get and don their European masks. It’s all theater and it appears they have done this thing before, but to Citizen Barlow it appears to be a real voyage to a real destination. In Radio Golf, the masks are more subtle but just as effective because the masks are a variety of blackface worn by black characters in the play.
Much (not all) of the following comes from a paper written by Patrice Rankine, August Wilson and Greek Drama: Blackface Minstrelsy, “Spectacle” from Aristotle’s Poetics, and Radio Golf.
Mame, the PR expert, is overall in charge of image for her husband’s mayoral campaign and in her day job, for the governor’s office. Her name is a play on Mammy, the blackface female character from silent films.
Roosevelt, the literal black face of the radio deal he is running with Bernie Smith, is a fraud in many ways. He is barely two paychecks away from not being able to pay his rent and the note on his and his wife’s cars. He appears to be in a token position at Mellon Bank, where he works as VP, a position he eventually quits because of performance issues. He is unfaithful to his wife, and ultimately, he is unfaithful to his friend. Though well educated, he comes across as being quite the buffoon, while Old Joe, another name borrowed from the silent film and vaudeville era, who should be playing the buffoon, actually comes across as being quite profound at times. A bit of a role reversal as the opposites face off repeatedly.
Harmond, for his part, masquerades in the black face of respectability politics until events shift and he gets bought out by his partner. Then, recognizing that he has in fact been wearing a mask, a mask the poet says above “that grins and lies,” he aligns himself with his distant cousin old Joe, and the handyman, Sterling, and puts warpaint on his face to enter the battlefield, yet another mask.
Roosevelt puts up a poster of Tiger Woods signaling his love for golfing. But behind the surface, one is reminded that Tiger Woods has never self-identified as a black man (his father was African American, his mother was Asian).
Then, finally, and in the ultimate insult, Sterling identifies Roosevelt derogatorily as “a Negro,” and Harmond (harmony) refers to Roosevelt as “the shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile,” a throwback to a 1904 silent film still available on Youtube, yet another blackface masked actor. And to add insult to injury, Harmond asks Roosevelt if he is a hundred dollar, a three hundred dollar, or a thousand dollar whore paid by Bernie Smith.
What about Eugene O’Neill? Remember Old Joe’s war story about the flag bearer who gets shot and dies in battle? Then Old Joe picks the flag up and carries it for the duration of the war. That flag bearer soldier was named Joe Mott. Joe Mott happens to be the name of the one black member of Hope’s Bar crowd of pipe dreamers in The Ice Man Cometh, who has dreams of opening a colored gambling house and eventually passing for white.
Notes for all five sessions consolidated on substack. Click here:
I’ll begin with two characters mentioned who show up in subsequent plays in the Cycle. Roper Lee hangs out with Citizen in Gem and shows up again in Joe Turner. Rev. Tolliver preaches the Garret Brown eulogy in Gem and also appears in Joe Turner.
But overall, Gem is Aunt Ester’s play. We meet her as a fully developed character. We find out about her childhood, her children’s names, and even her plans for eventual succession to Black Mary. We learn about her former husbands and current suitors. And Wilson introduces us to her cooking methods, her manner of consulting and giving advice and even her orchestration of the journey to the City of Bones, a process she has obviously supervised before.
In previous sessions we talked about Solly’s day job as a collector of pure, or dog feces. Pure collector is listed as one of the ten worst jobs in London during the Victoria era. Mixing the pure with water makes compound called “bate,” and bate is applied to leather to beak up the fibrous structure to make the leather soft and pliable before the final stage of tanning. I visited rooftop tanning operations in Morocco, but I never saw (or smelled) pure being used. Maybe they do it differently in Morocco.
It’s a bit advanced in the Cycle, but I would like to propose yet another way of describing and analyzing the structure of the plays.
Northrop Frye, a Canadian literature professor, described and analyzed the books of the Bible, and the stories contained therein, in a book named The Code.” As a unified book with a coherent narrative, Fire described the plot changes and development as a “U-shaped Plot” type of comedy, beginning with Genesis and the creation story, followed by a long line of historical disasters and triumphs, concluding with the final victory of the eternal city of Jerusalem at the end of Revelations. The Bible subplots, i.e., the various kingdoms and rulers in the Old Testament, as well as the lives of various disciples, all provide a sort of repetition of images and issues that serve to tie together the many “books” of the Bible, creating as well a sense of deja vu and premonition across the repetitive action and suggesting that the images and issues are “both themselves and not themselves,” suggesting that time itself may be an illusion.
In Frye’s second book, “Words with Power,” he expands his analysis from the internal structure of the Bible above to relationships and interrelationships between Biblical language and thought and the language and thought of everyday life, of mythology and of literature.
You see where I may be going with this.
The decade plays portray triumphs and disasters of families and individuals in the Hill District. In each play there are events that seem to take the wind out of the sails of the characters, especially the protagonists. But in each play there is a little something at the end that suggests that the tide may be turning and the ultimate fate, improving.
There is repetition, of character personality types and of issues, like incarceration, inter-community violence, urban renewal and gentrification, theft of land and refusal to pay an honest wage, and we see infidelity, and distrust, and resentment. The repetition, on the surface, might suggest a deficit of imagination on the part of the playwright, But that would be a very superficial analysis that overlooks the role of repletion as a unifying factor across the decades as well as across the plays themselves
We see interspliced the language of religion and spiritualism and the language of everyday life, augmented occasionally by the language of the blues, Wilson would add, always descriptive of a less than optimal situation, but always celebratory at some level.
Frye wrote about the primary concerns of life, the things we share with all plant and animal life, like food, drink, sex, property and freedom of movement, all embodied in myth and literature. Then he contrasts these with secondary concerns of religion, class, nation, tribe and their concerns, piety, virtue, patriotism, embodied in culture.
We see these issues played out in the alternation of decades in the Cycle plays. Wilson goes out of his way to focus our attention on food, drink, sex (in a subtle way – the plays are never pornographic), and certainly property and freedom of movement. Every play features these things prominently. But there is also the focus, often soft-pedaled, on piety, virtue and patriotism and we can think of plenty of examples.
The long and short of it is that Frye provides us an interesting model to thinking about the plays, but we have to work past the inherent resistance to comparing Wilson’s storytelling to that of the Bible.
Columbia, Gem of the Ocean has its own interesting story twists. Was it an original or was it copied by/from Britannia, Pride of the Ocean? (See Session #2). Was its author Thomas A’Beckett, David Shaw, or George Willig? What is the significance of its 1957 revival in the Broadway hit, The Music Man, a musical about a fraudulent band director and a con man?
One final post-discussion idea is the meaning of the title away from the above idiosyncracies of the song. Perhaps, as someone in the group discussion mentioned, the actual “gem” is the City of Bones itself, and not just the name of a ship. “It is a beautiful city,” Aunt Esther describes, where “the people made a kingdom out of nothing.” What if it’s not the lady with the flame in the Columbia Pictures logo, nor her antecedent in Roman mythology, Minerva, nor her antecedent in Greek mythology, Athena, all representative of Isis, of the great Egyptian pantheon, but an actual submerged city, maybe even the mystical Atlantis.
And maybe, to extend the metaphor even further, the submerged City of Bones represents not necessarily an ancient underwater city, but the promised destiny of America, lost at sea by a mean and selfish sea captain.
p.s. The Youtube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?
They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.
In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.
“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.
The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”
The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.
Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.
Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.
Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.
Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.
One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?
From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:
“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”
Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)
Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)
Dear friends: Is it me or do the plays seem to be getting harder and harder to wrap one’s brain around?
I went to Goodreads. All the King Hedley reviews (except mine) seem rather lukewarm, almost as if August Wilson hit some type of slump. I have some ideas.
For one, this play is about the 80’s. And we can remember the 80’s. So perhaps unconsciously, we look for stuff we remember. But our glance returns to us fatigued, exhausted. It seems there’s nothing in this play we can relate to.
Well, speak for yourself, Ray.
The 80’s were a bit of a lost decade for me. I spent the first half punching holes in the water, as they used to say, doing engineering work on deployed submarines and in shipyards. The second half I spent two years at a small college in Florida, having the time of my young life. That was followed by three years on a 30 year old destroyer, trying to nurse an aged ship and an obviously failed marriage, broken by too frequent separations for months at a time and instances of my own stupidity and immaturity. I wrote in my memoir that by the end of the 80’s I was slipping into darkness, to quote the lyrics of a then popular song. It was not a part of my plan. A poetry writing lady saved me from the abyss. A poetry writing man saves us all, perhaps. Maybe. Almost.
OK. Now we begin to see stuff in the play, perhaps. Man, I need some coffee.
The casual references to crime and to committing criminal acts in the play seem both strange and off-putting. King and Mister don’t seem to think twice about selling stolen refrigerators, or even robbing a local jewelry store. Not once does the idea of returning to jail serve as a deterrence to committing more crime, because, I suppose, “we won’t get caught this time.” Silly and senseless. King’s overreactions to petty indiscretions and daily microaggressions seem overwrought.
Aha! At this point we have accepted the status quo.
King and Elmore share their experience of performing the act of murder, the act itself, and how it made them feel. But it is outside the realm of our experience. They no longer seem sympathetic. Even Tonya’s long monologue about the abortion she wants to get (and never does, we find out later) might seem out of place for our sensibilities because either 1) it’s not a part of our experience, or 2) if it is, we don’t want to think about it.
Finally, no mention is made in the play of the crack cocaine pandemic of the 80’s. You think Hill residents were spared the ravages of that scourge? I don’t think so. It is there, between the lines.
Spoiler alert! King wins the battle between revenge and forgiveness in the end. Yet he still dies, he has to die. He’s been wearing the halo and his blood sacrifice is what’s required. He is the fatted calf Stool Pigeon has been looking for. The meow of the dead cat as the final curtain falls signals to us that there is cause for hope. This tragedy is Judeo-Christian, not Greco-Roman. Aunt Ester’s children will find their redemption. It is just a matter of time.
p.s. Here is the YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
Here’s my review in Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/3951870148
Postscript. More on the death of Aunt Ester
First to clear the air. Notwithstanding the mathematics of Aunt Ester’s age, the arrival of Angolan indentured servants to Jamestown in 1619 was not the first recorded instance of Africans in the continental United States. Ponce de Leon was accompanied by African Juan Garrido in Florida in 1513, in search of the Fountain of Youth. The first group of enslaved African arrived to the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine in 1565. 1619 marks the first arrival of Africans to a British settlement.
There is the suggestion in the text of the play from King, by way of Mr. Eli, that Aunt Ester, the matriarch of the Hill community and guardian of its culture, traditions and history, died of grief, with her hand stuck on her forehead. Then there is the suggestion, promoted by the now-spiritual seer Stool Pigeon, that Aunt Ester had to be removed in anticipation of some final judgement.
Either way, the passing of Aunt Ester is a significant turning point for the neighborhood, especially for those who sought her counsel at various occasions, including Stool Pigeon, Mister, King and Ruby.
Aunt Ester’s passing, more significantly, marks a turning point for the Cycle. First introduced chronologically in Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester dissuaded Ruby from getting an abortion in Seven Guitars, actively counseled characters in Two Trains Running, dies in King Hedley II, and figures prominently in Radio Golf. Aunt Ester’s Stoic teachings of sacrifice, self-knowledge, and personal responsibility held the community together through many struggles over the decades of the Cycle. Now, in her absence, for those who know, there is curiosity about how the community will survive.
At the closing off the final scene, blood from King’s fatal bullet wound flows into the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat and we hear a “meow” as the curtain falls. There is a suggestion that Aunt Ester may yet be with us and that all will not be lost.
Postscript. Reimagining George Floyd as King Hedley II (and vice versa).
King Hedley is a complicated character. He seems to have an anti-Midas touch, i.e., nothing he touches turns to gold. A good way to understand him is by comparing him to George Floyd, another complicated character. Floyd, like Hedley, was a seeming ne’er-do-well with a predilection for violence and criminal activity. Floyd even exceeded Hedley when it came to fathering five children across the country that he in turn abandoned. He was a failed athlete and a failed hip-hop artist, spending most of his adult life in and out of prison serving eight jail terms for various minor charges and convictions.
Because of the circumstances surrounding his death, George Floyd’s memory has been lionized and the sins of his prior life forgiven and forgotten. Peaceful protestors have demanded stern punishment for the police officer associated with his passing. Floyd’s death has been co-opted by politicians for political fundraising and support for calls to reform and defund police departments across the country.
For NaPoWriMo, I wrote a poem I called “Hedley’s Blues,” highlighting these and other similarities. In the end, Hedley’s unwilling sacrifice provided unforeseen opportunities for renewal for his community. Here is the poem:
They ask us to require this sacrifice.
Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Blood for blood.
This sacrifice will somehow make us whole,
Cure our ailments, fill the gaps you left
When they sold you down river for a song.
Those who bought you never knew stolen goods
Was all you were, living on borrowed time
And leaving casualties in your wake.
You were the sacrifice, the fatted calf,
your unwilling blood a fitting offering
To the gods. Once. Spilled on the seeded ground
Of hopes and dreams – your intoxication.
There’s no balm in revenge. So there’s no need
For a present value calculation.
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Seven Guitars consolidated notes transferred to substack here:
Random topics I may or may not have covered in earlier sessions.
The play’s structure with the end up front, followed by the action in the middle and the end at the end is both standard structure for Greek tragedy and a shoutout to Borges, one of Wilson’s principle influencers. Wilson pointed out how Borges tells his readers what is going to happen in advance, yet there is still a sense of suspense. Then it comes about. No doubt this is Wilson’s Greek tragedy play with Borges hints. See more on Wilson’s Greek tragedy structure in Session #4.
We have instances of Floyd’s functional illiteracy throughout the play. While in prison he paid someone to write letters to Vera. He didn’t understand the words in a letter from the prison detailing the procedure for claiming his pay for each day he was imprisoned. Even Red Carter accuses Floyd of not being able to read. It is not a huge leap to reason that Floyd’s issues with his early recording contract could have stemmed from his inability to read. I wonder how he made it through his enlistment in the Army and how he survived the war without being able to read. We see this issue of the impediments of illiteracy in other characters in the Wilson Cycle.
(Note: 4% of Americans are non-literate and 14% are below basic literacy levels. 34% are at the basic literacy level. 52% read under the 8th grade level. These are 2013 levels, from data collected by the OECD every ten years, but levels of illiteracy are sure to rise with the present influx of non-English speakers across the southern border. https://www.wyliecomm.com/2020/11/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/)
Vera describes a dress she was wearing when she met Floyd as two shades of blue or, to be precise, “two different kinds of blue.” I saw this initially as a distinction between the blues of Buddy Bolden, for whom Hedley was named, and the blues of Muddy Waters, the mentor for our bluesman, Floyd Barton. Extending the frame of reference to another Wilson play, there was the “jug-bucket” blues of Ma Rainey vs. the dance music blues of Levee. A short search yields a multiplicity of different kinds and types of blues music, including Memphis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues. Each has its own peculiar sound and its unique performers.
Throughout the play there are various lists of things, recipes with various steps, and categories of things. Included are types of beer, brands of cigarettes, types of card games, little rhymes, types of weapons, a blow-by-blow boxing match final round, types of roosters, and a recipe for cooking greens. Floyd lists seven ways to go.
I was struck by the similarities between Hedley’s tuberculosis condition, the testing and treatment of it, etc., and current concerns about COVID. Sort of brings it up to date. Tuberculosis, like COVID, was not extremely understood in its early days and often patients were “herded” together in sanitoriums to die, much like the nursing home scandals in New York and Michigan. Eventually, the nature of the disease became better understood and medications were developed that eradicated it. We can only surmise what happens in Hedley’s case, though Louise’s descriptions make it sound like it is already in its advanced stages.
Speaking of Hedley, he is the first person we’ve come across who is not from the south like so many other migrants to Pittsburgh. It sets up a different dynamic in personal relations that we see playing out in Hedley’s interactions with other members of the ensemble. This reflects what actually happened with so many black Caribbean immigrants moving to Northern cities and having to interact with a new country, a new black society unlike what was most prevalent in the south, and in many cases, a new religious order. In effect they, these immigrants from the Caribbean faced separate challenges than southern migrants of a completely new society. Hedley makes Seven Guitars a special case for studying the great migration. Another aspect of the great migration not covered in the American Century Cycle, however, is the rural to urban migration that took place within the south and never crossed into northern states.
Louise explains to Vera multiple times that Floyd “just doesn’t know how to do.” Also known as “savior faire,” Louise says that Floyd lacks basic knowledge and information about the way things work. Of course Vera ignores Louise’s warning because she has a pipe dream of “being a different person” at her new destination that matches Floyd’s pipe dream of “making it” in Chicago. Similarly, Hedley has a pipe dream about a future life on a plantation he will be able to buy with money from his dead father’s ghost.
And what is up with Red Carter claiming he once dated seven women at the same time? Red Carter is lying and he knows it. Perhaps this “locker room talk” adds to the flow of the plot. A monologue for the boys in the band, Canewell, Red Carter, and Floyd. Wilson has said in interviews that nothing in his plays is superfluous and everything ties to something else in building the plot.
Ruby arrives and all the men go crazy. All the men. I could only shake my head. We will discuss, perhaps.
Wilson makes a big deal about Highway 61. I didn’t get it until I looked it up. Highway 61 runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota. It was a major thoroughfare out of the deep south and the subject of many blues songs. In fact, Bob Dylan made a complete album in 1965, Highway 61 Revisited, that included much of the music and blues tradition. See the playlist for other examples. Interesting that the earliest blues pieces describe trains and railroads, because railroads were the primary method of conveyance. Later, with the development of interstate highway systems, automobiles and highways become the underpinning subject of blues. (Note: Upon reflection, the earliest blues pieces may have focused on walking and shoes and we have certainly seem those themes in plays in the Cycle.)
A subplot within the plot, Hedley kills the neighborhood rooster as a signal that he will kill again, and soon. Hedley confesses to Ruby that he once killed a man who would not call him by his given name, King, a sign of things to come for his (alleged) and Ruby’s offspring in the future.
Consolidated notes from Two Trains Running transferred to Substack here:
Memphis, the cafe owner, has all the answers except why his wife left him two months before. They have four children. Risa, who works for Memphis in the cafe, has an idea.
Prophet Samuel is being buried on a Tuesday. Tuesday in Yoruba is Isegun, Day of Victory or Triumph. Aunt Ester sees visitors on Tuesdays. Prophet Samuel reminds us of Father Divine and Daddy Grace.
Hambone and Risa have a natural affinity. We later learn they both are involved in scarification.
“In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. True, some may hate that, but this was a mark of pride, not shame. In most African cultures, it was a major aesthetic and cultural component as can be seen on sculptures in museums around the world. Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits. Lastly, in Africa like in Polynesia, scarification is more visible on darker skinned people than say, tattoos.” https://afrolegends.com/2015/09/16/scarification-an-ancient-african-tattoo-culture/
A man named Zanelli is behind in servicing the Jukebox. He is the “bringer” of music to the cafe, he controls the atmosphere. The jukebox only plays one song when it works, Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look” (on the playlist). There a several reference to the broken jukebox throughout the play, a sort of sounding board for the general state of things. From Wikipedia:
Jukeboxes were most popular from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, particularly during the 1950s. By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes. Billboard published a record chart measuring jukebox play during the 1950s, which briefly became a component of the Hot 100; by 1959, the jukebox’s popularity had waned to the point where Billboard ceased publishing the chart and stopped collecting jukebox play data.
Traditional jukeboxes once were an important source of income for record publishers. Jukeboxes received the newest recordings first. Theybecame an important market-testing device for new music, since they tallied the number of plays for each title. They offered a means for the listener to control the music outside of their home, before audio technology became portable. They played music on demand without commercials. They also offered the opportunity for high fidelity listening before home high fidelity equipment became affordable.
The invention of the portable radio in the 1950s and the portable cassette tape deck in the 1960s were key factors in the decline of the jukebox. They enabled people to have their own selection of music with them, wherever they were. Jukeboxes became a dying industry during the 1970s, before being revived somewhat by compact disc jukeboxes during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by digital jukeboxes using the MP3 format. While jukeboxes maintain popularity in bars, they have fallen out of favor with what were once their more lucrative locations—restaurants, diners, military barracks, video arcades, and laundromats.
Holloway is a true believer in Aunt Ester, just as Risa is a true believer in Prophet Samuel. Their beliefs seem to co-exist throughout the play. Only Memphis criticizes Risa, and only West criticizes Holloway.
Aunt Esther here and in her other appearances is a true Stoic, advising her visitors always to change the way they look at a situation or a problem. She requires them to throw money into the river, i.e., to lessen their psychological dependence on money as a solution to their problems.
Memphis reminds one of Seth in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone when it comes to “traditional” beliefs, though Seth is the first one to grab the harmonica when it’s time to Juba. To his credit, Memphis credits his victory in court to Aunt Ester, not to his white lawyer. We later learn that Memphis has reading disabilities.
Memphis has a pipe dream of reclaiming his land in Mississippi just like Hambone has a pipe dream of getting his ham. Both misled by false, unrealizable hopes. Memphis sees that pipe dream in Hambone, but does not see it in himself. Scholars compare this the Hope’sBar in O‘Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.
Title cut: Two Trains Running. Ties to Doaker’s reflections on train motion in The Piano Lesson. Stovall, who Lymon was indentured to in The Piano Lesson, sold Memphis land without water rights in Two Trains Running, then led a bunch of men in chasing Memphis off the land and slaughtering his mule.
Mass incarceration = stacking niggers? Still working that one out.
Holloway mentions a little bit of history of Prophet Samuel, who was known as Reverend Samuel before he visited with Aunt Ester. Holloway makes a passing reference to Prophet Samuel wearing robes, baptizing people in the river, and going barefooted. That final reference reminded me of a personality known as the Barefoot Prophet who had a small following in my hometown in the 20’s and 30’s, along with his successor who was known as Mr. Bobo. Here is a bit of info: https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/elder-clayhorn-martin-the-barefoot-prophet-in-harlem-1929/
Philmore the customer from Jitney shows up in Two Trains selling a property to West.
Does Memphis” criticism of “Black Is Beautiful” apply to “Black Lives Matter?” At least “Black is beautiful” was an identity and not a tautology.
Sterling mentions being brought up in an orphanage, Toner Institute. That orphanage really existed and operated until 1977, when State and county subsidies could not keep up with rising operational costs. http://www.brooklineconnection.com/history/Schools/TonerInstitute.html
Bubba Boy’s wife overdosed. It is the only drug-related death in the Cycle.
Memphis had a cathartic experience when his mother dies. He cried, things changed, looked differently. He felt he had been “cut loose.”
West visited Aunt Ester and refused to pay by putting money in the river. Memphis visited and complied with good results.
For each session, my intention is to come up with some unique perspective in understanding the play. Sometimes I succeed and achieve that goal. Sometimes I do not. This time I come pretty close.
The key issue, and the central lesson of The Piano Lesson, is repeated by August Wilson in interview after interview. The issue is, ”can you acquire a healthy sense of self worth by denying your past?”
On the surface, it might appear that Berniece is the one who wants to preserve the historical basis of the family’s sense of self-worth through her refusal to sell the piano with all its artifacts that detail family history. Similarly, on the surface, it might appear that Boy Willie is willing to ignore that history in order to buy the 100 acres of farmland where their ancestors were slaves and later, sharecroppers.
But beneath the surface, we learn that 1) Berniece never plays the piano; and most significantly, 2) Berniece has never explained to her daughter Maretha the history of the piano and its symbolic artifacts, the history of the family, or anything else that might actually suggest a sense of self worth. Berniece tells Maretha to “don’t act your color,” suggesting there is something inherently inferior about her complexion. Additionally, while “fixing her hair,” Berniece tells Maretha that if she were a boy, they wouldn’t have to go through that painful process of placing a hot comb to her scalp, suggesting there may be something inferior, as well, about her gender. That Berniece is a piece of work! Berniece wants to ignore her family history in the rural south in order to build a different future for her family in the urban north.
Boy Willie, perhaps on the other hand, acknowledges his southern roots, so much that he wants to buy the land his ancestors worked when they were enslaved. But in order to complete the purchase, Boy Willie has decided he needs the proceeds from selling the family heirloom, the piano.
The tradeoff, stripped of all the accompanying baggage, seems very straight forward.
Let’s pause here and come back later. Let’s talk about the art.
According to Wilson, the Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, provided him inspiration to write the play. In the Bearden painting, you see what appears to be Maretha seated and Berniece standing over and instructing her at the piano.
The painting actually was a tribute to the jazz singer/artist/performer Mary Lou Williams, with whom Bearden’s wife Nanette and her dancing company had done an artistic collaboration while Williams was Artist in Residence at Duke University. The original Bearden collage/painting didn’t have all the family portraits carved into the wood. That was Wilson’s innovation.
But back to the collage. In a wide ranging interview with Myron Schwartzmann in a huge coffee table book Schwartzmann completed entitled, “Romare Bearden: His Life and Art,” whose foreword was written, by the way, by August Wilson, Bearden takes us from the original diagrammatic drawing (ink on paper), to the black and white 1983 oil with collage of the Mecklenburg Autumn series, to the silkscreen ink on tracing paper, to the final 1984 version fully colored.
The complete Mecklenburg Autumn series, named for the North Carolina county where Bearden was born, included, among many, a piece called Autumn Lamp, which featured a guitar player and his guitar. In producing the painting/collage, Bearden followed a procedure established by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, as recorded by his contemporary, another French impressionist, Claude Monet. Monet wrote that Manet always wanted to give the impression that a painting was completed in one sitting, so at the end of each day in production, he would scrape down whatever he had produced, keeping only the lowest layer. Then each new day he would “improvise” on that bottom layer. At some point, Manet would stop the process, but in fact, a Manet painting made in this manner was never actually completed.
In other paintings in the series, Bearden used images from his childhood.
For The Piano Lesson, also called Homage to Mary Lou Williams, Bearden found inspiration in two Matisse paintings, The Music Lesson and The Piano Lesson, left to right, below.
Without going too far afield, one can see not only how Bearden’s images influenced Wilson, but also how his processes and production “technologies” influenced how Wilson produced plays, going through multiple rehearsal revisions, yet improvising on the ever present foundation drawing, the original vision if you will. Yet another piece of the story is that Matisse was influenced by Van Gogh, who did his own “Piano Lesson,” Marguerite Gachet At The Piano. I will leave this link with you for further study and investigation. https://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org/Marguerite-Gachet-At-The-Piano.html
Bearden continues in this part of the interview with other influences on his work, his study of the Dutch Masters, especially Vermeer, his study of the French impressionists during his sojourn in Paris, and his reading of Clausewitz, On War, and how the chaos of war is resolved though the elimination of options. He wrote of classic Chinese painting which he considered the “greatest of paintings,”
“For instance, a Chinese painter, in the classic days, when he looked at the rocks and trees, felt a certain oneness with them. And he was, himself, although painting it, part of the landscape which he was painting. He looked upon the large tree, let us say, as a father tree, the others as his children; the largest mountain, perhaps, as a father mountain, or a mother, and smaller, children mountains. So he imbued nature with human concerns. . . . In this way he was ablest the very beginning, to think of the relationships in his painting because of the relationships with a family.”
I have gone a bit off on a tangent with this Bearden thing, but when Wilson says that Bearden was one of his principle influences, we really should both take that at face value and look deeper.
An interesting story captured by Richard Long, essayist and critic, in his essay “Bearden, Theater, Film and Dance,” reports how he noticed an op-ed Wilson wrote for the New York Times that mentioned his indebtedness to Bearden’s influence. Long showed the op-ed to Bearden over breakfast and asked him if he had seen it and what he thought about it. Bearden, who had never met and would never meet Wilson remarked, “Well, he could have at least sent me tickets to the show.” Wilson would say in subsequent interviews that he actually stood outside Bearden’s apartment but would not go in to see him (hoping perhaps to catch him in transit, maybe). It’s a shame they never directly collaborated.
Two more thoughts on The Piano Lesson before I stop.
It dawned on me, and perhaps on you, that Boy Willie and Berniece are quibbling in the play over what amounts to stolen property. In a previous session I traced the lineage, the provenance of the artifact, the piano. The transaction that resulted in the Charles family acquiring the piano was a theft by Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, along with his uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy. Plain and simple. I know all about how the piano was exchanged for two enslaved people who were also ancestors of Boy Willie and Berniece and I know how horrible slavery was as an institution. I am descended from enslaved people and I grew up hearing the stories. But let’s be honest. Slavery was protected and preserved by the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was the law of the land in the states where it was legitimately practiced. The state legislatures approved it. The national Senate and House of Representatives allowed it. And the Supreme Court affirmed its legitimacy in a number of cases and decisions. They were all in on it. It took a Civil War and the deaths of six hundred thousand soldiers on both sides to correct the wrong that was slavery, something that should have been able to be worked out by rational people over a dining room table.
Yet, try as we might, we cannot really morally justify the theft of the piano, no matter what images were carved into it. Don’t get sucked in by the emotional appeal.
Finally, I want to call your attention to the fact that The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, and for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Le’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson than ever before. As we know from earlier reading, mechanical reproduction will increase the exhibition value of Wilson’s work but what is lost is the cult value, the ritual of the romance of the energy exchanged across the stage and into the audience.
postscript. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year, and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.
postscript#2. NaPoWriMo requires a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?
The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone consolidated notes are here:
A few questions have arisen about the end of the play. Here are my notes from an earlier session:
Explaining the end of the play.
It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment. Let me set the scene.
In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task. During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,” and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that
“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”
OK. Hold on to that thought . . .
Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,
“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”
Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.
OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia. Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”
Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”
This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:
Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,
having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.
At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.
So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.
Yes. I think Bynum is a central character, although Loomis is definitely and definitively the Wilson warrior in this play. We relate personally to whichever character we will and that is one of the human functions of all the dramatic arts, to engage the audience, one by one. But we also have to keep in mind the suggestion made in class, i.e., putting it mildly, that creative people are less focused on their audience and more focused on externalizing their creative impulse. I wrote a poem once, a sonnet, that I thought was exclusively focused on a somewhat complicated rhyming scheme, yet at the end, the whole poem had meaning for me (and perhaps, for any one else who read it), the rhyming scheme notwithstanding.
A friend the other day called my attention to a painting, The Choice of Hercules. The painting (could be a play or a poem) has four human characters, and people who gaze on the masterpiece are subliminally left to choose one to relate to (though forcing that choice may not have been the artistic intent of the painter, Carracci). It’s a bit of a tangent, but it is true, we can’t all be Hercules.
The Choice of Hercules (https://www.wga.hu/html_m/c/carracci/annibale/1/heracles.html)
Wilson is using his plays to build a history of a century, but he is also creating a mythology, and a philosophy. That is why these plays will last and last. And yes, he is developing a psychology, a code for human behavior, perhaps a universal code. It will be fascinating to see how it all unwinds in the remaining six plays.
More on the title. “Joe Turner” comes from an old blues song about a system of incarceration for emancipated blacks in Tennessee, generally on weak or flippant charges forcing them to work in plantations for a limited time. Joe Turner was the brother of Peter Turney, Tennessee Governor at the end of the 19th cenury. See more here: http://www.usprisonculture.com/blog/2010/11/28/they-tell-me-joe-turners-come-and-gone-music-prison-the-convict-lease-system/