Carole Horn’s notes on Two Trains Running (with notes, links and annotations)

This play contains several important Aunt Ester references, and says she is 349 years old in 1969–which means she was born around 1619 or 1620. It was in 1619 that the first 20 Africans were brought from Angola to Virginia and sold to the governor—they were possibly given the status of indentured servants, but in a sense that year marks the beginning of African history in North America (Note: Groups are gearing up for the quadricentennial celebrations next year, in 2019). The number of the house where she lived, 1839 Wylie Avenue, was, of course, the year of the slave mutiny on the ship Amistad. Was Aunt Esther’s name also a tip of the hat to the Aunt Esther character in the 1972-1977 sitcom Sanford and Son, a feisty advisor and supporter of young Lamont, the series’ protagonist?

Christopher Rawson did a 2009 piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette which points out how much Aunt Esther sounds like “ancestor,” and notes that it wasn’t till late in the play series that Wilson said he came to realize that she was the central character in his Cycle, which was why he then highlighted her in Gem of the Ocean. 1621 Wylie is where the play is set, but that is also the number of the house on Bedford where Daisy Wilson died.

The character Hambone, whose name is another name for the Juba dance we saw in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (and it also suggests he is one of the black leftovers Toledo describes in Ma Rainey) began protesting 10 years earlier, around 1959, the ham he did not get from Lutz for painting his fence— about the time of the first lunch Woolworth counter sit-in in Greensboro NC on 2/1/60 according to Rawson. He thinks Wilson was referencing the sit-ins with Hambone’s demand for his ham. And I think Wilson’s ironic joke seems to be that it’s Memphis who is always attempting to refuse Hambone service at his restaurant “counter”—and demanding that Hambone leave. (Note: Coincidentally, immediately (1 month later) following the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, there were similar sit-ins in Memphis TN).

The events surrounding actual time when the play is set include Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 and also include the conviction of James Earl Ray for that murder in 1969 and the killing of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.  (No mention of Woodstock, moonlanding, Stonewall riots or Mohammed Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, all the same year.)

MLK is referenced as is Martin and Malcolm X is emphasized — and Memphis’ long speeches give us another way of looking at the Freedom Now and Black is Beautiful movements. Memphis actually sounds to me like a 1960s Clarence Thomas or Ben Carson prototype—“You born free—it’s up to you to maintain it,” black individualist who neither credits the value of group movements nor sees the use of them. He’s no fool—he doesn’t think anyone will ever give anything voluntarily to black people. He had the experience of losing the land he bought from Stovall, his mule and almost his life before coming to Pittsburgh. Interestingly, Muddy Waters lived on the Stovall Plantation when Alan Lomax first recorded an album of his music there —I don’t know if it had the song with the two trains line in it.

But Memphis also believes—and in the end proves—it is possible to get some justice, even if it’s only monetary compensation for the negative effects of gentrification. Memphis makes me think of Troy Maxson, and of Becker, but a less embittered, more accomplished version of them — is that because of the passage of a generation of time?

Patchneck Red, mentioned in Two Trains, apparently was a real gambler/hustler in Pittsburgh—also mentioned by Wining Boy in Act II Scene 5 of The Piano Lesson. Sterling’s name suggests he’s genuine, the real thing, and his plight as an ex-con looking for work certainly rings true. But he wins at the numbers thanks to Risa and kills no one over the reduced payment, which suggests his future (per Aunt Esther’s endorsement) with her may be optimistic. (Note: Sterling reappears in a later play, Radio Golf). (Note: West mentions burying Miss Sarah Degree, the name of a woman in Wilson’s childhood who gathered all the neighborhood children together to take them to Sunday school at the nearby Catholic Church).

The two trains running metaphor in the play’s name has now accumulated several meanings—the crash referenced in Ma Rainey by Toledo, maybe in this play suggesting old and newer black value systems which are colliding); and the crossing of the Southern and the Yazoo Delta — the mystical crossroads in Piano Lesson—certainly present at Aunt Esther’s home in this play; and Memphis’ “two trains running” comment in this play. As to Esther’s reward for her wisdom: how do the twenties thrown in the river get to her? Is this an oblique reference to pennies in a wishing well, or the payment of homage (two pennies) to cross the river to see to one’s ancestors (which we will see in Gem of the Ocean)?

Much of the plot is taken up with the great event of the week, Prophet Samuel’s funeral. In the Bible, Samuel had been the prophet responsible for keeping King Saul close to God. When Saul, less spiritual than Samuel, turned away from God, Samuel followed God’s instruction to anoint David the next king—when Samuel died, both kings and the nation of Israel were immensely saddened. Since the conflict between Christian beliefs and ancestral ones, and its potential reconciliation is a central theme in Wilson’s plays, I think his choice of Prophet Samuel—also a judge and moral leader Biblically—must be meaningful. Can Christian generosity like Risa’s survive Mammon, the god of material things who compensates loss of community, hearth and home with checks for $35,000?

Risa’s leg cutting suggests African scarification rituals, rites of passage, as well as self-cutting (already happening in the 1970s) as a way to release psychic pain. We see a similar self-cutting by Herald Loomis in Joe Turner and by Levee in Ma Rainey. More often scars that would in traditional African cultures suggest fertility and health (pathogen resistance) would be on exposed skin of breasts or abdomen, but since those areas are not exposed in Two Trains, the legs—the 5 and 7 scars—with the 1 set of genitals between — Risa’s winning number — may suggest that she successfully combines ancestral and Christian strengths and will be very lucky for Sterling, even if Memphis tends to treat her like a scullery maid, crassly ordering her around and implying she’s dumb.

This play is jam-packed with numbers—it is framed by the cost of restaurant meals on the menu at the onset, and concludes with $35,000 check and a ham. Running through it are numbers racket numbers, the borrowing of dollars and paying of wages, numbers of years, Aunt Esther’s $20 payments and numbers of women with whom Wolf carries on. Is Wilson using all these images of daily commerce to suggest that’s what the 60s had become—God dead (Prophet Samuel’s burial) and money is what people worship. Is there irony in the fact that MLK and Malcolm X get are mentioned but Samuel is wept over? Hard to say.

Notes on Two Trains Running (10.29.2018)

Nothing is wasted or superfluous in August Wilson’s plays. So I think we have to assume meaning behind the fact that the only song that plays on the jukebox in Memphis’ diner is Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look, from her Aretha Sings the Blues Album.

Even though the title of the tune is only revealed late in the play, we know throughout that the jukebox is broken and only plays one song, we just don’t know what that song is. I almost assume it is Muddy Waters Still the Same, since embedded in the lyrics is one source of the play’s title, Two Trains Running. But beyond the title and one mention by Memphis, “Two Trains Running” seldom shows up in the text.

I am thinking the difference between the two blues songs may hold a clue for us. The Muddy Waters tune is downbeat, even for the blues. Two trains, neither one going in the direction of the destination he desires. Reminds me a bit of that Doaker passage in Act 1 of The Piano Lesson (but let’s not go there right now…). Allen Toussaint’s Take A Look, on the other hand, whose lyrics are covered by many top vocalists (including Aretha Franklin) and sampled by even more rappers, presents a more even handed look at reality, and perhaps even cautious optimism about choices for the future, which I think is a theme of Wilson’s play:

“Take A Look”

Take a look in the mirror, look at yourself
But don’t you look too close
‘Cause you just might see
The person that you hate the mostLord, what’s happenin’ to this human race?
I can’t even see one friendly face
Brothers fight brothers and sisters wink their eyes
While silver tongues bear fruits of poison liesJust take a look at your children born innocent
Every boy and every girl
Denyin’ themselves a real chance
To build a better world

Dear Lord, dear Lord, what’s happenin’ to your precious dream?
It’s washin’ away on a bloody bloody stream
Take a look at your children before it’s too late
And tell them nobody wins when the prize is hate.

But back to the play.

A couple of things I’d like to highlight. One, this play has more mentions of the N-word than any other of Wilson’s plays, 82 mentions by one count. And more lengthy discussions, especially by Holloway, that include multiple repetitions of the N-Word, i.e., “stacking niggers,” “niggers” mentioned with “guns,” etc. I don’t think this is by accident. I think Wilson is trying to make a point. That point is that despite and because of the repeated mentioning of the N-word, this play is not about race or racism. It is about urban renewal and the resulting “spatial deconcentration” of the black business and urban business community. It is about incarceration and the resulting impact on the community. It is about the interplay between church-based hope and solutions (Prophet Samuel) and spiritual-based outcomes (Aunt Ester) and social movement projections (King, Malcolm X, their deaths and the rallies to promote change that ensued in their wakes). It is about relationships. It is about having jobs and doing work (in the case of Wolf, on the margins of legality) to achieve reasonable economic and social goals. It is even about mentoring. But it is not ABOUT race and racism, as such. I think this was a clear message from Wilson through the characters in this play. This Philadelphia review goes into greater depth about the aboutness of the play.

Let’s also look at the continuity of character across Holloway, Bynum (Joe Turner), Doaker (The Piano Lesson) and Toledo (Ma Rainey), the older guy-type, sage, voice of common sense and experience, and the survivor. Holloway has carefully made his choice for Aunt Ester over Malcolm X and Prophet Samuel, although he knows the history of each and how they came into prominence.  Holloway also professes special insight into Hambone’s behavior, giving him more credit than most for his seemingly erratic ways. Perhaps there is another continuity of character across Memphis, Seth (Joe Turner), and Becker (Jitney), that is, the entrepreneur who operates on the economy’s margin, making tough decisions to keep the employment machine running. As someone in the group said, “we keep on running across the same cast of characters.” Well, almost, but not quite.

My notes from the last session go more into plot and character development.

More later.

Some links:

Glossary of terms:

Mid-term Pop Quiz

1. Match the play setting with the play:

recording studio and band room       _________________________________________

living room, kitchen, parlor                _________________________________________

back porch and kitchen                       _________________________________________

boarding house and yard                    __________________________________________

taxi station                                              _________________________________________


2. Fill in the blank with the name of an associated female character:

Jitney:                                                         _________________________________________

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:                _________________________________________

Fences:                                                      _________________________________________

The Piano Lesson:                                   _________________________________________

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:                    _________________________________________


3. Name the Wilsonian hero/ heroine of each play:

Jitney:                                                         _________________________________________

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:                    _________________________________________

Fences:                                                        _________________________________________

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:                _________________________________________

The Piano Lesson:                                    _________________________________________


Notes on The Piano Lesson (10.19.2018)

Opening today’s notes with a short video on Romare Bearden, whose collage, The Piano Lesson, provided inspiration for this Wilson play.

So, what is “The Piano Lesson?” It’s a question I ask myself. Is it what it appears on the surface, the not-unsubstantial question of preserving an artifact which is also an archive and a family heirloom, versus using the proceeds of the sale of said artifact to buy the farm where generations worked during slavery and Reconstruction. Which one has more practical and economic value? Which one has more spiritual and perhaps cultural value? Or is it a false dichotomy, an irony created to force us to take a closer look at the story?

  • Mass incarceration had by 1936 become a rite of passage for African American men. The thing that united all four male characters in the story is the time they spent incarcerated at Parchman Farm, thanks to that 13th Amendment cut-out.
  • The crossroads where the Southern (vertical, North-South from Washington, DC to New Orleans) meets the Yazoo Delta (aka, the Yellow Dog, horizontal across Mississippi) is a recurrent theme in oral folklore, music and literature. The God of The Crossroads, is known as Papa Legba in West Africa, Elegua in Cuba and Brazil. he is a trickster who will speak to you at the crossroads (decision-making moment) and allow you to sell your soul for quick fame and riches.
  • August Wilson includes the lyrics to three whole blues/gospel songs in the play. Think he’s trying to tell us something? Berta, Berta. I’m a Ramblin Gamblin Man. I Want You to Help Me.
  • Boy Willis has a unique rhythm to his speech in a couple of places. Almost like a mantra, a recipe he has memorized (sounds curiously like the Skip James epigraph):

In Act 1, Scene 1: “Sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved. Walk in there. Tip my hat. Lay my money down on the table. Get my deed and walk out. This time I bet to keep all the cotton. Hire me some men to work it for me. Gin my cotton. Get my seed. And I’ll see you again next year.”

Then in Act 1 Scene 2: “I sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved.”

  • Avery, now a preacher, seeks Berniece’s hand in marriage. He has his eye on the piano for his future church and congregation, and his eye on Berniece as a future deaconess. By his stated estimation, Berniece has no value except as a wife. Berniece rejects that estimation. Avery fails in his attempt to bless the house and rid it of Sutter’s ghost.
  • Speaking of which, who/what is Sutter’s ghost attached to? Is it the piano? I laid out the “provenance” of the piano in a previous post:
  • Genealogy and provenance of the piano.

1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.

2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander his choice of two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.

3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged the for the piano.

4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.

5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her long lost sold slaves.

6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.

7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.

8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.

9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Berniece later joined him after her husband was killed.

Conclusion. But there is more to discuss. I wrote in a previous posting the following:

The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. The Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the  archive of the family history through the generations. Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

Here is the YouTube playlist:

Glossary of play

Late Notes from Carole Horn:

More Piano Lesson notes: Skip James was a Jazz piano player who first recorded for Paramount in 1931, then nothing happened till he was rediscovered 30 years later—“Gin my cotton”is from Illinois Blues. His is the brief musical prologue that starts the play.
The play itself takes its title from another Romare Bearden collage, “The Piano Lesson: Homage to Mary Lou Williams, the Jazz pianist who moved from the South to Pittsburg—who died in the 1980s and was know as the First Lady of Jazz piano.
Wilson said he wrote the play based on a short story he’d created much earlier.
Carvings on the piano legs represent African sculpture, totems—whatever the piano means to the different characters in The Piano Lesson, it is firmly grounded in African culture. And the images are powerful metaphors—on the one hand, they comforted the white woman whose slaves were traded away for it (likely because she never did see them as human beings, only as human images behind slave presences) and they became beloved homes for the spirits, homes polished and shined (with metaphoric blood and real tears) every day by Mama Ola, before Berenice brought the piano north after her mother’s death.
Doaker means (according to Urban Dictionary) a person with no common sense, it could also refer to a whore, neither of which seem to refer to Wilson’s character Doaker Charles. But “John Doakes” in the 1920s and ‘30s was another way of saying Everyman in America, and maybe he borrows that image for Doaker. This play is dedicated to his siblings, the only one so far, and while the public references to the time frame I could find do not seem so relevant—end of Great Depression, Pittsburg great flood. there may be private or family ones that we don’t know about which made Wilson choose 1936 as the year in which it is set.The Irene Kaufman Settlement House was real; in it’s heyday, Anna Perlow taught music there, and was a revered Pittsburg figure. the Ikes ( settlement house workers) helped clear up typhoid in Pittsburg, provided milk, food and support and gave a music scholarship each year in Anna Perlow’s name—this seems to be the one very positive reference to white people in this play.

Sent from my iPhone
Yet another buried gem (maybe) (from Ray).
Of the names of the men who set the box car on fire and were eventually killed by falling in wells (there is some symbolism to that but I haven’t quite figured it out), there is one Ed Saunders. Wilson, in the middle to late 1960’s, envisioned himself as some sort of beat poet (hence his attraction to Baraka/Leroi Jones). A name he would have been familiar with in the same period is Ed Sanders (without the ‘u’) a beat poet and social activist who later (within Wilson’s life, though), began work on a 9-volume “America, A History in Verse.” Looks like he has three volumes in print, covering 1900 to 1970, a sort of epic poem in the manner of Homer or Virgil, and another two volumes on CD. I can see where Wilson may have considered Sanders a rival. Of course, this is all speculation that we can’t investigate until the estate releases Wilson’s papers.

Carole’s additional notes on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (10.15.2018)

The play is set in 2011, in a city of Northern black people and others who have been on the road and are transitioning to new lives as Jim Crow laws make life in the South even more unbearable for formerly enslaved people and their children.  Diaspora and identity are important themes; roads and songs, frequently used metaphors.  A major influence in this play is Romare Bearden, whose collage Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket Wilson says gave him the idea for a play set in a boarding house. Wilson was awed by Bearden’s vision of “black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness.” Wilson himself lived in a boarding house at one point (and discovered the Bessie Smith recordings then) and Bearden, who was born in the South, moved with his family to New York but stayed with his grandparents summers and for some of high school in a boarding house they ran in Pittsburgh, where he later created a noted mural celebrating the city.  Bearden was born in 1911, which might be one reason why Wilson chose that year in which to set the play. Sandra Shannon suggests he inspired the Reuben character in Joe Turner.

A little history that may inform the name of Rutherford Selig, the only white man in the play:  Rutherford B Hayes removed troops protecting blacks in the South, after signing the Compromise of 1877, which actually enabled the Jim Crow laws. And the so-called Exodusters, a large group of former slaves, escaped  the Deep South in droves for Kansas, beginning around 1879.  We meet Rutherford Selig, a fugitive slave finder, like his father, (his grandfather ran slave ships, we’re told) who’s turned people finder after Emancipation; he finds he has a booming market for dustpans (reminiscent of those Exodusters and also of getting rid of the dust of the road).

Bert Williams, a famous black Vaudeville performer in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1910 and 1911, when the play is set, originally worked for a filmmaker named William Selig in a noted California minstrel show in the 1890s.  Questions were raised strongly in the Negro community about whether his performances demeaned blacks, and Williams found himself apologetically explaining he had to make a living. Also, the name Selig derives from the German “happy or content”—and the Finder has been particularly adaptable in his ability to live contentedly off the sweat and pain of black Americans.

Chapter 37 of Ezekiel in the Bible tells of the vision of the dry bones in the valley coming to life with the breath of the Holy Spirit, reviving Israel, and resonates with Loomis’ vision of the bones in the waters—the countless slaves who died in transit (the middle passage) across the ocean from Africa come to mind—rising and coming to life after the great wave comes.

Also, Vachel Lindsay’s poem The Congo (1914) comes to mind, with its reference to a Juba session and to the “thigh-bone beating on a tin pan gong” in Africa—and makes me think about the Joe Turner Juba scene and about Seth’s trade, making pots and pans, and wonder if the allusion may be as intentional as the Rutherford Hayes one seems to be.  There was and is, of course, great controversy about the legitimacy of Lindsay’s romantic and primitive portrayal of blacks (WEB DuBose and Joel Spingarn’s criticisms are particularly well-put) and his poem’s end that suggests Africans would all become Christianized and thus life on the dark continent made perfect. Wilson the poet would undoubtedly have know that poem as well as Lindsay’s The Modest Jazz Bird, praising the efforts of Black Americans in World War I, and reached his own conclusions about Lindsay.

I think, in fact, one of Wilson’s other important themes in Joe Turner is that not accommodating to, but rejecting Christianity in favor of their powerful African heritage is what helps displaced, abused and disenfranchised blacks like Herald Loomis, who was trained as a church deacon but chose finally to bathe in his own blood—a powerful personal baptism— to overcome his paralysis after the Juba awakened him to his own spiritual desolation. That blood is an ironic and powerful response to Martha’s plea he be washed in the blood of the lamb, but also evokes traditional primitive sacrifice, like Bynum’s pigeon blood, and the blood Bynum discovered when the shiny man rubbed his hands together before Bynum  is able to find his father and his song. It is, ultimately, the blood of Loomis’ own authentic black individuality.

Bynum is told by the shiny man that rubbing his hands together will make him clean—as does the ritual washing in Islamic (and Jewish) tradition. Interestingly, Wilson told John Lahr in a 2001 New Yorker interview, that he himself washed his hands each time before he began to write—and he commented that in his writing he tried to tap into “the blood’s memory,” that “deepest part of yourself where the ancestors are talking.”

The shiny man, The One Who Goes Before, both references those ancestors and evokes the biblical Isaiah, describing God or Jesus saying “I will go before you and make the rough places smooth—“.   Bynum says, about the song he got when the shiny man showed him his daddy, “That song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me”—connecting himself with Loomis not only via the magic that tells him about Joe Turner and Johnstown, but also through the Scripture Loomis already knows. Feeding the man who has starved three days, as Bynum did, reminds me of the parable in which the righteous are  told by Jesus that they fed him every time they fed the hungry or the poor. (And Jesus’ disciples remained with him three days without food). This amalgamation of African and Biblical spirituality was ultimately able to heal even a man whose “Mr. Jesus Christ is a great big old white man with a whip in one hand”.   Bynum, magician or trickster, or spirit healer was able to orchestrate it, and his success  gifted him with the vision he’d been waiting for and a fulfilled life. Not a bad gift for Wilson to wish, in retrospect, for a grandfather he never knew but imagined so powerfully in his poem about him.

Joe Turner, of course, was Joe Turney, the brother of the Tennessee governor who captured freed black men, claimed they’d committed crimes and impressed them into servitude through the convict lease system. The song had its own folk life, and Mississippi John Hurt was among those who did it justice. Interestingly, Big Joe Turner Jr., a famous black American “shout” blues singer, was also born in 1911, the year in which the play is set.

Houston A. Baker’s Long Black Song, a book of essays published in 1972 that expanded on a chapter in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children with the same title, maintains that black culture’s richness comes from many sources—folk tales, trickster stories, etc. and that the culture must be read through the folklore of the people—it could be one of Wilson’s sources of the song metaphor, although that’s my conjecture.

As to Herald Loomis, a herald is, of course, a messenger, official, or harbinger of imminent change, this one trailing not the expected hellhounds but a daughter.  Seth means son of Adam and his last name Holly traditionally represents Christ’s crown of thorns but also Druidic eternal life.  Martha Pentecost’s name remembers the day of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the followers of Jesus, one of whom was Martha, who welcomed him to her home—representative of traditional Christianity. Loomis’ hat and long coat are mentioned several times by Seth and other characters and could be associated with Baron Samdhi (Baron Sunday in English) a Voodoo figure who also dressed in a long black coat and top hat, and who was said to stand on the brink between the living and the dead, called The Hat Man, who evoked fear like Seth’s uneasiness about Loomis.

Wilson’s mother Daisy, who died in 1983,  was the daughter of Bynum and Belle Zona Cutler Wilson—we know where Bynum’s name comes from, and it would not surprise me to find that Zona inspires the Zonia choice for the young girl in the play.  Since Joe Turner was first presented as a stage reading in 1984, it’s likely Wilson was rewriting it in 1983, when Wilson’s mother Daisy died, and the family references may have had particular significance for him at that time. The character Mattie, in the play, is presented as living at 1727 Bedford, Wilson’s actual childhood home address.

Zonia chants “Pullin the Skiff” a childhood dancing song later recorded by Alan Lomax—sung by Ora Dell Graham in the ‘40s, a young girl at the time Lomax recorded her.

Loomis “hangs around outside the church” but does not go in, certainly looking for Martha, but also remaining apart from the Christianity she represents, which seems to have lost meaning for him during his time on the convict gang. Bynum’s spell brings Martha and Zonia back together—he bound them when Martha sought him out when she first came to Pittsburgh after losing her daughter. The dialogues between Loomis and Bynum, and between Martha and Bynum, are contrapuntal—like musical chants or competing songs, and dramatize the conflict and pain Loomis is feeling, as well as the similarity and differences between Christianity and traditional beliefs, as the play rises to its climax. Loomis looks as “shiny as new money” as he stands, at the end, on his own two feet—new money represented the ostentatious wealth seen in some successful black entertainers like Bert Williams and personified a decade later in The Great Gatsby, but was also built by the recent amassing of fortunes—some of which were reaped from entrepreneurship or personal talent, or from the fruits of the new Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s; but others of which came from businesses which had profited because of slavery. The Liberty Head nickel was about to be retired in 2013 in favor of the  buffalo coin with which we all grew up. It’s doubtful Wilson knew that when he was writing Joe Turner, but it does seem an ironically appropriate metaphor, considering the impact of Plessey Vs. Ferguson (1896), enshrining legalized segregation, over the following 60 years and beyond.

Spider in West African Ashanti folklore is know as Anansi, the cunning trickster who came to represent slave resistance and survival, and skill in communication and speech, which were said to enable a sense of continuity with their African culture for the slaves of the diaspora. Reuben labels Zonia  “Spider” and says one day he’s going to find and marry her, a sweet and positive counterbalance to the adult story, sealed with a kiss that may hold promise for the future.

Notes: Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (10.14.2018)

Let’s open with a couple of links:

  1. Here is a Frank Rich review from the original in 1988.  Frank Rich review 1988
  2. Here is a link to the Romare Bearden collage, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket

Notes from the prior session are pretty exhaustive. More in the morning.

In my first reading, I overlooked that the character Seth, the boardinghouse owner descended from free blacks and married to Bertha, has an interesting name with Hebrew and Egyptian antecedents. The Bible Seth was the third sone of Adam and Eve, the direct linear ancestor of Noah. The Egyptian mythology Seth was the god of chaos and represented everything that threatened harmony. Seth reject’s Bynum’s way of understanding the world. He is an entrepreneur, a landlord and a craftsman, but he is hemmed in by the structure of the economy and his world, i.e., he can’t get a bank loan to expand his business without putting up his only asset as collateral, he works for Mr. Olowskoi where he has little say about the direction of his efforts, and he depends on Selig to pay him a fair price for his wares, the pots and pans he makes. Yet, he constantly rejects the cultural traditions (mostly) of the very people whose misfortunes and temporary homelessness create a demand that gives him some measure of economic freedom. Nonetheless, he plays harmonica for the Juba on Sunday afternoon, so there is hope for him.

(NOTE: Selig Polyscope was the name of an early motion picture company founded by William Selig in Chicago in 1896. It eventually moved to Los Angeles but folded in 1918, selling its assets to Louis Mayer, who later formed the parent company of MGM)

Skipping around, I also focused in this reading on the Act 2 Scene 4 (a continuation of their first conversation upon meeting at the end of Act 1 Scene 1) tenderness and sweetness of the burgeoning relationship between Zonia and Reuben, two children who find themselves in this human orbit through no choice of their own. I love the way they share secrets about the pigeons and the ghost of Miss Mabel, the way they kiss on the lips twice because of meaning attached to the first time. Reuben takes the lead, names Zonia, Spider, and proposes marriage to her at some time in their future. She rejects the name but accepts the proposal and in the audience we feel there is a chance for a second chance at redemption in the future.

(NOTE: Zonia is a genus of skippers (butterflies) of the family, Hesperiidae, of the Lepidoptera species of insects.)

Then there is the kitchen conversation between Bertha and Mattie late in Act 2 Scene 5. Just after Mattie does something “motherly” for Zonia, tying a ribbon on her hair, Loomis and Zonia leave and Bertha gives Mattie some motherly advice, noticing, perhaps, the energy exchange between Mattie and Loomis (there is definitely chemistry there).

Finally, Martha arrives and Loomis returns for a mild but meaningful confrontation. Both have moved on, in a manner of speaking, following Loomis’ kidnapping and seven year imprisonment. Harsh though it may seem, true love can fade depending on the circumstances. Loomis hands his daughter over to her mother after a long separation and we are led to believe he ends up with Mattie. Not quite the ending we may have anticipated, but a suitable one, nonetheless.

I’ll leave the rest to the discussion and post meeting wrap-up.

Carole Horn’s notes on Fences (OLLI-AU)(10.11.2018)

My notes on Fences, gleaned from commentaries about it and some of my own interpretations:

Sam Bankhead, who with Josh Gibson’s son went to work in 1952 for the Pittsburgh sanitation department in the Hill District, a man who was said to be  bitter because his career in the Negro  leagues, talented as he was, never led to a major league position, was said by some to be the model for Troy Maxson, although Samuel Freedman—in his introduction to Fences, says it was step-father David Bedford, who wanted a football scholarship to medical school but turned to crime to pay when he couldn’t raise the cash, and possibly Charley Burley, the prizefighter turned garbage man across the street, who were likely models—Bankhead played with Josh Gibson and Satchel Paige for the Pittsburg Crawford’s in the 1940s.

In 1957, the first year in which Fences is set, Althea Gibson became the first black pro tennis player to win the Wimbledon, so Cory had reason to hope. In Pittsburg, the Lower Hill District had just been demolished in 1956 to build the new civic arena, and the exodus from that area of 8,000 displaced families was underway.

Orville Faubus resisted efforts to integrate Central High School in Arkansas leading to violent confrontations and the first major civil rights bill was signed into law by Dwight Eisenhower.  Gabriel, Troy’s mad brother who thinks he’s already dead and who believes he’s the Archangel Gabriel, serves in the play as a messenger of St. Peter—and tells Troy his name is definitely “in the book”—he believes his brother is a good man and he’s either Wilson’s voice of judgement on that subject or he’s a poor fool preyed upon by his brother.  Accompanied by the Gabriel hellhounds (British or Celtic) who presage death,  and maybe echoing the Greek idea of chorus in this tragedy, he finally dances off at the conclusion after he blows his silent horn and confronts the ineffable.

Troy himself is, like the city, surrounded by walls to keep vulnerability out and he builds a fence to keep death away from his family, saying “you ain’t gonna’ sneak up on me no more,” reminding me of the stealthy attack on the ancient city perpetrated by Sparta.

While Troy’s father behaves as cruelly as Wilson and his sister have suggested that Wilson’s white father did, Wilson’s white father abandoned their family and mother Daisy Wilson, who PBS said walked most of the way to Pittsburg from rural North Carolina, following her mother, in 1937, became its mainstay.

Troy, who describes a similar long walk, never abandons his family although he judged and criticized Rose, Cory and Lyons, and took advantage of and cheated Gabriel. Tragedy in the play (Hamartea, the fatal flaw of a tragic hero) has to do with Troy’s rigidity and behavioral hubris—he holds everyone else up to higher standards than he is willing to demand of himself—sees them as flawed but himself, in his bitterness and self-pity, as deserving the pleasure he enjoys with Alberta and the use he makes of Gabriel’s money.

Aristotle saw the tragic flaw as intended to arouse pity and fear in an audience so we can learn to avoid the same flaw in ourselves.

Bono’s name suggests Bono Vox, a voice for good; and Rose’s, a rosy outcome, or the expression in Isaiah “ The desert shall bloom like the rose,” which reflects her speech about the inability of their relationship to bloom in Troy’s barrenness.

Cory—a cauldron, a seething pool, comes from French (or Latin) word for heart, and likely reflects his heat and passion.

Lyons? Lying or lion-hearted?

In Act 2 Scene 1 page 68– Troy attempts to justify his infidelity to Rose —by claiming “I done give you everything I got”—but did he, in reality? He gave Rose only that rocky ground in which to nurture the seed she planted.

To Cory, he gives stern admonitions: don’t you strike out! Baseball is a game of rules—it even has a pen, albeit not a penitentiary—and it has players who try to advance—or to steal—bases.  Love and commitment and altruism are not so much baseball algorithms  as obligation and performance and reward; Troy learned those from the penitentiary and, undoubtedly, in the bullpen.  He didn’t learn to plant gardens or to nurture them. But for a tragic hero who was not himself modeled love or emotional commitment as a child (mom ran away, dad tried to provide but brutalized his son for disobeying), it provided rules for interacting with other men.

It’s human nature to try to correct what we perceive our parents did to us, and it is hard truth that we often make new troubles for our own children doing so. Troy reflects, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy” in the speech describing the parental behavior that shaped the end of his childhood. Troy refuses to sign the football recruitment papers for Cory, blaming him for lying about his job, but we don’t know whether fear or anger, jealousy or rigidity motivates him.

Then Troy steals Gabe’s money by committing him, and Alberta dies in childbirth. Troy gives that Mr. Death speech page 72–I’m building me a fence—no more sneaking up on me —in response to Augusta’s death, and he sings to Rose when he returns with infant Raynell some lines from Please Mr. Engineer—a walking blues song performed by Blind Willie McTell among others—a plaint of homelessness and an oblique threat he’d have to leave if she wouldn’t take the baby. He apologizes—and in a dignified way—but all along the self-pity he’s used to justify his behaviors has modeled an approach to life that Cory, furious at his father’s overt behaviors, is nonetheless taking to heart.

Cory leaves and the time changes to 1965—and Troy’s death.

In 1965–the year Wilson chose for the second part of the play, a maelstrom of potential influences on that choice converged. The first 3000 Marines marched into Viet Nam (Cory, now a Marine corporal who cannot yet know the potential danger ahead, wonders  whether  he’ll make a career of the Marines or if he’s had enough); Malcolm X is assassinated in February, a man whose speeches and cadences and at least part of his philosophy Wilson admired; in March, Bloody Sunday occurred in Selma on the Edmund Pettus bridge and in the streets and jail, and on  3/25 MLK led the historic march from Montgomery to Selma—in May, Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965; and the Moynihan Report about the disintegration of the Negro family (which Moynihan recognized began with segregation and Jim Crow’s effects on black families but believed was related to one-parent mother-led homes) was completed the same year.

Interestingly, in the period just before Fences was actually written, Ken Auletta in 1982 wrote The Underclass, a book affirming Moynahan’s views about the female-headed household as a major contributor to the worst poverty and criminality in the very poor black American underclass. He was not writing about most families or the black mainstream, but his book reignited the controversies the Moynihan report had engendered.

Fences was initially presented as a staged reading at the National Playwright’s Conference in 1983. That same year The Times and a Baltimore paper ran two important series on the black family, raising the issues Moynihan had described and the criticism that report and the Auletta book raised among black nationalists, feminists and others who disagreed with its conclusions.

The part of Fences dealing with Troy’s death and funeral occurred in the midst of those events, and the story does reflect them obliquely. Rose is now the single mother of a seven or eight year old girl; Cory may be facing Viet Nam; Lyons is in prison and Gabriel still hospitalized.   Rose’s speech advising Cory to own who he has become and cut the shadow of his father down to size is followed by Cory and Raynell’s rendition of Troy’s song about Blue, which now has another verse presented, which becomes becomes a tribute to Troy, whom they’re readying to bury—Blue treed a possum on a limb (and Troy whacked at a baseball hanging from a limb). Blue laid down and died like a man….and so did Troy.

You could even argue that all Troy’s bitterness and self-pity is a form of the Blues, which is why the Blue Dog song  seems to elucidate his qualities—loyalty, doggedness at Labor. Gabriel blows that soundless—to us, but maybe not to St. Peter—horn for the gates of heaven to open, apparently sees a vision which renders him mute, and he begins to dance—maybe the French medieval Dance Macabre—or the Greek funeral dance summoning all people to the grave—suggesting the universality of death, and echoing the end of the tragic hero and the resolution of the play.

Notes on Week 3 – Fences (10.08.2018)

Again, the playwright’s introduction is pure poetry. Here is the 1st paragraph in stanza form (2nd and 3rd paragraphs to follow):

Near the turn of the century,
the destitute of Europe
sprang on the city
with tenacious claws
and an honest and solid dream.

The city devoured them.
They swelled its belly until it burst
into a thousand furnaces and sewing machines,
a thousand butcher shops and bakers’ ovens,
a thousand churches and hospitals
and funeral parlors and money lenders.

The city grew.
It nourished itself
and offered each man a partnership
limited only by his talent,
his guile and his willingness
and capacity for hard work.
For the immigrants of Europe,
a dream dared and won true.

These poem-intros bring to my mind the Greek chorus of ancient Greek drama, the collective voice that comments on the dramatic action (we will see more of this in future plays)…

The epigraph of the play is from Wilson’s original poetry:

“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.”

The play opens with a dialogue between two very old friends, Troy and Bono. It is a tried and true friendship and nothing is off the table for conversation. They discuss successes and shortfalls, routine stuff and special events, with a fluidity and continuity that makes the reader know there must be many stories wedged and buried between the lines.

We learn that the duo is a trio with the entry of Troy’s wife, Rose, an equal partner in the discussion, well most of the discussion. They chat on the back porch as it is a time, the 1950’s, before television AND air conditioning made the insides of our homes a more comfortable place. 90% of the rest of the play takes place outside, on the porch, and closer to nature, perhaps. At least farther from the confines of an enclosed space.

The first scene introduces us to Troy’s son, Cory, who wants to be an athlete like his Dad and definitely has the skills. But baseball, or at least his failure to get a shot at the pro league in his youth, has left a bitter taste in Troy’s mouth and he has every intention of discouraging his son from pursuing a similar dream. The rest of the play shows that conflict, father vs. son, and the possibility of dreams vs the reality of dreams forever deferred.

And there are other conflicts and tensions. Some get resolved, some don’t, some just muddle along. There is a growing and gnawing disappointment between Rose and Troy for each other. Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, is a static character throughout, in pursuit, by extension, of a hopeless dream. Troy’s new daughter, who arrives by an inopportune circumstance, perhaps, shows flashes of optimism for the future of the family.

A few points for further discussion:

1. Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson in juxtaposition. Was Babe the white Josh or was Josh the black Babe? Also mention of Jackie Robinson, Roberto Clemente, and George Selkirk (Babe Ruth’s successor, as perhaps Troy envisioned himself as Josh’s successor).

2. Interesting mention of “a pot to piss in.” We will see that theme further amplified in Gem of the Ocean.

3. The mixed metaphor of “wrassling (a poker game, a sexual innuendo)” vs.”wrestling with the devil” (see Ngugi wa Thiong’o) and three days and three nights (Jonah in the belly of the whale AND Jesus in the tomb.

4. Mention of Uncle Remus, a set of oral plantation fables and folktales “collected” and transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris, a white newspaper reporter.

5. Hertzberger, the furniture merchant was also the name of a prominent Dutch architect of the period, Herman Hertzberger.

6. Glickman, another furniture merchant, was the name of a prominent composer/ producer of film scores of the period, Mort Glickman.

7. Lyon’s lines about his music sound eerily similar to lines from ma Rainey “I need something that gonna help me get out of the bed in the morning. Make me feel like I belong in the world.”

8. Scene Two opens with the first mention of the word “fence.” See playlist below.

9. Fences Playlist:

10.   And here is additional thought and analysis from the first sessions:

11. A short note on the libation ceremony in the film production of Fences. In the film adaptation and in some stage productions you may notice Troy or Bono or Lyons pouring a few drops of whatever booze they are drinking onto the ground before taking a swallow. I have seen this most noticeably among Africans, pouring a few drops of a beverage on the ground before drinking as a tribute of sorts to the ancestors who have passed on. This tribute/ceremony does not occur in the Wilson script. I only thought about it while we discussed Buddy Bolden’s alcoholism in Seven Guitars. I found something about it here.


Notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (10.01.2018)

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the plays introduction, written by the playwright, entitled simply, “The Play.” It immediately threw me back to the opening lines of Homer’s Odyssey,

Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them.

Of course, the most recent translation of that great classic appears in stanza form, so I decided to put Wilson’s opening in stanza form as well. Here is a sampling:

It is early march in Chicago, 1927.
These is a bit of a chill in the air.
Winter has broken but the wind
coming off the lake does not carry
the promise of spring. The people of the city
are bundled and brisk in their defense
against such misfortunes as the weather
and the business of the city proceeds
largely undisturbed. 

Chicago in 1927 is a rough city,
a bruising city,
a city of millionaire and derelicts,
gangsters and roughhouse dandies,
whores and Irish grandmothers who move
through its streets fingering long black rosaries.

Somewhere a man is wrestling
with the taste of a woman in his cheek.
Somewhere a dog is barking. Somewhere
the moon has fallen through a window
and broken into thirty pieces of silver.

The next thing I noted was the opening epigraph, a verse from a blues song by Blind Lemon Jefferson:

They tore that railroad down
so the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
build me a railroad of my own.

I wasn’t familiar with that song or its singer, so of course I looked it up on YouTube!

And I wondered, why did Wilson use this as his opening? More on that after today’s discussion.

Unlike other Wilson plays, Ma Rainey begins with two white characters in a dialogue, the record company executive, Sturdyvant, and the manager, Irvin. Very few of Wilson’s plays even have white characters, much less in a prominent place like the opening (There is one in Gem of the Ocean, and the same character appears again in Joe Turner).

Later in Act one, after the opening dialogue that pretty much sets the scene, Wilson provides in the stage directions a carefully detailed description of each member of the band. I won’t produce it here, but that paragraph is worthy of our attention as it “plays” out over the course of the two acts.

A couple of other preliminary thoughts.

The play lays out a collection of Ma Rainey songs that she and the band rehearse and perform over the course of the play. These songs provide a good introduction to the sound of Ma Rainey and are still available. I put them all together here along with a couple of surprises:

The “surprises” include a Cutler monologue about Slow Drag, and a poem Wilson recites about his grandfather, also named Cutler, which I found a bit ironic, but maybe not so. Here is the latter:

And here is the transcription (so you can read along. Credits to Jeannie M on Youtube):

His chest stripped open to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.

Bynum Cutler. Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.
Bynum Cutler, who spread his seed
over the nine counties in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton planted
in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season welcoming its architects
and ennobling them with gifts of blood.

A central character named Bynum appears in a later (earlier) play, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. So his grandfather (who Wilson never knew) appears twice in his plays.

Apart from the weaving storylines and the evolving plots and subplots that we will discuss, I’d like to include here two other mentions. One is Toledo’s pontifications about African Conceptualism, a real thing that existed (and exists) in the study of modern African art, and in Wole Soyinka’s treatment of African drama (See “Myth, Literature and the African World) but much later than 1927 where this play was set. Still I think there may be a connection. Second is the passing, but not so passing, mention of Booker T. Washington, a figure revered by Wilson throughout his writings and interviews.

Finally, here is a link to an article about the real life Ma Rainey to put it all in historic perspective:

And a link to the earlier notes on Ma Rainey in this blog:

OK. Let’s discuss.