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:
https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO

10.   And here is additional thought and analysis from the first sessions:
https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/03/24/some-takeaway-notes-from-fences/

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.

postscript. https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/

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:

https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-queer-black-woman-who-reinvented-the-blues

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

https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

OK. Let’s discuss.