pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

I enjoy slightly retelling the stories in these August Wilson plays. It somehow helps me understand them better. My favorite thing is renaming each play. For example, I renamed Gem of the Ocean “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” The rename for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is “The Return of Deacon Herald Loomis,” though it could also named “Bynum Walker’s Fulfillment. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was easy, “It’s All About Levee,” though “August Wilson on Playwriting and Play Production” is running a tight second and may win the race overall. The renaming of this week’s play, The Piano Lesson, is a bit complex, but I think I have figured it out: “Sutter’s Ghost in the Archive.” Let me explain.

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

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

It’s 5:55 and I need to get ready for a 6:55 departure to work. Tonight I’ll finish with the explanation of “The Archive.”

OK. The Archive. One normally thinks of archives in terms of written records, and normally, these days though it hasn’t always been, on paper. Let me change your thinking. The piano is a worthy museum piece, with the carvings and all, an artifact, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as an archive. But this piano has carvings that represent several generations fo the Charles family, births, marriages, transactions, deaths, etc. Those representations qualify it to be an archive itself, the images mere surrogates of actual events in the lives of actual people. Doaker and Wining Boy tell Boy Charles, “Bernice is not going to sell that piano,” because they know she recognizes the power of the record, of the representation.

I wrote in an earlier set of notes, “The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin 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. It’s 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 a 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 a link to the YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Notes from Session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/

Notes from Session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/09/some-notes-and-takeaways-from-two-trains-running/?wref=tp

Supplementary notes that Carole Horn and I collaborated on in the 2nd session: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/#comment-1154

Some pre-class notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (3.21.2019)

There are two plays. There is the superficial plot of the play – a Ma Rainey recording session that ends in the production of a record by the star and a a tragic act committed among the band players. And there are several meta-plays that the playwright and all the characters both generate and represent between the lines. Let’s talk about the first, then the second.

Deep inside Act 1, after meeting all the band members and the staff of the recording company and learning through their “locker room talk” what makes them tick as individuals, Ma finally arrives with her girlfriend and her stuttering nephew and a police officer in tow. There’s been a traffic altercation that gets fixed with a small side payment.

The recording session, already behind schedule, gets further delayed as Ma (1) insists on getting a soft drink from outside the studio, and (2) insists that the band will do multiple takes until her stuttering nephew can get the voice introduction to her hit song right. Once the recording session is complete, or so we think, the recording crew discovers that a microphone was disconnected. So they have to do it one more time. Once completed, Ma refuses to sign the release, though after a short period of protestation, she signs and departs. And the fun begins. Levee (Levi, Louis Armstrong) the trumpet player, fired by Ma for being a hot shot (and for making overtures to Ma’s girlfriend), has been working a side deal with the record producer to produce his own band. The producer at length rejects Levee’s recording proposal, but offers him $5 for the score and “his troubles.” Levee feels dejected and disappointed and carries those feelings back to the band room, whereupon, he gets involved in a final altercation with Toledo, the piano player, resulting in what appears to be Toledo’s death by stabbing. As the curtain falls the sound of Levee’s trumpet is heard.

Time for a network break.

OK. An alternate perspective. Or several.

The “real” play is a series of representations. There is the waiting game that Professor Shannon writes about. Waiting for Ma to show up late. Waiting for the policeman to get his bribe. Waiting for Ma to get her Coke. The band members waiting for their alcohol and marijuana high to kick in. Waiting for Sylvester, the stutter to get his part right and without repetitions. Waiting for Levee to make his move on Dussie. Waiting for the microphone to get fixed so they can do one more take. Waiting for Slow Drag to finish his card trick. Waiting for Ma to sign the release. Waiting for Toledo to die. Professor Shannon writes about “The Long Wait” in Ma Rainey, linking it to African Americans’ long wait for freedom.

Professor Nadel writes about the metaphor of making the record, that is to say, writing the history. Wilson has written words to the effect that the blues contains history, philosophy, psychology and cosmology. But what distinguishes the performed blues of Ma with her fans on the road from the mechanically reproduced blues distributed by the recording company? If you’ve ever been to a live concert or a blues club the size of a large living room, you know the answer to that question.

Finally (or perhaps not but this blog post can’t go on forever!), remember, they (the New York/Broadway establishment) offered Wilson $25,000 for this play, but with no artistic direction on his part. They wanted to make it into a musical. In the end, Wilson rejected their offer (even though he was only making $80 a week as a short order cook) and forged the relationship with Lloyd Richards and the Yale Rep that preserved his artistic freedom.

In a meta sense (I propose that poets and playwrights tell three stories: the autobiographic (about their lives); the ethnographic (about their immediate environments); and the meta-poetic (about their experience with the process of writing itself), I hear August Wilson’s voice talking about writing and producing plays throughout this play. Stretch your imagination. In the character of the intellectual, Toledo (“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.” And “Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.” And “That’s what you call an African conceptualization. That’s when you name the gods or call on the ancestors to achieve whatever your desires are.”) In the character of the band leader, Cutler (“We ain’t talking about the paper. We talking about you understanding where you fit in when you around here. You just play what I say.” and ” Levee’s confused about who the boss is. He don’t know Ma’s the boss.” And “You plays the piece. . . Whatever they want! Ma says what to play! Not you! You ain’t here to be doing no creating.”)

And, yes, in the character of Ma, the diva herself (“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” And, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley. I done made this company more money from my records than all the other recording artisits the got put together. And they want to balk about how much this session is costing them.”)

Although I haven’t mentioned it much here, the play is in large part Levee’s biopic. He is the character whose development we see the most of, from his childhood to his tragic act at the end of the play. As the Louis Armstrong surrogate, Levee heralds the new music, the modern blues, and modernism itself. As the only reader and writer of music in the ensemble, his final act brings to an end the life of the only literate member of the band, the only one who has an appreciation for history and culture and, in turn, the neoclassical approach. Rest assured that Levee gets a short sentence, and returns to music making (history writing) on his own terms, eclipsing Ma and all the others of his cohort, in Act 3 of this play.

Here are Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes from session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

Here are Ma Rainey notes from session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/notes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom-10-01-2018/

Some discussion points for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

First session notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/some-takeaway-notes-from-joe-turners-come-and-gone/

Second session notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/notes-joe-turners-come-and-gone-10-14-2018/

Pre-class notes. First, I’d like to draw everybody’s attention to the scenesetter at the beginning, called “The Play.” Gem of the Ocean began with a short prologue that set the stage for the play. Joe Turner opens with a short essay that constructs a framework for an era in time. Gem’s opening prepares us to look backward for guidance, for a message, while postponing the present to a time in the future (Tuesday). Joe Turner’s opening analyses the present and sets forth future options. If you get the chance, please compare the two for discussion.

We learn some things in Scene 1. Seth is a landlord and an owner, the son of free blacks, and a craftsman. He has little regard for Bynum’s “heebie-jeebie stuff,” i.e., African/southern spiritual traditions. He reminds me a bit of Caesar Wilks, he has little patience with what he considers backwardness.

Bynum, based on his description in the play notes, is essentially a Stoic. He is not bothered by outward appearances of things. He tends to his garden and completes his daily rituals centered in nature, whose practice, we later learn, he has inherited from his father. The first interaction in the play is between Bynum and Seth, the traditional vs. the proto-modern, moderated by Bertha, Seth’s wife, who straddles both worlds.

Selig, introduced in Gem of the Ocean as a trader, gets identified racially in Scene 1. We assumed his race in Gem from his name and mannerisms – now we know for certain. Selig buys manufactured housewares from Seth wholesale, then peddles them retail to the public. From his retail work, door to door, Selig knows where people are located and becomes known as a People Finder. Bynum is looking for a shiny man and solicits Selig’s assistance. From their dialogue, we learn the details of Bynum’s vision.

We meet ne’er-do-well Jeremy. We meet Loomis and Zonia and Mattie and Reuben. Jeremy is looking for love, Mattie is looking for lost love, Loomis is looking for Martha, his wife and Zonia, her mother. Selig, the People Finder is ready to help. That’s a lot of action for one scene, but it sets the framework for the rest of the play.

There are some interesting repetitive occurrences in the play and between Joe Turner and Gem. Seth says seven times words to the effect that something is not right about Loomis. Seven times! Jeremy hangs out with Roper Lee, and Citizen Barlow hung out with a Roper Lee earlier in Gem. Loomis makes a reference to tongues on fire when he comes in during the Juba and Citizen Barlow sees people with tongues on fire in the City of Bones.

While Loomis appears to be the star of the ensemble, it is Bynum who, in discovering his Shiny Man (Loomis), achieves transcendence and completion. At best, then, Loomis is Best Supporting Actor to Bynum’s Best Actor, in my estimation.

I may add to this before Friday. And I’ll post post-class notes after class.

More discussion points – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

  1. Largest ensemble cast of any Wilson play. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper
  2. Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket
  3. Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles (not so sure about this anymore. In fact, the reverse. Let’s discuss.)
  4. Themes that recur:
  • Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil.
  • Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense of agency.
  • The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen.
  • Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
  • Bynum’s spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes.

       5. Play Structure

  • Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
  • Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
  • Climax: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
  • Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
  • Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
  • Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.

Some notes on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Wilson’s 4 B’s

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, based in part, or at the least, influenced heavily by Romare Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, presents us an excellent opportunity to introduce and talk about August Wilson’s four biggest influences – Bearden, Borges, Baraka and the Blues.

We’ll save Bearden for last.

Borges
Wilson says of Borges (in a conversation with Mark William Rocha),
It’s the way Borges tells a story. In Borges, it’s not what happens, but how. A lot of times, he’ll tell you what’s going to happen up front, as in [“The Dead Man”] in which we’re told at the beginning that a nobody from the slums will be shot in the head as a leader of his people. All of the interest is in how the story is going to be told.”

He further elaborates on Borges with Professor Shannon,
One of his techniques is that he tells you exactly what is going to happen.He’ll say gaucho so-and-so would end up with a bullet in his head on night of such and such. At the outset the leader of an outlaw gang with a bullet in his head would seem improbable. When you meet the guy, he’s washing dishes, and you go, “This guy is going to be the leader of an outlaw gang?” You know he’s going to get killed, but how is this going to happen? And he proceeds to tell the story, and it seems like it ’s never going to happen. And you look up, without even knowing it, there he is. He’s the leader of an outlaw gang.

The experts call this Borgesian technique magical realism, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” In Wilson, we have seen it so far in both Gem of the Ocean, in the voyage to the City of Bones, and in Joe Turner, in both Bynum’s vision of his meeting with his father and the Shiny Man, and in Loomis’ dreamlike state describing the bones emerging from the ocean and taking on flesh, and life. As an aside, Borges credits Edgar Allan Poe as one of his top influencers and one of Poe’s more obscure poems in his “A Dream Within a Dream.

I’m rushing a bit. We can discuss later in greater depth.

Baraka
While Wilson includes Amiri Baraka as one of his top four influences, his actual description of that influence is slightly muted. In several conversation and interviews, Wilson makes passing reference to Baraka’s espousal of black nationalism as something he “found value in.”

Baraka speaks in similarly muted terms about Wilson. In a conversation with Pittsburgh actor Sala Udin, Baraka says,

“August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.

He continues, Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.

What neither Baraka nor Wilson mentions is the personal and professional “catharsis” both experienced in the year 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated. Wilson was 20 and Baraka was 31. Both had undergone conversion-to-Islam experiences within the organization that “produced” Malcolm X, and both decided, independently, shortly after his death to devote themselves to writing and the arts (Rocha/Elkins). That convergence is hardly insignificant.

Both began as poets. While it can be argued that Wilson’s dramatic work was somewhat less in-your-face about racial problems than was Baraka’s, Wilson was both a fan of Baraka’s Four Black Revolutionary Plays and a disciple of the Baraka manifesto, the Black Revolutionary Theater, as evidenced in his work in Pittsburgh in the early 70’s. See also Afrosurrealism.

A lot more to be said there.

The Blues
It’s not an overstatement to say that all Wilson’s plays are infused with blues music. And Wilson makes it clear that the blues are his top influence. Where do we see the blues in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone? The title itself is a W.C Handy blues song title. And everything Bynum says about finding one’s song, is, in effect, about the blues, singing it and living it

We will spend more times with the blues as a music genre in week 3 when we study Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But every play (and every playlist) is chocked full of blues music.

Bearden
This is getting a bit long for a blog post, but we are almost done.

August Wilson attributes Bearden’s collages as the primary inspiration of two of his plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. Here is a link to Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, a collage from Bearden’s Pittsburgh Memories collection, and the inspiration for Joe Turner: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/asset/aug15_img_bearden/. Look closely and you can see Seth and Bertha’s boarding house and four of its tenants.

As a young poet in the early 70’s, Wilson found inspiration in another Bearden collage collection, The Prevalence of Ritual, pieces of which Wilson saw featured in a National Geographic magazine follow the opening of the exhibit at MoMA.

There is a lot more to be said about Bearden, his connections to Pittsburgh, his involvement in the Black Arts Movement that spawned the Black Revolutionary Theater, his ties to the New Negro Movement and its extension, the Harlem Renaissance.

Tomorrow I will post pre-class notes on Joe Turner.

References

Campbell, Mary. 2018. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. 1994. August Wilson: A Casebook.

Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.

Bryer, Jackson and Mary Hartig, eds. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.

Fine, Ruth and Jacqueline Francis, eds. 2011. Romare Bearden, American Modernist.

Post class notes – Gem of the Ocean (3.9.2019)

The session got off to a strong start. The first group meeting was well attended and people were engaged and talkative about their reading. I went back to work and gushed to my boss about how excited I was for the first meeting.

One member of our group focused our attention on the stolen bucket of nails that resulted in Garret Brown’s death early in the play. Symbolically, Jesus was executed by being “nailed” to the cross, so that is a heavy metaphor. Nails are essential to carpenters and for building construction and that makes them valuable. England was the largest producer of nails worldwide during the American Revolution and nails were rare in the colonies. People would burn old houses just to extract the nails and many people “made” their own nails at home. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Just for kicks, here is a history of nails and a video of a blacksmith making nails.

This mention of “honor” brings us to another point in our discussion. Garret Brown could swim. Eli mentions in Act 1 Scene 1 that Brown was “treading water,” suggesting that he could have saved himself, had he so chosen. Brown chose death before dishonor because he knew he was not guilty of theft. We will see that theme of a sense of honor, and of preserving and protecting that honor in subsequent plays.

We didn’t discuss Solly’s occupation, collecting and reselling dog feces, called pure. Black Mary pooh-poohed it, but Aunt Ester was a regular customer, if not a connoissuer, distinguishing between 30-day old and 60-day old pure and pure resulting from the digestion of bone only. She used it on her tomatoes, but its principal use was in the tanning industry.

Happy folks are enjoying the You-Tube playlists. If you get a chance, check out the full movie version of The Music Man and refer to my comments on it here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/notes-on-gem-of-the-ocean-11-24-2018/.

There is more, and I welcome you all’s additions/comments to this blog post below. Tomorrow I begin reading my favorite play of the ten, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

postscript. There is a possible connection between the City of Bones and Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Certainly, the Twelve Gates of the City of Bones is connected to the mention of Twelve Gates in the Bible.