notes on Fences (4.11.2019)

So much has been written on Fences. And small wonder. Five Tonys, five Drama Desk awards, the Pulitzer prize in its 1987 premier, then ten Tonys and four Drama Desk Awards in its 2010 revival. Its film adaptation earned four Oscar nominations and two Golden Globes nominations. A huge success by all measures and so many wonderful reviews, and academic articles.

We are not professional critics. We just like a good production, a good story, a good evening spent at the theater. Fences scores on all three.

It was my good fortune to catch the James Earl Jones – led performance on Broadway in late 1987. I missed the revival in 2010, but caught the film adaptation a couple of years ago.

OK, let’s take the plunge.

Our discussions of the five plays so far cause me to focus in the first instance on family relationships. Here we have the Troy-Bono relationship, the father-son relationships, the Troy-Rose marriage dynamic, the Troy-Gabriel relationship. These relationships all involve Troy, the flawed Greek god of the play. These relationships are all worthy of note.

Troy and Bono go back to the time they shared in prison. They work together on the garbage truck. They are best friends and they are both comfortable in expressing their affection for one another. When Bono sees Troy headed for trouble with his “side chick,” Bono calls him out on it and reminds him of his obligation to his wife. Troy accepts the warning advice in good spirit (but does nothing about it). Bono is a friend to Troy until the end, arranging the pall bearers for Troy’s funeral, even though they become somewhat distant after Troy’s transgression with Alberta and the birth of Raynell.

There are two father-son relationships, both complex and complicated. Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, comes around on payday to hit his father up for loans. Troy was in prison during Lyon’s upbringing and may feel a twinge of guilt about not being around. Lyons styles himself a musician, but he is not all that good at it, at least not good enough to make a living. So he bums money from his now-present father.

Troy’s youngest son, Cory, is a high schooler who wants to go to college on a football scholarship. Of course, Troy discourages his efforts because Troy thinks he got a raw deal in baseball, failing because of his age to make the transition fron the Negro League to the Majors. Troy blames race discrimination and wants to shield Cory from a similar disappointment. Cory tells his father things have changed (and they have) and he wants to be able to take advantage of new opportunities. Cory also wants his dad to buy a television for the family on credit. Cory wants to move into the modern world while Troy lives with excuses.

Troy and Rose. Troy is unfaithful to his wife. He comes up with a tightly woven explanation but it doesn’t carry water and it doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks to high heaven. Rose is faithful to Troy, even after she realizes that he is not everything she had hoped he would be in a husband. She makes the best of a flawed situation.

Yet, many people sympathize with Troy in the end. “At least he stayed around and tried to do right,” folks say. “He wasn’t absent like Wilson’s own dad was,” they rationalize. “He did the best he could with limited means and a harsh external racist environment,” some might inveigh. We even transfer our sympathy to Denzel Washington at the Oscars ceremony as he gets passed over for Best Actor and for the film as Best Film because in our minds, Denzel has become Troy Maxson, the actor has become the character, and we see him there, flawed but somehow redeemable.

That, my friends is the power of great writing (and great acting). “It is in the nature of great acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman.”

OK. We’ll save the Troy-Gabriel relationship and all rest for our discussion.

Notes from Session #1:

Notes from Session #2:

Carole Horn’s notes are amazing!

some post-Seven Guitars thoughts (4.6.2019)

A couple of quick bookmarks to insert before moving on from Seven Guitars.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the body of literature, but August Wilson often makes a point to applaud literacy, reading and writing, and to decry, if not condemn, illiteracy. This may seem an almost obvious position for a playwright to take, and it may appear that literacy is an automatic “state” to assume in an industrialized democracy like the United States. But a quick look at the statistics tells a different story and highlights the importance Wilson places on literacy in character and plot development.

In Fences, for example, Troy cannot read or write. Could that be the real reason why he wasn’t able to transfer to white league professional baseball? We don’t know and Wilson doesn’t tell us. In Seven Guitars, Floyd is illiterate and it is the cause of many of his woes. He can’t get his daily compensation because he couldn’t read to know to keep a certain letter. He failed to negotiate a deal for royalties on his first hit because he didn’t understand the process or the business itself of recording. He is a veteran of WW2, but he didn’t acquire any transferable skills from his army hitch because he couldn’t read, he couldn’t acquire information from texts. His misfortunes, it may be argued, stem more from illiteracy than from poverty, or racial discrimination, or any other cause.

We get the impression from The Piano Lesson that Boy Willie was functionally illiterate. He could farm, but there was nothing he could do, by his own admission, in the city (where literacy skills are required). Boy Willie thought it absurd that Maretha could only play what was written on the paper. In Ma Rainey, Levee was illiterate, though he could read and write music. In the end, he kills the only band member who could read and write, Toledo, acting out a rage he couldn’t contain from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written. I’ll have to go back and review Joe Turner and Gem but I am almost certain there are some references to literacy.

OK, that’s bookmark #1. Here is bookmark #2.

I think August Wilson was an archivist par excellence. He gave a lot of credit to libraries, and specifically to public libraries, but his talent was in creating and storing records, records of human life in each 10 year period of the 20th century. Seven Guitars is full of lists of things pertinent to life in the 1940’s. In The Piano Lesson the piano is itself an archive, a storage of family events across the years. Ma Rainey introduces us to “the record” and the recording process, a store of information that is transportable and reproducible. On and on.

These are two “properties” of Wilson’s writing that I hope to develop more fully in the days and weeks ahead.

notes for Seven Guitars (4.3.2019)

Seven Guitars always leaves me with the strangest internal conversation, even though I’ve read it several times and I know what is going to happen at each decision point, AND I know Seven Guitars, while considered by many as Wilsion’s Greek tragedy play, is an important prequel, so everything that happens must happen. It is the “predetermination” that gets to me, that things are predetermined so wrongly. I ask myself during the reading, for example, why doesn’t Vera listen to Louise and ditch Floyd? Why didn’t Floyd listen to Canewell and insist on royalties for his first recording? Why doesn’t Hedley take his TB self to the sanatarium? Why doesn’t Hedley shut his trap about all the Ethiopia/Haiti stuff? Why does Floyd resort to crime? Doesn’t he know crime does not pay? Why is Ruby? Why IS Ruby? To be fair, these are all the types of questions I ask myself when watching Eastenders, but I watch it everyday!

Before I get too far afield, please pay sspecial attention to the dedication, to the Tony Kushner forward, and to the Note From the Playwright. All three are quite magical and add to the play’s context.

Also, upfront, the play list for Seven Guitars is probably one of the fullest and most complete of them all. So much music is cited/referred to/alluded to in the play.

By way of introduction, Wilson says in an interview that the thought for the play began as a story about four men working in a turpentine factory in the South. All musicians, they had a desire to go to Chicago to make a record. Wilson admitted that he knew nothing about the making of turpentine. Then he says that three women showed up, all in his imagination, of course, and asked for space. The setting for the play migrated from the turpentine factory, to Chicago, to his mother’s back yard in Pittsburgh when the women arrived. He also said in an interview that the seven guitars are the seven characters in the play.

A few things stand out for me in the play. There are so many lists of things. It almost reminds me of Walt Whitman. Act 1 Scene 1 lists all the different types of beer. Scene 2 has a list of ingredients for dinner. Scene 3 lists different brands of cigarettes that people smoke. Scene 4 lists the actual recipe for cooking greens. Scene 5 lists the blow by blow account of the Joe Louis fight and the different types of roosters. And skipping some, Act 2 Scene 3 lists Floyd’s seven ways to go. There is ritual in list making which is perhaps why Whitman found it a useful tool. And list making speaks to the oral tradition of religion in an almost mystical way.

A few more things stand out. The funeral scenes at the beginning and end serve as bookends for the plot development in the middle, almost a series of flashbacks. Vera says twice about the angels in Scene 1 “They come down from the sky.” Only Vera, Canewell and Hedley saw the angels. Floyd was a WWII veteran and claimed a knowledge of guns and weapons although most black WWII veterans didn’t see any combat action. Vera makes a reference to a dress having two different kinds of blue, perhaps a metaphor. Canewell would have been a preacher but the devil’s call was to loud (Canewell and Ruby show up in a later play, as does Ruby’s son and Red Carter’s son). The dance scene after the fight reminds me of the Juba in Joe Turner and the table prison song scene in The Piano Lesson. Hedley killing Floyd with a machete is certainly reminiscent of his ritual killing of chickens in the yard, but it also reminds one of Levee’s knife murder of Toledo and Herald Loomis’s self-mutilation with a knife.

There will be more later after our Friday discussion.

Notes from Session #2:

Carloe’s notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

post-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.30.2019)

An interesting discussion Friday warrants this additional blog post.

There were a few comments on the relationship and relationship dynamics between Berniece and Boy Willie that really caught my attention, perspectives I had not considered previously. It was pointed out that Boy Willie and Berniece’s mother was pretty much a dysfunctional parent after the death of her husband and there are clues to this in the text. She spent all her time ploishing that piano, rubbing it until her hands bled, then rubbing that blood into the piano wood. What normal person does that?

“Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in . . . mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it. Every day the God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it.”

OK. Not normal. It’s not a tremendous leap in logic, then, to hypothesize that the oldest child, Berniece, took on the “mother” role for a younger Boy Willie. And it emerges in the play. Whenever Boy Willie criticizes Berniece’s parenting skills, he speaks with an emotionalism that suggests he had personaly been on the other side of those bad parenting skills. When Berniece tells Maretha “If you was a boy I wouldn’t be going through this,” Boy Willie has a very strong negative reaction. And when Berniece tells Boy Willie, in front of Maretha, “You right at the bottom with the rest of us,” Boy Willie recoils with “If you believe that’s where you at you gonna act that way. If you act that way then that’s where you gonna be. It’s as simple as that.” And Boy Willie goes on and on for two pages, acting out something that is clearly from his boyhood when Berniece was his loco parenti.

The brother-sister relationship between Berniece and Boy Willie was/is “overlain” by the mother-son relationship forced by the emotional absence of the actual mother figure in the family and both of them resent each other because of it. But as was mentioned in our Friday discussion, while there are times when Boy Willie seems almost affectionate towards his sister, in speech patterns and in general feelings expressed, there is seldom an exchange in which Berniece shows some affection for Boy Willie, that is, until the end of the play.

postscript. Berniece’s three years of grieving over her husband’s death may be a learned behavior, mimicking her own mother’s prolonged grieving over the death of her father. If so, it is not a good omen for the future.

OK. I’m not going to beat this horse to death. Each person in the group brings a wealth of background experience to our discussion. It is beautiful and I am so grateful to be a part of these discussions with you all each week.