Some notes on Two Trains Running (04.27.2020)

Two Trains Running, set in 1969, covers a lot of territory. Let’s get started.

There’s much to be said, written and discussed about the play’s title, Two Trains Running. Wilson reveals in an interview with the dramaturg, Richard Pettengill, that

“There are two ideas in the play, or at least two ideas that have confronted black America since Emancipation, the ideas of cultural assimilation and cultural separatism. These were, in my mind, the two trains. I wanted to write a play about a character for whom neither of these two trains were working. He had to build a new railroad in order to get to where he’s going, because the trains are not going his way. That was the idea when I started out exploring.”

There is an element here from the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues tune, whose lyrics, or an excerpt of them, form the epigraph of an earlier play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:

“They tore the railroad down
So the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
Build me a railroad of my own.”

And there is a second glimpse into this idea, I think, in the following Doaker monologue in The Piano Lesson, Act 1, Scene 1:

“They go so many trains out there they have a hard time keeping them from running into each other. Got trains going every which way. Got people on all of them. Somebody going where somebody just left. If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.”

That gets us to a starting point, at least. But as we learn from reading the play, it is only a framework, these two trains. Because in the play we see not two but four options pointed out, though at this point, it is suggested that only three are plausible. By 1969, the accommodationist model highlighted by Kingian non-violence has long since been abandoned and only receives fleeting mention in the diner discussions. What’s left are three discussable routes to inner and outer peace and progress, Prophet Samuel, Malcolm X, and Aunt Ester, and these three receive the bulk of mention as the play unwinds.

to be continued.

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Some thoughts on this read of Fences (04.19.2020)

First, the epigraph, or an interpretation of it, shows up in one of Rose’s monologues in Act 2, scene 3:

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.

Second, the play is clearly another Wilson tragedy, but while it lacks the Greek Chorus of Seven Guitars or the prologue of Gem, “The Play” more than suffices as a prediction of things to come. Moreover, let me note here that while the first paragraph addresses Wilson’s father, the second addresses his mother and her ancestral line. The third and final paragraph brings it home to the play’s present setting.

My practice is to include references to the passages I have highlighted or added comments and margin notes to on the present read. I will continue to adhere to that protocol.

A couple of things stand out for me in Scene 1.

Bono mentions of Babe Ruth and Josh Gibson, both historic personalities, somewhat legitimizes the play in a historical time setting. Troy establishes his philosophic credentials as a Stoic, facing death squarely and honestly (memento mori) and having no fear of Satan. Lyons connects to Ma Rainey and the blues tradition, describing music as something that “helps him get out of bed in the morning” and “makes him “feel like he belongs in the world.” Lyons also pushes back when Troy makes a derogatory comment about how his mother raised him, saying “You don’t know nothing about how I was raised.”

Scene 2 introduces us to Gabriel, Troy’s brother, slightly disabled from the war, WWII. Again, Wilson forces us to acknowledge the existence of the disabled and how we must offer them a reasonable accommodation in our lives. We saw this with Hedley in Seven Guitars, with Sylvester in Ma Rainey, and to a limited extent, with Herald Loomis in Joe Turner. And we will see it again. Wilson exhibits a high sensitivity to the needs of the disabled and the mentally and intellectually-challenged.

Scene 3 introduces us to Cory, Troy and Rose’s youngest son, and his relationship with both. Note: It’s not a very conspicuous introduction, and it is almost as if Cory had always been with us, just hidden.

Scene 4 reveals that Troy’s “going to the Taylors” to watch TV is really code word for going to see “That Alberta girl,” as Bono calls her. Bono senses early that Troy’s catting around with Alberta is not kosher. Bono introduces “Searching out the New Land” and “the walking blues.” And we learn about Troy’s relationship with his father.

Act Two Scene 1 opens and closes with Troy, Rose and Cory, the central three-way relationship in the play. Troy reveals that he has been unfaithful. Cory has lied to continue playing football. Rose questions Troy’s infidelity. Cory reaches strike two with his father.

Scene 2 is Troy and Rose exclusively. Troy’s functional illiteracy is fully exposed in the process of getting Gabriel committed. And Alberta dies in childbirth.

Scene 3 is a short scene wherein Rose establishes that she will be a mother to Troy’s new baby, with a reflection of the language of the play’s original epigraph.

Scene 4 shows Troy’s total unraveling, and because today is April 19, I wrote a poem about it for my daily submission to NaPoWriMo:

Fences – Act Two, Scene Four. Troy’s slow descent into Hell.

In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Loses all that was once near and dear.

The cherished love of his wife is broken
After her decision to not refuse
The result of his infidelity.

He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true affection.

His best friend doesn’t come around
Any more, not even for a Friday drink
That once satisfied a parched thirst.

Finally, abandoned by his own sense
of taste (Yes! A multiple metaphor!),
He is left to swing aimlessly at all
Those fast balls on life’s outside corners.

Scene 5 is the Troy funeral scene.

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Notes on Seven Guitars 04.12.2020

Let’s start with a recognition of the play’s dedication, to Wilson’s wife,  Constanza Romero, and the Note from the Playwright, a sweet inscription to Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, that details both his attention to character development and his recognition of culture as a prime mover of history. He spells out the play’s name, Seven Guitars, as an analog and a surrogate for the content of his mother’s life.

Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a frame of reference, let’s first note the prologue/Greek chorus in Act 1. Scene 1. It takes us forward in time to the funeral of the main protagonist, Floyd Schoolboy Barton. So we know up front what is going to happen. Floyd dies. There are no surprises, we just have to wait and see how the plot develops and how events unravel leading Floyd to his end. Even so, strangely enough, as spectators, we have hope, hope for Floyd, hope for his future as a recording artist, hope for his relationship with Vera. As we read we sit on the edge of our seats. Silly us, because the playwright told us up front. Why is there suspense?

Aristotle’s perfect tragedy does not involve the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, nor does it involve a villanious man in a similar condition. It should be a man in between, a guy like Floyd Barton, perhaps. The change of fortune should be from good to bad and should come about not because of some vice, but because of an error in judgement of a similar frailty. Floyd, after several ups and downs, has just enjoyed a successful debut playing his hit song at the local dance club, and is on his way, Vera his true love on his arm, to Chicago to record an album. The success he has hoped and dreamed for is almost within his grasp.

Then by some quirk of fate, Canewell discovers the money Floyd stole and buried in the yard, later acknowledging the “ownership” to Floyd, but right in time for an intoxicated Hedley to show up and assume the buried money is the result of some alcohol-crazed dream he had of his father and Buddy Bolden. Whereupon Hedley retrieves the machete recently gifted to him by Joe Roberts, and uses the machete to whack Floyd in the neck, severing his windpipe. 

Of course, a lot happens in the interim. There is the complication of Floyd’s release from incarceration without access to either finances nor the means to earn wealth from his music as his instrument as well as the drummer’s drum set are in hock at the local pawn ship and the term for retrieving them has expired. There is the disappointment Vera experienced when he abandoned her earlier for Pearl Brown that he must now overcome, despite negative reinforcements from the landlady, Louise. Things are not looking good for Floyd.

Then in a reversal of fortune, Floyd comes into a bit of cash (from illegal activity, nonetheless), buys a new electric guitar, a new dress for Vera, and makes his date at the dance club, all to a rousing success. Collapsed into the same event, there is recognition of Floyd’s musical talents. The final spectacle collapses pathos and catharsis, for Hedley and Canewell at least, with Floyd, unfortunately, on the losing end.

It is important to recall that Seven Guitars is a prequel of sorts, and many seemingly random threads will establish their significance in the second part, the penultimate play in the Cycle, King Hedley II. But we should also note the archived information Wilson preserves, the card games (bid whist and pinochle), the cigarettes smoked (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camel), the beer brands (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label) , the menu items for Vera’s dinner (Chicken, potatoes and green beans), the four types of roosters, Canewell’s recipe for cooking greens, the blow-by-blow account of the Joe Louis fight, and the mention of Toussaint L’Overture and Marcus Garvey, all preserved for posterity inside the play.

We cannot overlook the bits of magical realism in the initial and final scenes of the play. Canewell, Vera and Hedley all see the six angels who escort Floyd into heaven. I have no interpretation for why those three in particular see the vision, except that Vera had accepted Floyd’s marriage proposal, making her perhaps the character closest to Floyd, Canewell survives the prequel and shows up later with a new name, and Hedley “fathers” the next tragic figure, King Hedley II, in the only play in the Cycle named for a character.

Finally, favorite lines, both from Vera: “I done told you, my feet ain’t on backwards” and “It was two different shades of blue.”


Post group discussion: Seven in numerology. One source says seven means wholeness, completion and comprehensiveness. Another source goes into the symbolism of seven: seven is the number of the spiritual quest. Seven, a prime number, is popular in both religion, i.e., seven throughout Revelations, seven in the monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), seven in Freemasonry, mythology and Theosophy, seven in Greek and Roman mythology, and in culture, i.e., Seven Habits, Seven Secrets, Seven deadly sins, etc., etc., etc.

A short word about structure in the play. The first scene of Act 1 ends precisely with the same line as the 9th scene of Act 2, the finale of the play. So the two are bookends “housing” the whole play. Also interesting the way the scenes get shorter, more compact, and more condensed in Act 2, sort of drawing us, pulling us, dragging us through the action to the end, which we already know, while keeping us on the edge of our seats. It is amazing how the structure of the play is used to unwind and unravel the action, almost collapsing linear time.

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Some notes on The Piano Lesson 04.05.2020

Toni Morrison’s Foreword

Toni Morrison’s foreword, first of all, left me breathless. Too bad it was not included in her last collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard. In the foreword she writes,

“It was in reading the text that I was struck by the beauty and accuracy of August Wilson’s language, as well as the richness waiting to be mined from the interstices between performance and text, between stage and the readerly imagination.”

She goes on to point out the “narrative threads” that figure most prominently the the unravelling of the plays central plot, the life of the truck that Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in and constantly go back to throughout the play, and the fear (and suspense) that animate the play.

The truck barely makes it to Pittsburgh with breakdowns, loss of breaks, failure of the radiator, etc., then throughout the play it reminds us that although the truck provides mobility, it only barely does so. There are the watermelon selling escapades (an inside joke) off the back of the truck, and there is Grace as a willing passenger for both Boy Willie (one night) and Lymon (another day). Ultimately the truck is to be the vehicle that takes the piano to its new owner (although it never happens) and alternately, the vehicle that Lymon uses to resettle in Pittsburgh since Boy Willie aims to return by train.

I’ll stop here so as not to spoil for you the reading. If anybody doesn’t have the version that has the Morrison foreword, I’ll send it out separately.


The weird end of the play.

A mixture of weird events marks the end of the play, presenting what is bound to be a super challenge for any stage director. In a few pages at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, we go from Boy Willie’s wrestling with Sutter’s ghost, to Avery’s failed attempt to bless the house, to Berniece’s calling on the ancestors as she plays the piano which finally puts the ghost’s expressions to rest. There is a type of time collapse that takes place that can only be attributed to and explained by Borgesian magical realism.

We have mentioned that Wilson cites his top influences as the 4 B’s, Baraka, Bearden, Borges, and the Blues. On the surface, we are aware of Bearden’s immediate influence. His collage, The Piano Lesson, provides the primary inspiration for the play. We find in Borges magical realism a possible explanation for the appearance and reappearance of Sutter’s Ghost as well as the rapid recovery from an intense spiritual experience at the very end of the play.

This passage comes from an earlier blog post.

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 the 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.


Wilson addresses issues in The Piano Lesson in several interviews. He refers to Boy Willie as the heroic figure in the play, yet he calls his character development static as opposed to dynamic: Boy Willie enters with a firm plan, reflected, not coincidentally, in the play’s epigraph, lyrics to a blues song by Skip James that becomes a sort of mantra that Boy Willie recites throughout the play. He lets on in conversations that he admires Boy Willie’s intention to return to the south and buy land, farm that land, and secure financial independence. Yet he says Berniece is the star of the play and that the play is about Berniece, not Boy Willie. It is Berniece’s character that develops and evolved, and at the end she breaks through and does what she must to quiet Sutter’s ghost. He mentions that in the first write, he gave Berniece some very “feminist” lines that were eventually removed as it would have been out of place for 1936. When Wilson is asked whether or not Berniece and Avery eventually get married, he expresses doubt, explaining that Avery’s accomodationist tendencies are unlike character traits of other men in her life, her father, her first husband and her brother, for example.

Wilson refers to The Piano Lesson as his best play.


The relationship between Boy Willie and Beniece

There are several clues in the play that give us important information about the brother sister relation. A few facts are important. Berniece is five years older than Boy Willie. Following the murder of their father, Papa Boy Charles, their mother was essentially so emotionally impaired (there are subtle hints of this) that she was no longer able to effectively parent her children and Berniece more or less took over at Boy Willie’s mother figure. This became very apparent in the scene where Maretha is having her hair ironed and Boy Willie criticizes the way Berniece speaks to her daughter (as if she may have spoken to him like that in his childhood (my interpretation)). This tension overrides their relationship throughout the play.


Finally the question of the hour. Does Lymon sleep with Berniece?

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During our group discussion we talked about how the idea to divide the proceeds from the sale of the piano was a concept that seemed to have evolved during the course of the play. Someone mentioned that in the case of a dispute like this over jointly held family property, the proper recourse would have been to sell the property and split the proceeds across the heirs or family members with a claim on the property. When Boy Willie first arrived, he was dead set on selling the piano and taking the proceeds to buy the property down south. Later on he modified his position to share the proceeds with Berniece, half and half.

Another discussion we had was the three part or tripartite religious spiritualism that ranged from the otherworldliness of magical realism, to elements of African spirituality, to more traditional Christianity and how issues and events moved back and forth on that spectrum, perhaps positing that the African Spiritualism in the middle was somehow the golden mean. Avery, then, represented the traditional Christian faith, Berniece ended up representing the African spirituality, and Boy Willie wrestling with Sutter’s ghost represented the Borgesian magical realism and otherworldliness clearly distinct from anything else mentioned.

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

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