As we turn the bend and complete the ten-play cycle with Radio Golf, I find my normal sense of humanism about all things evolving to a slight skepticism that I hope I can resolve or at least work through by writing about what I have read this week.
I want to start with Harmon’s keen eye for detail in interior design that sets him off from his two contemporaries in the play, his wife Mame and his business partner, Roosevelt. Harmon takes note of the hand-tooled embossing on the tin in his office. Mame’s response, “Then take it down and sell it.” God bless her soul, she is just cut from a different cloth. Unrelated (or perhaps not), when in the same scene Roosevelt asks Mame about her new job as the Governor’s press rep, she says, “If they find out I’m too excited about that job they’ll determine I must not be qualified.” To which I wonder, well, is she qualified or isn’t she? A truly qualified person should not have to add that step into the system of equations, racial considerations aside.
In Act2 Scene2, Roosevelt decides to leave his job as VP at Mellon Bank. He barges into his boss’s office, ignoring all protocol, and says “Kiss my ass, I quit.” That might have gotten some laughs from the audience, but what kind of professional does that? I mean really? And hasn’t he considered that his attractiveness to his new financier, Bernie Smith, is tied to the big picture, which includes his employment at Mellon Bank? I wrote in the margin, “bad move.”
Getting back to interior design, in the same scene, Harmon and Roosevelt are discussing the house at 1839 Wylie and Harmon asked Roosevelt if he has even been inside the house. Of course Roosevelt hasn’t, because he pays no attention to detail. Harmon goes on and on about the architectural style of the house and the solid foundation, the beveled glass trim on every floor, the large stain-glassed windows and the hand-carved balustrade on the staircase. All this is reminiscent, as Elam points out, of The Piano Lesson and the piano, which is both an archive and a Holy Grail for the Charles family. And what is Roosevelt’s response? “. . . people don’t like that kind of shit anymore.” When Harmon says the house smells like a new day (a very symbolic reflection), Roosevelt blames it on the mothballs. Roosevelt has a bit of cash and a Cornell degree, but he totally lacks class.
Further, the way Roosevelt flaunts Old Joe’s criminal record, as if it makes a condemnation of Joe’s character, and the way he dresses down Sterling late in Act2 Scene 4, or tries to dress him down, demonstrates not only his lack of compassion, but his total hatred for those less fortunate than he. On the other hand, towards the end of the play, we see an alignment between Harmon and both Old Joe and Sterling that shows Harmon’s sense of community and his social awareness, the fortunate circumstances of his birth notwithstanding.
So there is a basic incompatibility, between Harmon and Roosevelt, and perhaps even between Harmon and Mame. Harmon and Roosevelt are united by their time at Cornell and their love of golf, though upon close inspection, even those two things reflect greater differences than similarities between the two. Harmon and Mame are united by marriage and a dream of mutual accomplishment and achievement. But when Harmon backs away from “the plan” and decides to try to do the “right thing” about Aunt Ester’s house, we see Mame backing away ever so slightly.
Harry Lennix and the Elam article, Radio Golf in the Age of Obama
Harry Elam gives us much food for thought in his article, “Radio Golf in the Age of Obama.” He asks us to examine the incongruity of “radio” with “golf,” a combination in the play’s title that does not quite fit. He calls our attention to a vision of black pragmatism that Wilson crafts in the play and that vision’s lineage throughout the plays in the series. He mentions the creation of “Barack Obama as a political juggernaut dependent on manipulations of reality and the play of incongruity.” But here he leaves out an interesting detail. The actor who played Harmon Wilks as the play toured and made it to Broadway, Harry Lennix, is the same actor who claims in real life to have “taught” Barack Obama in the 90’s the articulations and gesticulations of an educated black Chicagoan before his first foray into state level politics. Lennix said in a press account, “He mimicked me, he followed me for years, and they wanted me to train him and teach him how to act….like a an educated south side African-American.” Life follows art.
In a very interesting repetition highlighted in the Elam article, Harmon’s grandfather, Caesar, says to the then Aunt Ester, “Now you know Miss Tyler, you got to have rule of law other wise there’d be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” And Harmon “mansplains “ to Mame and Roosevelt, “You got to have rule of law. Otherwise it would be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” I say “mansplains” partly in jest, but partly to illustrate that Harmon speaks from an implied sense of authority when he needs to make a point, much as he “mansplains” to Mame in the beginning of the play, “ Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight,” a statement that Mame is correct to question, in my opinion.
Elam introduces us to Pierre Nora’s Lieux de Memoire, sites of memory, as a way of analyzing the importance and significance of Aunt Ester’s house, the intersection of history and memory in “moments of history torn away from moments of history.” Finally, Elam connects Harmon’s warrior spirit to that of Solly and Citizen in Gem, Loomis in Joe Turner, Levee in Ma Rainey, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Floyd Barton in Seven Guitars, Troy in Fences, Sterling (same Sterling) in Two Trains Running, Booster in Jitney, and King in King Hedley II.
Here’s a sonnet to celebrate completion of the cycle:
What must we conclude when the cycle ends?
Is there cause for hope, for optimism,
A balm we can surely find in Gilead?
Or isn’t all just a wink and a nod,
Yet another slave narrative that shows
the futility of our pleas for peace?
As a teen I thought Robert Redford might
Someday be President. I mean, Bobby Seale
Didn’t really stand a chance and Redford
Was at least a man of action. But there
was no great art in his films, well, except
in that spy flick he did with Dunaway –
Who had been my secret crush forever –
Where, under duress, she said, “This is . . . unfair!”
Very first impression: my wife and I saw this on stage in Baltimore in 2006. It was still “fresh off the press,” being performed across the country, not yet ready for prime time on Broadway. Reading it now, at the end of the Century Cycle, I realize that I missed a lot of the plot action when I saw it performed in 2006. It seemed at the time to have no context, no unifying structure. But this time, it all makes sense.
This study guide has good background material for all of Wilson’s works.
Characters and their relationships in previous plays:
Harmon Wilks, grandson to Caesar Wilks 100 years before in Gem of the Ocean.
Old Joe Barlow, son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean. (Recall Black Mary and Caesar Wilks were half siblings).
Sterling, older and wiser but still Sterling, from Two Trains Running.
Mame Wilks, wife of Harmon.
Roosevelt Hicks, college buddies with Harmon at Cornell.
1839 Wylie Street, home of Aunt Ester, willed to Black Mary, left to Old Joe Barlow, her son with Citizen Barlow, purchased by Harmon Wilks for delinquent taxes, sold to Bedford Hills Redevelopment run by Roosevelt Hicks and Harmon Wilks.
There is a lot to be said about the reappearance of the Barlow and Wilks families from the first decade of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean. I saw Caesar Wilks previously as a type of “godfather” figure and that was borne out in his and his son’s paying of the taxes on Aunt Ester’s house for all those years. We saw the chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary at the end of Gem. Happy to see that worked out. When Mame says “I tied myself so close to you that there is no me. I don’t know if i can carry this any further,” I immediately thought about Rose in Fences, who mentions a similar submergence of the wife’s personality into that of the husband’s. I personally think Mame and Harmon will make it, but the path immediately ahead will be rocky.
It appears that Roosevelt gets his way in tearing down Aunt Ester’s house. But the story may not end there. I suspect the Roosevelt/Harmon relationship, business-wise and socially, will not survive this dramatic breech of trust.
The play treads all so gingerly on the subject of gentrification, which is bound to accompany redevelopment of the Hill district due to its close proximity to the center of Pittsburgh.
Radio Golf. What’s in a name? Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a white businessman Harmon does not trust. Hicks is the “blackface’ that enables the purchase of a radio station at a deep discount with an FCC Minority Tax Certificate. Hicks is the front man, in charge of day-to-day operations, even though he has no radio experience. And because he loves golf, he produces a radio program where he offers golf tips.
It’s also a symbolic representation of an attempt by Wilson, in sharp departure to the other nine plays in the cycle, to portray the black middle class: Harmond the real estate developer/attorney running for mayor, Roosevelt (his humble origins are betrayed by his first name) the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat. It’s the Cosby/Huxtable family all over again except we never see the children. But they are there.
From the Urban Dictionary:
Huxtable: A reference to an “upscale” or “Upper Middle Class” black person or family. NOT derogatory when used by white people, but can be derogatory if used by blacks, about blacks. Derived from the Huxtables on the Cosby Show. Also used to define “poser” black families, trying to act “white”
On the subject of golf, Roosevelt’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1 where he reflects on his first experience hitting a golf ball was both stirring and moving. Poetic, in fact. But the same monologue also betrays Roosevelt’s deep-seated sense of insecurity, if not inferiority with regard to race.
And who is this play’s Wilson Warrior? Which character shows the greatest transformation? Which one “finds his song?” Harmond Wilks has my vote. While Sterling and Old Joe have the best lines in the play, the most poetic monologues, Wilks goes the greatest distance in his discovery of his roots and his changing outlook to reflect that discovery. Radio Golf extends the Wilsonian vision to the black middle class and gives them as a class their own separate hero. I think that is a good thing.
Finally, this play is a huge advertisement for genealogy. AncestryDNA should not only be thrilled, they should be tripping over themselves to underwrite local productions of the #AmericanCenturyCycle.
Here is the NYTimes review of the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf.
Radio Golf is dedicated to Benjamin Mordecai, former managing director at Yale Rep, co-director of all ten of August Wilson’s plays. Like Wilson, Mordecai died at age 60, just a few month’s before Wilson’s passing.
The play has the smallest ensemble cast of any play in the cycle with five characters. Sterling has appeared before in Two Trains Running. Harmond Wilks is the grandson of Caesar Wilks, who we remember from Gem of the Ocean, and Old Joe Barlow is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also of Gem of the Ocean. Radio Golf is an intergenerational family play at the end of the Wilson Cycle.
Roosevelt Hicks is Harmond’s business partner and was his college roommate at Cornell. Roosevelt speaks in a loose Negro dialect most of the time (compare his language to Harmond’s more standard English), suggesting he does not come from an educated family background like Harmond obviously does. He places high value on superficial things, like golfing, and business cards, and falls prey to get rich schemes like being the minority partner in the radio station purchase and front man for Bernie Smith, a rich white business guy. He says that without his new business cards, people on the golf course will think he is the caddie. Roosevelt is an insecure man.
Harmond want to put his campaign office in the predominantly black Hill District, while his wife wants him to locate in the more affluent white section of Shadyside. Harmond explains, “You don’t understand. Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight (italics mine).” Harmond understands politics at its essence, while his wife is operating on the superficial transactional level.
Sterling went to high school with Harmond and his brother, Raymond. But Sterling has had a troubled life, in and out of jail and trouble. He seeks employment, yet does not have the required union certifications. His remark to Harmond and Roosevelt that they should call him back for work before the phone company cuts off his phone does not inspire confidence.
In a conversation between Roosevelt and Harmond and the end of Scene 2, Roosevelt notices something and bolts to the door, saying “Hey! Hey! Get off my car!” Could it be a cat? Could it have been the cat resurrected at the end of King Hedley II? Could it be the spirit of Aunt Ester?
Moving ahead to the end, once Harmond establishes his family connection to Old Joe Barlow and to the property at 1839 Wylie Ave. (which was illegally acquired, Harmond discovers, by the property development company), he attempts to do the right thing by redrawing the plans to preserve Aunt Ester’s house intact. At the play’s end, Roosevelt turns on Harmond, and we don’t know what is about to happen to the house, whether it will be demolished or not. But Harmond has made the right and correct decision. He echoes Ma Rainey in his description of Roosevelt’s betrayal, “After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?” Roosevelt says twice he is not anybody’s whore, which indicates that he is in fact somebody’s whore.
Harmond paints warrior markings on his face, like Sterling did earlier, then exits the office. Harmond is redeemed and the spirit of Aunt Ester lives!
Joe Mott, who Old Joe mentions in Scene 4 reminiscing about his WWII battle experiences, is also the name of the black bar owner/gambler in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. August Wilson maybe is establishing a connection to Eugene O’Neill through one of O’Neill’s characters.
Hail! Hail! The Gangs All Here! was popular among troops in WW1 and WW2 though it had earlier antecedents. More recently, it was featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slauterhouse-Five. I think the Vonnegut may have been the connection Wilson was making. There is a bit of irony here. Songs from other plays are steeped in blues and spirituals, yet here are two Cornell graduates singing this very Irish/Celtic show tune.
Sam Green, a grocer mentioned in the play, in real life was definitely someone Wilson would have wanted us to know about. Sam Green, enslaved in Maryland, was arrested and convicted in 1857 for having in his possession a copy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After much protest from the abolitionist community, Green was freed in 1862 under the condition that he leave Maryland. The family emigrated to Canada where young Sam Green Jr. had previously escaped to. After Emancipation, Green returned with his family to Baltimore and became involved with running the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University.
I am struck by the repetition and frequency of shifting loyalties in Radio Golf. Let’s try to tease one or two of them out.
The big sort of climax in the play is the breakup of the friendship between Harmond Wilks, the ensemble’s central character, and his old college roommate and current business partner, Roosevelt Hicks. Harmond Wilks is from old money, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the old folks say. His father ran the real estate business before him and his grandfather before his father. In fact, we know his grandfather, Cesar Wilks, from the first play in the series, Gem of the Ocean. Wilks’ business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, on the other hand is so nouveau riche, that he believes 1) that if he doesn’t have a current business card on the golf course the other players will think he is the caddie, and 2) if the current deal goes south he will lose his house and his wife’s car. They even vary with regard to golf, with Harmond thinking the golf course is a place where one can learn rules for success, while Roosevelt considers success on the golf course as a pretense for showing off his manhood. It is frankly a wonder they have remained connected for as long as they have, with such fundamental differences in outlook and priorities.
Let’s work backwards for better detail resolution.
There is a big fallout at the play’s end. Harmond seeks to redesign a land development deal to honor a family relationship that he has just learned he has. Rather than tear down a house that once belonged to Aunt Ester, a friend of his grandfather’s, and that currently belongs to Aunt Ester’s successor’s son, Old Joe, who, it turns out, is also Harmond’s second cousin, he seeks a way to build around the old house, preserving a piece of the original neighborhood. Once Roosevelt learns of the “new” deal, he bolts and develops an alternate plan to buy Harmond out of his share of the project, using money from a new found friend who is already using him as the black face of a media project in order to qualify for minority set-aside funding for both the media project and ultimately, for the real estate deal. When Harmond confronts Roosevelt about the ethics of the business arrangement, Roosevelt responds that’s just the way deals are cut and he won’t be deprived of his opportunity to “hang out” with the big boys of business. Not only will Roosevelt turn his back on a long standing friendship with Harmond, he will also turn his back on his own community.
For his part, Harmond is too willing to back away from “the plan” once he learns that family is involved in it, because that’s where he places his values. We applaud Harmond for creating disappointment that contributes to his sense of family and community. But we criticize Roosevelt for his disloyalty when it is based on the profit motive or personal achievement, no matter how temporary. Harmond’s wife, Mame, is none too happy about his new decisions, and she blames her job loss on Harmond’s political face loss in the whole situation. Yet she promises to stand with her husband, through thick and thin.
Radio Golf, thus, can serve as Wilson’s morality play, much as King Hedley served as Wilson’s Greek tragedy. Through it, Wilson is pointing us in a moral and ethical direction for our own future behavior. He is saying, quietly and gently, don’t be like Roosevelt, be like Harmond.
I hope in our discussion tomorrow to address the Radio part of the play, the use and utility of media, and the Golf part of the play, how games and sports serve as a surrogate for our lives.
How many times in Radio Golf do you feel like you are in a different August Wilson play?
Of course, every time Elder Barlow speaks you feel like you are in Gem of the Ocean. He even sounds like Aunt Ester, doesn’t he?
“But you got to have the right quarter. American is a giant slot machine. You walk up and put in your coin and it spits it back at you. You look aat your coin. You think maybe it’s a Canadian quarter. It’s the only coin you got. If this coin ain’t no good then you out of luck. You look at it and sure enough it’s an American quarter. But it don’t spend for you.” Act 1 Scene 2
And every time Sterling speaks you are transported to Two Trains Running, expecting to hear from Risa and Hambone: “I’ve been waiting for this office to open a long time. I do construction work. I’m looking for a job.” Act 1 Scene 2
Except here, Sterling sounds like Floyd Barton’s seven ways speech in Seven Guitars: “I just wanted to know what it was like to have some money. Seem like everybody else had some. I said let me get some. So I robbed that bank.” In Act 1 Scene 1, Harmond says, in Act 1 Scene 1 “You mix them all up in a pot and stir it up and you got America. That’s what makes this country great.” Doesn’t that sound like something Toledo would say in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?
But when he says, “You teach the kids how to play golf and they have all the rules they need to win at life. You ever play golf?” he sounds like the anti-Troy Maxsom in Fences who hates sports for his son because it didn’t work out for him.
Old Joe says “You strut like you a rooster. You the King of the Barnyard. You strut through the barnyard during the day. At night you roost high up on the rafters. But when you get to the bottom of it a rooster ain’t nothing but a chicken.” Straight from Canewwell’s monologue in Seven Guitars.
Mame has lines at the end that sound just like something similar from Rose in Fences. “You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. . . . I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me.”Early in Act 1, Harmond says, “See those marks. It’s all hand tooled. That’s the only way you get that pattern detail like that. That tin ceiling’s worth some money.” Maybe a bit like the description of the piano in The Piano Lesson?
Radio Golf – post-class thoughts
Harmond as Job, Harmond as Wilson warrior.
Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt.
Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?
Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record.
Aunt Ester’s house, architecture and carpentry as archive.
Military veterans in the Cycle.
The above list details a few of the ideas we discussed in our final group discussion of the session.
The Job story. At the end of Radio Golf, Roosevelt has used Bernie Smith’s money to buy Harmond out. Harmond has lost his stake in the project and his voice in its management. He has lost a long term friendship with Roosevelt in a broken business relationship. Curiously reminiscent of language in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Harmond, in obvious disappointment, tells Roosevelt,
“Enter Roosevelt Hicks. The shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile. How much he pay for something like that? After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got? A hundred dollars? Three hundred dollars? Or are you one of them high-class whores?
Harmond has apparently lost his shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Mame, has correspondingly lost her spot on the shortlist to become the Governor’s press representative. Mame, in a Rose Maxsom moment, says,
“You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. All any of the other board members see. What all our friends see. I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me. I don’t know if I can carry this any further.
We are left to wonder if Harmond’s marriage is salvageable. Harmond loses all, just like Job in the Bible. At the end of the play, outside the text but in the director’s notes, we see Harmond painting lines of his face, like Sterling did earlier when he tells Roosevelt, “I learned that from Cochise. We on the battlefield now,” though Harmond reveals to us in his final monologue with Roosevelt that he was always on the battlefield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the old Negro spiritual:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord. I’m on the battlefield for my Lord, and I promised Him that I would serve Him ’til I die; I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.
We believe that it all works out for Harmond because that’s what Wilson wants us to believe. Harmond retains his family real estate business, effectively putting Roosevelt out of the office at the end and tearing down the Tiger Woods poster (too bad on that one, given Tiger’s recent greatest comeback of all time). Just as it all works out for Old Testament Job. After enduring all of God’s trials and tribulations, Job is a better man. Riley Temple, in his classic work, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, compares Harmond Wilks to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a sort of reborn Adam with a quickening spirit.
The Jacob and Esau story. I mentioned in our discussion without giving it full thought at the time the story of Jacob and Esau, then backed down when I wasn’t able to carefully articulate the subtle nuances of the comparison. I still am not, but i think it is worth mentioning and memorializing. In the play we have allusions to the relationship between the twin brothers, Harmond and Raymond, with Raymond bolting from the father’s plan early to attend an HBCU followed by his decision to enlist, which led to his unfortunate and untimely demise as a soldier in Vietnam. Harmond, on the other hand, stayed with his father’s plan for him and almost made it to the mayor’s office, which could have been followed by the Senate, and perhaps even the White House. We will never know, though we can venture to speculate that Harmond Wilks might have been better equipped to occupy the White House than Obama was. Back to the discussion. In a way of thinking, Raymond sold his birthright to pursue an independent track, leaving the “promise” to Harmond. Similarly, Harmond and Roosevelt extend the Jacob and Esau story, except this time, it is Roosevelt selling his birthright for immediate, temporary gain, again, leaving the “spiritual” and “metaphysical” promise of saving the community to Harmond.
Who stole the golf clubs? Did anyone else find it curious that the golf clubs went missing from Harmond’s trunk, only to be purchased by Sterling, who in turn sold the the clubs back to Harmond, later accusing Harmond of “receiving” stolen property (with an implied threat of future blackmailing)? Did anyone else connect the dots and conclude that it is a high probability that Sterling actually stole the golf clubs in the first place? Why else would he return Harmond’s payment that was to cover his own payment to the fence (the alleged intermediary who actually stole the clubs, and an allusion to yet another August Wilson play) in the first place? We play Sterling cheap at our own peril. Sterling is a messenger from the past (Two Trains Running) just as Elder Joe Barlow is a messenger from the past (Gem of the Ocean), both present to serve as midwives for Harmond’s spiritual birth as a Wilson Warrior.
Life as a record. Roosevelt, after consulting with the local police department, is only too happy to attempt to smear Old Joe’s character by citing points on his police rap sheet, thereby somehow harming Old Joe’s claim to the property at 1839 Wylie (Ad hominen fallacy). In Act 2 Scene 3, Roosevelt reads the list, to which Harmond replies, “All that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean anything. i don’t care if he’s a criminal. We can’t tear down his house.” Roosevelt again shows us a vile side of his character.
Aunt Ester’s house as the archives. We don’t know what Harmond studied in school, but he has a definite appreciation for interior design. In Act 2 Scene 2 he describes the interior of Aunt Ester’s house:
“It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. You don’t see that too often. . . .You should feel the woodwrok. if you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. And old language. And there’s this smell in the air . . . .The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.”
One senses, through Harmond’s discovery and descriptions, that the lives of generations of families are carved into those walls, recorded in those carpentry fixtures, much like a primitive archive, much like Berniece’s piano in The Piano Lesson. Early in the history of record keeping, records and data were carved into walls, as displayed in this John White Alexander mural at the Library of Congress. The series of murals is entitled, “The Evolution of the Book.”
Let’s take a brief look at the military veterans among August Wilson’s characters, Solly Two Kings (Civil War) in Gem, Floyd Schoolboy Barton (World War 2) in Seven Guitars, Gabriel Maxsom (World War 2) in Fences, Doub (Korean War) and Darnell “Youngblood” Williams (Vietnam War) in Jitney, and Elder Joseph Barlow (World War 2) in Radio Golf. Today, on Memorial Day weekend, my attention is drawn to Elder Joseph Barlow, Old Joe, and specifically, his monologue near the end of Act One where he describes his participation in a World War II battle. In his story, Joe Mott, the flag bearer, gets shot in battle, and Joe Barlow picks the flag up and carries it throughout the battle and until the day of his discharge. You have to read it and I won’t spoil it for you. But here’s the deal. Joe Mott was also the name of a character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the name shows up here in this setting. With August Wilson, there are no coincidences.
Let me begin by saying this is the second time I’ve seen Radio Golf on the stage. The first time was nearly fifteen years ago, also in Baltimore, playing the regional theaters pre-Broadway.
Also, I am reading a book in preparation for the Spring 2020 session to sharpen my ability to look at a play analytically. David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. So that informs somewhat my review.
Finally, my GPS was on the blink and I missed the downtown exit and was five minutes late arriving at Everyman Theater, so I caught the first scene of the first act on a closed circuit screen, but got the rest of it on stage.
Altogether, it was a marvelous and amazing performance. Both Harmon (portrayed by Jamil Mangan) and Roosevelt (performed by Jason McIntosh) were compelling, convincing, and magnificent. In fact, by the end of the play I really disliked Roosevelt, emotionally, in a way I hadn’t from the mere reading and discussion of the play. He got to me. That must mean he really nailed his role. Charles Dumas as Elder Joe Barlow was delightful, personable, and charming and worked his way into everyone’s heart, including my own. Anton Floyd simply killed it as Sterling Johnson, the hard luck orphan and ex-convict from Two Trains Running, having become quite the wise man over the the 30 years since his first appearance in the Cycle. I thought Mame Wilks was a bit weak, in fact, the weakest link in the ensemble, but I find myself questioning whether it was the acting, or perhaps Wilson wrote her role as not quite as compelling as, say, Risa, or Rose, or Berneatha, or many of Wilson’s other female character-types. When she says at the end, “I’m still standing here,” it rings a bit hollow and you wonder if their relationship will last or if, perhaps, she might run off with Roosevelt! At the same time, you wonder if Mame is right, and if Roosevelt is right, and if, perhaps, Harmon has taken this family thing too far. Then you remember Ceasar Wilks and Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean and you know that Harmon really is trying to do the right thing.
The stage setting was stunning and definitely added to the flow of the dramatic action. Bravo Zulu to Everyman Theater!
On substance, the staged production really accentuated the deterioration of the relationship between Harmon and Roosevelt. I could feel the tension between them growing, even while the “frat-boy” aspects of their college days managed to manifest itself in the plot development. I identified very strongly with Harmon, and I found myself almost despising Roosevelt for a number of reasons. And I also found myself anticipating action throughout, and I think that comes less from reading the play repeatedly and more from the actual acting and the practice of forwarding in the plat. The sound effects were also telling, especially the sound of the bulldozers at the end of the play.
First, I note that this is the only play in the cycle named for an ensemble character.
King Hedley II is one of only two plays in the cycle that contains a formal prologue, the other being Gem of the Ocean. Seven Guitars has a first scene that plays the role of a prologue, though it is not formally named as such. Similarly, four plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, and Fences have very beautifully written scene setters and “The Play” introductions. Rounding out the cycle, Two Trains Running and Radio Golf have neither prologues or scene setters and, instead, plunge the reader or playgoer directly into the action of the first act.
Additionally, the Prologue in King Hedley connects us by theme or by content to four other plays in the cycle, Two Trains Running (mention of ham bones), Gem of the Ocean (the prevalence of Aunt Ester mentions), Seven Guitars (Stool Pigeon, the narrator, exists as younger Canewell in Seven Guitars), and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (the narrator sounds peculiarly like Bynum).
Finally, Stool Pigeon sets up in the Prologue that something less than pleasant is about to befall the cycle’s heroine, Aunt Ester. As readers and playgoers, we are placed on warning of ominous things to come.
King seems obsessed throughout the play with the existence of a halo around his head and his concern that other people may or may not be able to see said halo. (A halo is a circle of light around the head of a holy figure, whether a saint, an angel, or a god). Why might King be concerned about having a halo? On three separate occasions, King’s halo is the subject of conversation: between Mister and Tonya in Act 1 Scene 1; King asks Stool Pigeon in Act 1 Scene 2; and in Act 2, Scene 1, King asks Elmore. On one level, it appears King is seeking affirmation or approval or recognition from his closest friends. But on another level, we have to ask the question, is King OK mentally? Based on other things he has said and decisions he has made, I think we have to wonder about King’s mental health state.
Of course, that begs a different, bigger and broader question. How much of this life of incarceration, joblessness, and government-sanctioned mistreatment can a normal person be expected to take and to endure before they mentally reach a breaking point? And is that the goal? And is that what August Wilson is pointing out in the cycle of plays? These are questions that might arise and need to be considered.
King and Mister have a couple of on-going criminal activities they are involved in. They seem to move into and out of criminal activity and back to their “normal” lives with ease and without a second thought. That is slightly concerning.
King and Mister are hustling stolen refrigerators with a guy King served time with to make money to invest in a video store (that may be a pipe dream, but it seems plausible). When Elmore arrives, he is easily drawn into the refrigerator hustle because it makes money (it’s funny, I found myself comparing this hustle to the practice in Fences of buying furniture and appliances from a door-to-door salesman who has inside knowledge that people have been refused credit. While usurious, this is considered completely legitimate.)
When hustling refrigerators is not turning over cash fast enough, King and Mister decide to rob a local jewelry store. King is an ex-con (I’m not sure about Mister but it seems like he might be) and one would think he would think twice about something that might land him back in prison. But no! Without much forethought or planning, they decide on the spur of the moment to rob this jewelry store! And it appears they get away with it!
It appears that the threat of incarceration is no longer a disincentive to criminal activity. That is a worrisome state!
Death of Aunt Ester
At the end of Act 1 Scene 1 we learn that Aunt Ester has died. That singular event controls and forms the pivot for the remaining of the action and plot development of the play. There is no longer a source of wisdom in the community, nobody to go to for counseling, soul-washing, or just friendly motherly advice. It’s a big loss to the community and to the ensemble, many of whom had previous interactions with Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester’s house reappears in Radio Golf in a central role, but absent any magical realism injections, Aunt Ester’s direct influence is done.
Neesi was apparently King’s first love and Tonya thinks he is still carrying a torch for her. There is an interesting process Wilson uses to weave Neesi into the story line and into our minds as readers and playgoers. King introduces her in Scene 2 in the imperfect past when he tells Mister he used to tell her he wanted to have a baby. Then, a bit later, King talks about not being able to get Tonya off his mind now that he is with Tonya. Then a few lines later he mentions that she testified against him, betraying his trust. Then, and only then, we learn that Neesi got killed in a car accident and because he was in prison King wasn’t able to get out to go to the funeral.
I’ve written earlier about King’s sense of honor, and about his cavalier attitude towards committing murder. I don’t think I’ve written or even mentioned King as the quintessential Stoic (within bounds). King is aware of the limits of his control over things, i.e., his judgements and opinions, not external things. He says in Scene 2,
“I set me out a little circle and anything come inside my circle I say what happen and don’t happen. God’s in charge of some things. If I jump in and shoot you I ain’t gonna blame it on God. That’s where I’m the boss . . . I can decide whether you live or die. I’m in charge of that.”
Let’s look for a minute at another silent character, Walter Kelly. We are first introduced to Walter Kelly in Scene 2 in a conversation King is having with his mother, Ruby. He says to her, “Go on now and leave me with my business. I don’t need you to tell me nothing. Go tell Walter Kelly.” (p.43). At this point, we don’t have any notion who Walter Kelly is, but we assume he is someone Ruby had some dealings with while she was away during King’s youth. Then, in Scene 3 (p.50), Ruby spills the tea. In a conversation with Mister, she reveals that Mister’s father, Red Carter, introduced Ruby to Walter Kelly in East St. Louis. Kelly, a musician, was putting his band together and wanted Ruby to sing with him. Then, later on, in Act 2 Scene 3 (p. 83), Ruby, in a bit of locker room talk with Tonya, gives us explicit details about their break-up while explaining her decision to stop singing.
One more little thing and I will stop. In Scene 2 (p.28), there is an exchange between Ruby and Stool Pigeon that seems a bit of a non-sequitur.
Ruby: You old buzzard! Go on in the house! Stool Pigeon: I don’t want you, woman!
Why would he say that to her without barely a provocation? There must be history there (no evidence of bad blood between the two in Seven Guitars. Maybe its just a one off).
Finally, I wrote a great deal in previous sessions about Tonya’s decision to get an abortion. However, on close inspection, it appears that Tonya didn’t even get the abortion despite all her protestations and justifications. At the end of Act 2, Scene 3, Tonya says to King, “Your job is to be around so this baby can know you its daddy.” There was no abortion and its mention was just a red herring by Wilson to get us thinking about it.
Let’s start by defining the term. A Jitney is an illegal taxi service, operated outside the rules and fee structure of the city where it exists. Usually, there has been some problem with cabs picking up black riders, for whatever reason. So jitney systems arose to meet the unmet demand for transportation among black residents. Also referred to as gypsy taxis, though gypsy taxis normally operate as independent units while Jitney services operated as a group or network of cars and drivers from a central location with a standardized billing structure. A precursor, if you will, a forerunner to Uber and Lyft.
Jitney is distinguished from all other plays in the cycle in that it is the only play written in the decade in which it was set.
It helps to review notes from previous sessions. I can focus on things that were not emphasized earlier.
We did not focus in previous sessions on the fact that this is the only play in the cycle so far that has two military veterans, Doub and Youngblood. We see a bit of resulting bonding between them early in Act 2 Scene 1, brothers at arms. Everyone else exits and they have the space to themselves to talk about their experiences in the military. It is a beautiful father-son type chat and Doub gives Youngblood some useful advice, life hacks.
There are not that many military veterans in Wilson’s plays, even though Wilson himself spent a year in the military. If we stretch the definition, we can say Solly Two Kings served in the Civil War, but certainly Gabriel Maxsom and Floyd Barton served in World War II, Doub in Korea, and Youngblood in Vietnam.
In fact, Youngblood is the big beneficiary in this male-dominated work environment. We don’t get any information about Youngblood’s actual father, but he gets “fathered” by all the other members of the group at various times. Lucky him. Even in his often strained relationship with Turnbo, he receives fathering and mentoring. I imagine Wilson was consciously or subconsciously replicating his own experience with father figures, whether his own absentee father, Frederick Kittel, or men in the neighborhood who took an interest in him, or David Bedford, the man who married his mother after his father’s death, all of whom, it may be argued, find expression among the older male characters in his plays.
Three characters in Jitney are old men who either “survived” failed marriages or were unlucky in love in general. Shealy, the numbers running and hustling driver, was “cursed” by Rosie and sees her face in every woman he meets. Fielding, the alcoholic former tailor driver who is still in love with his wife, has been separated from her for twenty-two years (who counts years of separation?). He tells us that three times over the course of the play. Philmore, the gainfully employed elevator operator, has been “put out” by his wife.
Doub refuses to speak about women or money, though we find out in conversation he has a railroad pension, like Doaker in the Piano Lesson. Finally, Turnbo, who knows everybody’s business, chapter and verse, makes no mention of a love life, and some observers have said he may be a closet homosexual, though I never got the full story. Something about his obsession with other people’s lives may have sent that signal. There is also something strange about the name, Turnbo, that may suggest he “turns about” from what might have been considered “normal” behavior in a heterosexually normalized 70’s environment.
I am certain we will talk at length when we meet about the Becker-Booster father-son relationship in the play and how it all plays out. All other things being equal (of course they re not; they never are), while I understand Becker almost intuitively, my deepest sympathy lies with Booster. We can do a vote in class before we discuss it.
Jitney is the second play in the cycle where we get to take a cold hard look at urban renewal, the first being the loss of Memphis’s diner in Two Trains Running. The Jitney station is about to be boarded up under the guise of improving the city. In most cases, in fact, urban renewal destroyed the black business community by building big highways and large scale building projects that destroyed business-to-business revenue and black business concentration in cities wherever it was applied. Accompanying the destruction of the black business community like a one-two punch came the resettling of black neighborhoods out of the city center and into suburban locations. Ultimately, black families were broken up, although that was only a side effect. Certainly, communities and neighborhoods lost their cohesiveness, their physical unity. A lot to be said here. A good read is the spatial deconstruction stuff you can still find online by and about young Howard student, housing and rape awareness activist Yolanda Ward, who was mysteriously murdered before reaching her prime as a social activist. Here is her obituary.