Letter #6 – Preps for Jitney (27Feb2021)

Good morning, all!

I’m getting ready, after breakfast, to take the plunge into Jitney. My aim is to finish it and get my new notes up on the blog Monday. I also have reading to do for my other OLLI groups, which I will probably talk more about Thursday when we meet.

Speaking of Thursday, I have a new idea for our discussion that I’d like to try out. As you are reading, imagine you are in the play, as one of characters or as one that may not exist, except in your imagination. Suspend temporal, spatial, and identity assumptions and locate yourself in the Jitney station, in the play. Then, Thursday, let’s discuss our “immersion” experience. Who would you be? Who would you befriend? Who would you advise? Should be fun.

Here is a link to the YouTube playlist. There is some theater chit chat, some interviews and some period music. Enjoy!

I have a surprise opening that I hope you will like.

If anybody has any questions, give me a shout by email.

Can’t wait to “see” you all Thursday!


Letter #4 – obit and a sneak peak at Deleuze and Guattari

This piece by Christopher Rawson is especially poignant as it was written as an interview a full month before Wilson’s death, September, 2005, knowing that Wilson’s death was imminent, yet hoping that death could be averted.

Here is the October 3, 2005 Obit, one month later. https://old.post-gazette.com/pg/05276/581786.stm

And here is another Rawson piece from August 26, 2005 before Wilson’s death.

EXTRA CREDIT! We’ll talk more about Wilson’s play writing structure (and play structure in general) with the third play, Fences. Meanwhile, a sneak preview of “The Web as Rhizome in Deleuze and Guattari.” We will have a brief, very brief discussion in week #3 of the relationship of the rhizome as an organizing principle to the structure of Wilson’s plays. https://bluelabyrinths.com/2015/07/15/the-web-as-rhizome-in-deleuze-and-guattari/

and here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/05/06/a-beginning-rhizomatic-schematic-of-the-august-wilson-american-century-cycle/

Letter #3 – Syllabus

Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle
SG-685 – OLLI-AU. Spring 2021

Course Description
The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods
The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage selected by each group member.

Required Texts
Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.

Additional Suggested Texts
Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook.
Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done.
Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson.
Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle.
Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson.
Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion.
Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.

Course Requirements
Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.

Week 1: March 4, 2021 – Jitney (1979)
Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
- Lahr New Yorker Interview, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
- Suzan Lori-Parks Interview, 2005. https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
- Racist Roots of Urban Renewal. https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/jitney.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Week 2: March 11, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
- My blog post has lots of links: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/ Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Week 3: March 18, 2021 – Fences (1984)
Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory.
- Freytag’s Pyramid Dramatic Structure article: https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/what-is-freytags-pyramid-dramatic-structure/
- Article on Negro Baseball leagues. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/sports/baseball/mlb-negro-leagues.html
- America’s Most Undefeated Playwright: https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/fences1.pdf

Week 4: March 25, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
- Article on convict leasing programs: https://www.thoughtco.com/convict-leasing-4160457
- Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual – https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/
- Maslow on Self-Transcendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/18/summary-of-maslow-on-self-transcendence/
- Full play pdf: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qe
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

Week 5: April 1, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.
- Exploring the Use of Myth and Mystical Practice in August Wilson’s Century Cycle – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/colloquium-presentation-3-april-20186.pdf
- Article on Parchment Prison/Farm – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
- Youtube playlist (includes film adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Week 6: April 8, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
- Dear White People – Two Trains Running is Not About Race: http://phindie.com/11061-11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
- August Wilson Life and Work Timeline: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/2012/06/01/August-Wilson-s-Life-and-Work-A-timeline-1945-2005/stories/201206010268
- YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Week 7: April 15, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.
- Aristotle Poetics, Parts 13-15 – https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studying-aristotles-poetics-part-13-a-a-perfect-tragedy-2bced5e9ed3c
- A Short History of the Legend of Buddy Bolden – https://www.jazziz.com/a-short-history-of-the-legend-of-buddy-bolden/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
- Educational guide and synopsis: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qu

Week 8: April 22, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.
- The Function of the Chorus in Greek Drama article – http://krishaamer.com/function-chorus-greek-drama/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
- Curriculum guide and synopsis: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/king-hedley.pdf

Week 9: April 29, 2021 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
- August Wilson in the “City That Encourages Dreams”. https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/project_muse_588846.pdf
- Prologue: definition and examples – https://literarydevices.net/prologue/
- Baraka: Columbia the Gem of the Ocean – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/baraka-gem-of-the-ocean.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
- City of Dry Bones sermon: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/city-of-bones.pdf

Week 10: May 6, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005)
Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
- Radio Golf Student Guide: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/radio-golf-student-guide.pdf
- The Ground On Which I stand: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/the-ground-on-which-i-stand.docx
- Alan Nadal, The Theatre of August Wilson, Chapter 9: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/chapter_9_the_century_that_cant_fix_nothing_with_the_law_radio_golf.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd

Week 11: May 13, 2021. Wrap-ups (TBD)

Letter #2 – Proposed weekly schedule

Greetings, all.

Thanks to all who have reached out to me in response to last week’s letter.
Here is the proposed schedule:

Week 1:  March 4, 2021 – Introductions and Jitney (1979)
Week 2:  March 11, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Week 3:  March 18, 2021 – Fences (1984)
Week 4:  March 25, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Week 5:  April 1, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Week 6:  April 8, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Week 7: April 15, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Week 8:  April 22, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991)
Week 9: April 29, 2021 –  Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Week 10:  May 6, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005) and conclusion.
Week 11: May 13, 2021. Wrap-ups (optional and if necessary).

Here are the links to the first two plays. Sorry these are the only ones I have found so far.

I suspect these exist in violation of copyright laws. “For educational purposes only” is the work around.

The Lahr New Yorker article from 2001 is quite comprehensive and a worthwhile read, particularly at the beginning of the Wilson journey.  I am attaching it below.

Early next week I will dispatch some readings that are particularly relevant to the first week’s play, Jitney, along with some thoughts about how we may want to structure the group discussions for maximum utility.


p.s. I have some fresh ideas for Jitney that I am very excited about!

Letter #1 – Welcome to SG 685: August Wilson American Century Cycle!

Dear all:

A hearty welcome to SG 685: August Wilson American Century Cycle!

Where shall we start?

I have pdfs I can provide for the first two plays, Jitney and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. You may wish to have your own copy and there are hardback and paperback versions of each play available at online sellers, local bookstores, and public libraries.

The study group involves doing the hard work at home of reading each play on your own, then coming together for a robust discussion. A key part of the journey is reading a play per week for ten weeks and getting together once a week for a no holds barred chat.

As the study group leader I claim no monopoly on understanding these plays other than familiarity from four previous sessions of the study group. The wealth of this group is ALWAYS the live experiences of the study group participants. In some regards, for a few minutes each week, we can imagine taking part in a pure democracy! But you must do your homework!

Pause. Deep breath.

As you may have figured out, I have a deep love for these plays. I saw Fences on Broadway with James Earl Jones in 1987. My wife (she was my girlfriend at the time) and I saw the first UK production of a Wilson play, Two Trains Running, in London in 1996. We saw Radio Golf performed in Baltimore in 2005 while it was still being workshopped at local theaters. And others.

There is something a bit of timelessness, and even colorlessness, in Wilson’s plays, a topic we will discuss from time to time, but we will always return to the base, to the decades of the 20th century, and to the Pittsburgh community that produced Wilson in his youth.

I can go on and on. Let me pause again.

We’ll be doing the plays in the order in which they were written, beginning with Jitney, the only play written in the same decade in which it is set. In the following days I’ll send out a revised list of the plays and the weeks they will be assigned. And there will be non-required readings from time to time. For now, here is a link to my most recent blog post which also contains a YouTube playlist of Wilson’s 4B’s for background:


Again, Aloha! Welcome! and Bon Voyage!


p.s. Feel free to write me at any point.

Spring 2021 study group!

The spring 2021 study group at OLLI-AU gets underway the first week of March, Thursday at 0945. This year we are returning to the original order of the plays, a nod to my inner archivist, the order in which the ten plays were written, beginning with Jitney. I’ve given this some thought, but not too much. At the beginning, back in 2017, we did the original order to see Wilson’s development as a playwright. I found that thinking to be pretty shallow; surely he was an expert at his craft when he cranked out the very first one, so just what was it we were tracking? In the next three sessions I thought it might make some sense to do the plays chronologically, by decade. But really, how much sense did that make? It’s not a history class after all, it’s a literature class. And decades are an arbitrary measure of the passage of time anyway. Nothing really special about it.

I dare say I am looking forward to it. Again. We will be meeting weekly by Zoom, like last time, but last time we actually met face to face for the first two meetings, before the lockdown broke our world. This time it will begin and end by Zoom and everybody knows what they are getting into. I have both Jitney and Ma Rainey texts available by pdf, and in addition this year I have the screenplay script of Ma Rainey to distribute if folks want to compare the stage to the film production. Ma Rainey will be fresh on everybody’s radar with the film and the upcoming Academy Awards. That will be fun.

My personal focus this year will be to look at August Wilson in the classical tradition, a perspective I think best showcases his immense talent. Yes, August Wilson as a dead white man, some may accuse, but that is exactly where I’d like to try to go. And of course Wilson as an archivist, a preserver of records and a purveyor of speech patterns of a special people on a special journey. Yep. Going there. The associated readings and the weekly playlists will groove closely. And with a liberal sprinkling of Deleuze and Quattari to spice things up.

OK. Stay tuned. I’ll be posting weekly until the actual journey begins in early March. Bon Voyage!

p.s. a sneak peak at the youtube playlist for Wilson’s 4 B’s.