Musings on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (3.30.2021)

For each session, my intention is to come up with some unique perspective in understanding the play. Sometimes I succeed and achieve that goal. Sometimes I do not. This time I come pretty close.

The key issue, and the central lesson of The Piano Lesson, is repeated by August Wilson in interview after interview. The issue is, ”can you acquire a healthy sense of self worth by denying your past?”

On the surface, it might appear that Berniece is the one who wants to preserve the historical basis of the family’s sense of self-worth through her refusal to sell the piano with all its artifacts that detail family history. Similarly, on the surface, it might appear that Boy Willie is willing to ignore that history in order to buy the 100 acres of farmland where their ancestors were slaves and later, sharecroppers.

But beneath the surface, we learn that 1) Berniece never plays the piano; and most significantly, 2) Berniece has never explained to her daughter Maretha the history of the piano and its symbolic artifacts, the history of the family, or anything else that might actually suggest a sense of self worth. Berniece tells Maretha to “don’t act your color,” suggesting there is something inherently inferior about her complexion. Additionally, while “fixing her hair,” Berniece tells Maretha that if she were a boy, they wouldn’t have to go through that painful process of placing a hot comb to her scalp, suggesting there may be something inferior, as well, about her gender. That Berniece is a piece of work! Berniece wants to ignore her family history in the rural south in order to build a different future for her family in the urban north.

Boy Willie, perhaps on the other hand, acknowledges his southern roots, so much that he wants to buy the land his ancestors worked when they were enslaved. But in order to complete the purchase, Boy Willie has decided he needs the proceeds from selling the family heirloom, the piano.

The tradeoff, stripped of all the accompanying baggage, seems very straight forward.

Let’s pause here and come back later. Let’s talk about the art.

According to Wilson, the Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, provided him inspiration to write the play. In the Bearden painting, you see what appears to be Maretha seated and Berniece standing over and instructing her at the piano.

Bearden: Homage to Mary Lou Williams, The Piano Lesson

The painting actually was a tribute to the jazz singer/artist/performer Mary Lou Williams, with whom Bearden’s wife Nanette and her dancing company had done an artistic collaboration while Williams was Artist in Residence at Duke University. The original Bearden collage/painting didn’t have all the family portraits carved into the wood. That was Wilson’s innovation.

But back to the collage. In a wide ranging interview with Myron Schwartzmann in a huge coffee table book Schwartzmann completed entitled, “Romare Bearden: His Life and Art,” whose foreword was written, by the way, by August Wilson, Bearden takes us from the original diagrammatic drawing (ink on paper), to the black and white 1983 oil with collage of the Mecklenburg Autumn series, to the silkscreen ink on tracing paper, to the final 1984 version fully colored.

The complete Mecklenburg Autumn series, named for the North Carolina county where Bearden was born, included, among many, a piece called Autumn Lamp, which featured a guitar player and his guitar. In producing the painting/collage, Bearden followed a procedure established by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, as recorded by his contemporary, another French impressionist, Claude Monet. Monet wrote that Manet always wanted to give the impression that a painting was completed in one sitting, so at the end of each day in production, he would scrape down whatever he had produced, keeping only the lowest layer. Then each new day he would “improvise” on that bottom layer. At some point, Manet would stop the process, but in fact, a Manet painting made in this manner was never actually completed.

In other paintings in the series, Bearden used images from his childhood.

For The Piano Lesson, also called Homage to Mary Lou Williams, Bearden found inspiration in two Matisse paintings, The Music Lesson and The Piano Lesson, left to right, below.

Without going too far afield, one can see not only how Bearden’s images influenced Wilson, but also how his processes and production “technologies” influenced how Wilson produced plays, going through multiple rehearsal revisions, yet improvising on the ever present foundation drawing, the original vision if you will. Yet another piece of the story is that Matisse was influenced by Van Gogh, who did his own “Piano Lesson,” Marguerite Gachet At The Piano. I will leave this link with you for further study and investigation.

Bearden continues in this part of the interview with other influences on his work, his study of the Dutch Masters, especially Vermeer, his study of the French impressionists during his sojourn in Paris, and his reading of Clausewitz, On War, and how the chaos of war is resolved though the elimination of options. He wrote of classic Chinese painting which he considered the “greatest of paintings,”

For instance, a Chinese painter, in the classic days, when he looked at the rocks and trees, felt a certain oneness with them. And he was, himself, although painting it, part of the landscape which he was painting. He looked upon the large tree, let us say, as a father tree, the others as his children; the largest mountain, perhaps, as a father mountain, or a mother, and smaller, children mountains. So he imbued nature with human concerns. . . . In this way he was ablest the very beginning, to think of the relationships in his painting because of the relationships with a family.”

I have gone a bit off on a tangent with this Bearden thing, but when Wilson says that Bearden was one of his principle influences, we really should both take that at face value and look deeper.

An interesting story captured by Richard Long, essayist and critic, in his essay “Bearden, Theater, Film and Dance,” reports how he noticed an op-ed Wilson wrote for the New York Times that mentioned his indebtedness to Bearden’s influence. Long showed the op-ed to Bearden over breakfast and asked him if he had seen it and what he thought about it. Bearden, who had never met and would never meet Wilson remarked, “Well, he could have at least sent me tickets to the show.” Wilson would say in subsequent interviews that he actually stood outside Bearden’s apartment but would not go in to see him (hoping perhaps to catch him in transit, maybe). It’s a shame they never directly collaborated.

Two more thoughts on The Piano Lesson before I stop.

It dawned on me, and perhaps on you, that Boy Willie and Berniece are quibbling in the play over what amounts to stolen property. In a previous session I traced the lineage, the provenance of the artifact, the piano. The transaction that resulted in the Charles family acquiring the piano was a theft by Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, along with his uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy. Plain and simple. I know all about how the piano was exchanged for two enslaved people who were also ancestors of Boy Willie and Berniece and I know how horrible slavery was as an institution. I am descended from enslaved people and I grew up hearing the stories. But let’s be honest. Slavery was protected and preserved by the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was the law of the land in the states where it was legitimately practiced. The state legislatures approved it. The national Senate and House of Representatives allowed it. And the Supreme Court affirmed its legitimacy in a number of cases and decisions. They were all in on it. It took a Civil War and the deaths of six hundred thousand soldiers on both sides to correct the wrong that was slavery, something that should have been able to be worked out by rational people over a dining room table.

Yet, try as we might, we cannot really morally justify the theft of the piano, no matter what images were carved into it. Don’t get sucked in by the emotional appeal.

Finally, I want to call your attention to the fact that The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, and for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Le’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson than ever before. As we know from earlier reading, mechanical reproduction will increase the exhibition value of Wilson’s work but what is lost is the cult value, the ritual of the romance of the energy exchanged across the stage and into the audience.

postscript. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year, and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.

postscript#2. NaPoWriMo requires a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?

The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.

Session #4

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes

YouTube playlist

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone – the endgame

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone consolidated notes are here:

A few questions have arisen about the end of the play. Here are my notes from an earlier session:

Explaining the end of the play.

It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment.  Let me set the scene.

In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task.  During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,”  and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that

“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”

OK. Hold on to that thought . . .

Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,

“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”

Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.

OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia.  Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”

Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”

This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:

Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,

having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.

At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.

So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.


Yes. I think Bynum is a central character, although Loomis is definitely and definitively the Wilson warrior in this play. We relate personally to whichever character we will and that is one of the human functions of all the dramatic arts, to engage the audience, one by one. But we also have to keep in mind the suggestion made in class, i.e., putting it mildly, that creative people are less focused on their audience and more focused on externalizing their creative impulse. I wrote a poem once, a sonnet, that I thought was exclusively focused on a somewhat complicated rhyming scheme, yet at the end, the whole poem had meaning for me (and perhaps, for any one else who read it), the rhyming scheme notwithstanding.

A friend the other day called my attention to a painting, The Choice of Hercules. The painting (could be a play or a poem) has four human characters, and people who gaze on the masterpiece are subliminally left to choose one to relate to (though forcing that choice may not have been the artistic intent of the painter, Carracci). It’s a bit of a tangent, but it is true, we can’t all be Hercules.

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 7.59.04 PM

The Choice of Hercules (

Wilson is using his plays to build a history of a century, but he is also creating a mythology, and a philosophy. That is why these plays will last and last. And yes, he is developing a psychology, a code for human behavior, perhaps a universal code. It will be fascinating to see how it all unwinds in the remaining six plays.

More on the title. “Joe Turner” comes from an old blues song about a system of incarceration for emancipated blacks in Tennessee, generally on weak or flippant charges forcing them to work in plantations for a limited time. Joe Turner was the brother of Peter Turney, Tennessee Governor at the end of the 19th cenury. See more here:

Marginalia on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone for 03252021

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone consolidated notes are here:

Session #5

Romulus Linney, who wrote the forward to the boxed version of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG), has roots in North Carolina, which explains why Appalachian State University has his personal papers. And good on the Mountaineers for using Omeka to make items digitally available (says the archivist in me). August Wilson also has North Carolina roots. The legend goes that his mother and his grandmother walked to Pittsburgh from their small town in North Carolina. Romare Bearden also has roots in North Carolina. It is also not giving anything away to mention that Aunt Ester’s bill of sale in GOTO was issued in Guilford County, NC, my own birthplace.

Linney wore 85 plays. He knows something about playwriting. He writes in the Foreword to JTCG,

“A creator expressing love in art is treacherous business. Love is easy to overdo. It can be well-meaning but amateurish. It must be disciplined by honesty and truth. Here a great writer shows us how it is done. He sets excitement aside. His characters and his audiences live for a while in that calm, unpretentious affection that we, poor humans, at our best, can have for one another. This is not thrilling action. It is life at its most beautiful.”

Below is an excerpt of a letter Wilson wrote to Linney (courtesy of ASU Archives):

In an earlier session, I refer to Wilson’s The Play as a Yoruba Hymn to Ogun, god of iron and steel. A recording of the text: (for educational purposes only).

What follows is a harvesting of marginalia from successive reads of the play.

Bynum is a Stoic, like Troy. Stoicism gets an unfair rap because it was contemporary with the early days of Christianity and historians present the two was a binary choice. It is Bynum’s Stoicism that Seth is attracted to, his independence of mind and his indifference to external appearances. Troy had the same or a similar way of looking at things, i.e. “you’ve got to take the crooked with the straights.”

Seth is a craftsman, a maker of things with his hands. He is at least a second generation free man and a property owner, though he finds himself and his productivity hemmed in by distribution and banking systems. Seth doesn’t trust Loomis, but he tolerates Bynum because he feels Bynum is too old to be a threat. Speaking of Bynum, whenever he speaks, check out who is in the room and who might be within ear range. Bynum speaks on multiple levels.

Bynum’s Shiney Man is a prototype of John the Baptist, I.e. going before and showing the way. See the Da Vinci painting, Virgin of the Rocks, in my Jitney post. The Shiney Man self-baptizes with his own blood, transformational through his own sense of agency. Bynum pays Selig a dollar to find his Shiney Man, but he knows that is just pro forma – Bynum has to find him on his own. Selig, now that he is mentioned, and drawing from Wilson’s Black Muslim exposure, reminds of W.D. Fard, the mystery man who sold pots and pans door to door in Detroit as he propagated a new religion. Selig isn’t selling religion with his pots and pans, but he is selling faith, a hope that people will someday be reunited with family they have lost in the transition from bondage to freedom. After emancipation, many freed former slaves scoured the southern states looking for daily members who had been sold away during bondage. Churches formed homecoming celebrations during the summer for folks to returned who fled during the Great Migration. HBCU’s still observe “homecoming” for alumni to return. Family reunions are part of the same impulse to “help me find my people.”

Reuben promised Eugene he would free his pigeons when Eugene died. Eugene died, but Reuben kept his pigeons in captivity, maintaining them to sell to Bynum for his ritual animal sacrifices. Might this be a metaphor for slaveowners who put it in their wills to free their enslaved workers upon their death? But the families refused to honor the last will request, keeping the people enslaved forever just like Reuben keeps the pigeons, in order to “remember Eugene by.”

Jeremy, recently immigrated from NC, goes after all the girls. He even breaks the top rule: never date two girls who live in the same house. Jeremy gets picked up and thrown into jail on the weekends. With his drinking and hanging out at clubs to play his guitar he is trouble. Jeremy knows a good line when he hears one – he repeats Bynum’s line about berries and water to Molly C.

Read carefully the dialogue between Bynum and Herald Loomis at the end of Act 1. What readers refer to as a cathartic “call and response” may be more accurately described as a conversation between a psychotherapist and his patient. Compare it to the conversation between Bynum, Seth and Selig in Scene 1 when Bynum first tells us about his Shiney Man. Bynum’s father was also a mystic and a healer so this is the family business just as it was with Selig’s father and grandfather’s people-finding service.

There is obvious chemistry between Mattie and Herald, even before their first collision. Both are lost in love, but not defeated, and both still see the possibility of a relationship in the future. The junior romance between Reuben and Zonia is as sweet as the day is long.

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Session 4 notes

YouTube playlist

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

More later.

Postscript. 03262021.

Samuel A. Hay, in his essay Joe Turner’s Come and Gone in The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson, outlines seven principles Bynum advocated with various members of the boardinghouse. Hay calls them Bynum’s seven priniciples

  1. “Some things are worth taking the chance going to jail about.” In a conversation with Bertha and Jeremy.
  2. “People should be very clear about what they want fixed before seeking people to fix it.” Conversation with Mattie and Jeremy.
  3. “Then both of you be lost and trapped outside of life and ain’t no way for you to get back to it.” If a person is in he wrong place with the wrong person, then both people are lost. Conversation with Mattie and Jeremy.
  4. Spread the word about your salvation. Bynum conversation with Selig and Seth about the Shiny Man.
  5. “A woman is everything a man needs.” A man needs a woman to make something of himself. Bynum talk with Jeremy.
  6. “I ain’t bind you, Herald Loomis. You can’t bind what don’t cling.” Nobody can bind you to anything you don’t cling to. Bynum talking with Martha and Herald.

Hay also cites the Nigerian playwright Soyinka and makes references to the Igbo tradition in Nigeria and the Akan tradition in Ghana as sources for interpreting both Bynum and events in the play that seem supernatural. Other references have been made to the Yoruba tradition in explaining August Wilson. His influences are a rich genetic pool.

In our group discussion we talked about references to shoes in the play. Bynum knows Loomis is not a gambler because he wears clodhoppers, not nice shoes. And the place where the migrant congregation, including Martha, built a new church used to be Wolf’s shoe store. In “the meaning of Shoes, Giorgio Riello writes,

Footwear is more than a simple wrapping or protection for the foot. The notion that shoes indicate a great deal about a person’s taste (or disdain for such things) and identity – national, regional, professional – class status and gender, is not an invention of modernity. Shoes have, for centuries, given hints about a person’s character, social and cultural place, even sexual preference.1 Shoes are powerful “things”, as they take control over the physical and human space in which we live. They allow us to move in and experience the environment. They are the principle intersection between body and physical space. The psychologist Nicola Squicciarino has called this “extensions on the corporeal ego.” Shoes, then, are always more than simple garments allowing us to walk, stroll and run on streets, parks and fields. They are tools that amplify our bodies’ capacities. Everyday shoes allow us to walk to work, to run for the bus, to look smart at a party. High-tech shoes have permitted the demonstrable improvement of the world record for the 100 meters during the last hundred years (in conjunction with training and nutritional regimes). Shoes thus extend our social and emotional capacities, as well as our physical capacity.

I emphasis this here because shoes as symbols comes up again and again in Wilson’s plays

Field notes – Fences. March 18, 2021

Fences consolidated notes transferred to substack here:

Below is the Romare Bearden collage, Continuities, that inspired Troy’s character in Fences. He is bringing the baby home after her mother died in childbirth. Note the disproportionate size of the hands.

Romare Bearden – Continuities

Fences always floods me with thoughts, as do all the plays in the cycle. Perhaps that is why leading the study group every Spring has become such a ritual for me. Fences is August Wilson’s “family play.” It and all the rest of the plays in the cycle depict the black family, Wilson’s chosen identity, although he had a white immigrant German father. An English professor I met in Ghana once told me that the African family, and by extension, the African village are Africa’s contribution and gift to all of humanity.

Let’s begin with the name of the tragic hero, Troy. The name refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. Helen of Troy, a Spartan queen, was abducted by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam, which started the Trojan Wars. The city was, in legend, besieged for 10 years. Troy was eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. So Troy as a name is already legendary, as was the soft-spoken pianist in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Toledo, also named for a legendary European city.

Through the story and background of Troy Maxxom, Wilson introduces his audiences to the wonders and the greatness of the Negro Baseball League, and such legendary players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break into the Majors. The first professional black team, the Cuban Giants, formed in New York in 1885. The National Colored Baseball League was established in 1887, failed, and was re-established in 1920. It lasted competitively until 1951 when major league baseball integrated. Baseball itself was “born” in Confederate prison camps in the south during the Civil War as a past-time for prisoners. At the end of the war, prisoners returned home and took baseball with them to their home towns. Troy learns to play baseball while imprisoned for murder and theft in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A Negro League star player and athlete, Troy resented never getting a crack at the Major League, being considered too old and past his prime.

Troy has an outsized personality, befitting a former professional athlete, and all the other characters revolve around him, that is until he begins to make mistakes, then one by one, each character drifts away from his orbit. Troy’s relationships with those around him are often complex and always genuine and authentic, but his indiscretions catch up with him and enclose him in a very personal and tragic hell of his own making.

The play is set in 1957, three years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education, which put an end to the legal underpinning of the American style of apartheid. But nothing happens suddenly, and in my early teenage years in the late 1960’s, over a decade after the Supreme Court decision, I found myself involved in several initial integration efforts – the local public library, Boy Scout camp, public school and prep school. In fact, throughout my professional career, in the submarine Navy and in the diplomatic corps, I still have not seen a level of black participation even close to proportionate to our percentage of the population. Some fences work.

Rose has Troy building a fence so she can keep the family she cherishes in and the negative elements out. She seeks to achieve a type of “separateness,” a separate peace if you will. But it is not to be. Cory grows up and leaves, Troy seeks other love interests, and even Rose herself eventually finds outside solace in the church. The fence is not effective as a barrier wall against outside intrusion. We see analogues in the body politic. The countries of Southern Europe are vulnerable to African immigrants willing to take their chances with the perils of crossing the sea, a type of barrier. (Note: the Qaddafi fence kept that movement of immigrants in check for many years. End note.) Similarly, the U.S. finds itself embroiled in a coming economic cataclysm as South American immigrants take advantage of Biden executive actions to lower the barrier to entry by lessening the risks of illegal entry into the United States via its southern border. Israeli PM Netanyahu said just last week (March 10, 2021):

In fact, I put up a fence, you know,” he added. “They call it a wall. But I prevented the overrunning of Israel, which is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. We would have had here already a million illegal migrants from Africa, and the Jewish state would have collapsed. The Jewish State, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, would have collapsed.”

Looking at real world uses of fences helps to put things in perspective.

Pay special attention to Wilson’s epigraph because it emerges at several fractures in the play. Also pay attention to Wilson’s prologue, called simply, “The Play.” It is laden with hints and secret surprises.

The play “paints” Troy as a pretty unsympathetic creature, especially vis-a-vis his son, Cory, and his wife, Rose. But is he really so bad a guy? Similarly, Cory is presented as pure as the driven snow, without spot of blemish. But he does lie to his father and sometimes he treats his father badly. Rose appears to be the long-suffering wife, but might that also be an optical illusion, a diversion from the reality that nobody is perfect?

Troy’s bantering about his struggles with the devil are entertaining, but it is only a subterfuge for real struggles and traumas he has faced in his life. His warnings to Cory about sports are legitimate and I don’t think Cory made a bad choice in joining the Marines, so long as he gets out at the end of his enlistment and before Vietnam heats up. Nobody needs to die in a foreign war.

I mention in notes from an earlier session that the spoken affection Troy has for Bono, and Bono reciprocates, is fairly unusual for men in the 1950’s. That impressed me. When Lyons asked Troy to come see him play at the local club, Troy remarks that he doesn’t like that Chinese music. I had to look up that reference. Turns out jazz was very popular in Shanghai and even in Beijing from the late 1920’s, about the time, coincidentally, of Ma Rainey’s popularity in the U.S. Known as shidaiqu, a type of fusion between European jazz and Chinese folk, it was obliterated from the scene during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Speaking of which, Lyons’ verbalization of his attraction to music is strongly reminiscent of words Ma Rainey used. I’ll bring that up in discussion Thursday.

There will be more notes after Thursday’s discussion. In the interim, here are links to previous sessions and to the playlist which is really quite good!

Post-session notes.

Both Joan Herrington, in her essay “The Complexity of Conflict,” and Joan Fishman, in her essay, “Developing His Song: August Wilson’s Fences,” present us with what I call longitudinal cross sections of the various editions of Fences from its inception and first performance to its final edition that we now see on stage and adapted for film. Two Joans. There are so many examples to cite of plot changes and line reversals. The most poignant for me it the analysis of the final conflict between Cory and Troy. An early edition has Cory swing the bat at Troy, followed by Troy getting a gun and actually cocking back the hammer and pointing the gun at Cory. Cory scurries into the alley and is not heard from again until Troy’s funeral. Shortly before the next edition of the play, the singer Marvin Gaye had been killed by his father with a gun. Wilson decided to drop the gun detail from the story.

While not pronounced loudly, it is significant to mention that Troy was a unionized employee and it was the union that interceded when he sought the promotion to driver on his job. I only focused on it after reading about efforts this week to unionize workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, AL.

Session #4

Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

Youtube playlist

Special bonus from Minnesota Public Radio

Field notes for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, March 11, 2021

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes on substack:

Session #5

Three things you may have missed if you only watched the movie.

What was up with the card trick Slow Drag was so anxious to show his fellow band members in Act #2?

The card trick Slow Drag was so anxious to show the band members was a basic one: you draw a card out of a deck face down, return the card, and the person holding the deck tells you what card you drew out. I’ve seen people play the trick, though I do not know mself how to do it or how it is done. What is significant here is that Toledo drew the six of diamonds.

So I did a search on “six of diamonds.”

The six of diamonds refers to a loss or the absence of someone. It refers to an empty space. In its occult dimensions, this card refers to losing something that seemed established. Next to the hearts, the six of diamonds refers to a romantic problem, such as losing your loved-one linked to a break-up or a form of betrayal.” 

Here August Wilson is using a technique he attributes to Borges’ magical realism. He is telling, though the mechanism of the card trick and the fact that is is Toledo who drew the 6 of diamonds, that Toledo is going to die. So at perhaps a subconscious level, we know that Toledo is the one to die, but we don’t know how. How, it turns out is at the hand of Levee, but only after Levee suffers one more humiliation at the hands of the white manager, reinforced by one more humiliation when Toledo inadvertently steps on Levee’s new shoes. Levee, the antihero, traumatized as a child, goes into a blind rage and acts out against the most vulnerable, his fellow band member. A tragedy for Toledo, for Levee, and for the band as a whole.

Levee the tortured genius and his parallel to the emergence of Impressionism in Art.

We know from the stage directions of Levee’s entry that he is younger than the other men, that he is flamboyant but it may be subtle and sneak up on you, that his temper is rakish (having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance) and bright, that he “lacks fuel for himself and is somewhat of a buffoon,” that his buffoonery can be intelligent and “calculated to shift control of the situation to his grasp,” and finally, that he often confuses his skill with his talent (‘Talent’ is something that one is born with; it is your natural ability to do something without really thinking about it. … ‘Skill’, on the other hand, is something that you acquire after putting in a lot of hard work; unlike talent, it is not inborn, but learned). We also know that Levee experienced the brutal rape of his mother and the murder of his father at a very young and tender age. You can tell by the way Levee loses his cool at inappropriate times that he is still working through the traumatization of his youth.

All that aside, Levee knows how to write music, even though he is otherwise illiterate, and Levee has stumbled upon a new way of composing music, similar to how a few French painters stumbled upon a new way to paint. But much like the French painters of the late 1800’s, traditional practitioners rejected the innovations, referring to it not as painting but as an “impression of painting.” Ma said of Levee, “You play ten notes for everyone you supposed to play. It don’t call for that.” “You ain’t supposed to go off by yourself and play what you want.” “You call yourself playing music.”

The early Impressionists faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France. The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satirical review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.”

The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media that became known as impressionist music and impressionist literature.”

The new style was characterized “small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities.” Its competition was photography, and it sought, in one sitting, to capture the lighting effects of the new medium while retaining the “sketchy” elements of landscape painting. Initially rejected by art critics, it soon became the standard with such names as Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, and later, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and others.

Similarly, Levee’s idea of “too many notes” and “variation on a theme” became the standard for blues, jazz, and even classical music of the period and beyond, most notably Ravel and Debussy in classical music and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, et al., in jazz music.

The Cult value of Ma vs. the Exhibition value of Levee and why the play is named for Ma Rainey and not for Levee Green.

In a way related to #2 above, we see played out the juxtaposition of Ma’s live performance blues, honed and sharpened on the road, at county fairs and in city honky tonks, and now being subjected to mechanical reproduction for commercial purposes, and Levee’s new music, that perhaps lends itself to even greater profits through the mechanical reproduction it is, perhaps, designed to eventually succeed at.

It also follows somewhat the Walter Benjamin distinction of cult value art, designed for ritualistic observance in the performance of magic rites and ceremonies, contrasted with mechanically produced exhibition value art, whether music or paintings, that is separated from ritual and magic via reproduction, and hence more accessible to greater numbers of people. It may be argued that the cult value will always be of higher quality because it exists in service to higher powers, to magic, to ritual, where the exhibition value art exists solely to satisfy the commercial profit motive.

From session #4:

Ma says in the play, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out (exhibition value) but they don’t know how it got there (cult value). They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better (again, exhibition value). You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life (cult value).” Benjamin cites two planes on which works of art are received and valued, the cult value where artistic production connects to ritual artifacts that serve a limited cult of elite observers, versus the exhibition value where art practices are freed from ritual with increased opportunities for “distribution.”

Final notes before I ship to the group.

Who’s in charge? I counted 17 places in the text, six before Ma arrives, where Cutler and Slow Drag (and Ma) form a sort of Greek chorus to reinforce Ma’s authority over the music and how it is to be played. Cutler and Slow Drag are true believers. Toledo has a different role, a seer, a griot, somewhat detached. Levee has a moment of lucidity and makes a valid point (I think) when he says, “Ma’s the boss on the road! We at a recording session. Mr. Sturdyvant and Mr. Irvin say what’s gonna be here! We in Chicago, we ain’t in Memphis!” The original play did not include the band members at all. They were added later and located downstairs in the band room, where the two violent altercations occur. It may be a subtle hint pointing us to the oldest known piece of literature produced by an African American, Bars Fight, by Lucy Terry, a freed African in Massachusetts in 1746.

Art begets art. Last year this time I wrote a series of poems I called “Poems for the Pandemic – The Lockdown Sonnets.” I ended the series with this sonnet that features Toledo:

Lockdown Sonnet #12

I just listened to the new Bob Dylan drop.
Some kind of weird incantation –
A forced repetition, for a hypnotic effect,
a magic ritual in an ancient oral tradition.
Also, a shout out to the musical ancestors,
Invoking each of the gods by name.
An African conceptualization is what Toledo
would call it. Oh, you don’t know Toledo?
How could you? He was Ma Rainey’s piano player.
Ain’t never been the same fool twice. Don’t worry,
You’ll see it on Netflix when it comes out.
A piano lesson disguises the real drama.
Old Bob gives the devil his due. Play that funky
Musik white boy. Spell it with a K in B flat.

Finally, a member of an earlier OLLI group typed these notes on her iPhone and sent them to me. I share it with her permission.

October 1, 2018: My Ma Rainey notes—

Related to Toledo’s first revealing commentary, and based on the premise that August Wilson was a pretty brilliant auto didactic and did not include anything in this play that he did not choose with a purpose—the Hull Train Crash in February 1927 in England—two trains on the same track in head-on collision led to 1927 Pathe film Express Train Disaster;

Carbon monoxide and hydrogen —in “all things change” lines are in fact a potentially explosive combination (which could be disastrous) and in 1927 covalent hydrogen bonding was revealed in a paper by London and Heitler which elucidated quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg uncertainty principle was also elucidated the same year—both of which provided information leading eventually to the atomic bomb.

Toledo ‘s references to changing and atoms and molecules and trains on the same track may suggest Wilson’s foreshadowing of Levee’s clashes with Cutler over the existence of God and with Toledo when he was overcome by anger—leading to two knife threats and a stabbing. Buddy Bolden was the cornetist credited by King Oliver as his influence—and King Oliver pioneered use of mutes, jazz solos—in Chicago in the 1920s.

Toledo’s almost correct logic premise statement: Aristotle says in logic it takes two premises to reach a conclusion—all men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal, is the classic Aristotelian example—Toledo is mortal, too.

His Pan Africanist “stew” comments about Slow Drag’s comments maybe related to WEB Dubois theories and Marcus Garvey’s Return to Africa movement—there were four world conferences—third in 1923 and fourth in 1927—at the time Toledo begins to develop his theory about how the white man has digested the stew of African natives and how all “Negroes” who remain are leftovers—

The Blind Lemon dedication may have been chosen because he struggled with the same problem Ma Rainey did—he was brought from Dallas to Chicago by Mayo Williams to record for Paramount and this first widely successful recording was in 1926–unhappy with what he was paid, he moved with Mayo Williams in 1927 to Okeh Records for one record—may have accounted for some of Ma’s bravado about her options with Sturdyvent and her agent—

Lemon was born in Streetman, went from there to Dallas—knew Leadbelly and T Bone Walker—and wrote very popular railroad blues during the peak in the late 20s of the first wave of the mass migration.

Also in 1927, a doctor named Raymond Pearl attacked the theory of eugenics in a book labelled The Biology of Superiority, criticizing the use of race in eugenics theory (regarding superiority of the white race), another piece of information accessible to a reader like Toledo, and maybe informing his black stew commentary.

Louis Armstrong’s Mahogany Hill Stomp was a blues song about Lulu White’s brothel and barroom in New Orleans, where Levee offers to take Slow Drag to find a woman.

Post discussion notes.

  1. The unsympathetic nature of the diva Ma Rainey, who stole the blues from another, was dismissive of her protege, Dussie, and allowed if not precipitated Levee’s going over the deep edge.
  2. Was Toledo a Garveyite? Or maybe a Moor Scientist follower of Noble Drew Ali? That may explain his political and philosophical positions. But why did he have to die? Why was his death meaningful to the telling of the story. We will see another manifestation Two Trains Running, in Seven Guitars, and in King Hedley II.
  3. The musicality of the Reverend Gates ritual story that all the band members obviously already knew, drawn out over several pages to relieve the tension of the story being told.
  4. Wilson’s skill in providing us mental space for the absorption of difficult messages.
  5. Ma and her demand for Coca Cola and the memorialization of the beverage in the script.
  6. The ensemble’s string quartet musicality and give-and-take regarding the character of Sylvester and his performance on the stage.
  7. The marriage of the horn and the voice once the horn arrived. Early blues just had chords on a guitar.

Session #4

Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

YouTube Playlist

Jitney, notes for March 4, 2021

Consolidated notes from all sessions of Jitney (5) posted to substack here:

Looking back, so many subjects from the play have been exhausted. We will go over many of them in the discussion.

Jitney was, in effect, written twice. Wilson wrote it in 1979, the only play in the cycle written in the same decade in which it was set. It was performed to sell-out crowds in Minnesota. Legend has it that Wilson was inspired to write the play after using a jitney on one of his return visits to Pittsburgh. Upon his return to Minnesota, he started and finished the first draft in ten days. According to separate accounts, he sat at a nearby Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips in St. Paul while writing the play.

After one run, Wilson submitted the play to the O’Neill Playwrights Conference. It was rejected, and Wilson stashed it away to work on new plays. In 1982, he submitted the play to the Allegheny Repertory Theater in Pittsburgh, where it experienced sell-out performances. But It only ran for one season. Then in 1985, the play was performed again in Minnesota, while he was in the process of writing his next two plays. In 1996, eleven years later, the play was picked up for performance, again in Pittsburgh. Reminds me of the tale of two cities, almost, St. Paul and Pittsburgh.

By that time, Wilson had completed some six plays in the cycle, and had developed a successful method of revising a play during its rehearsal. He applied that new revision technique to Jitney during rehearsals in 1996, adding significant monologues to a play he considered too short, among other defects.

Why is this important?

I want to make a point here, perhaps an esoteric point, draw a comparison, and promote a conclusion, all in one fell swoop, but in perhaps three parts.

Please bear with me.

Another famous artist did another famous work twice. The artist was Leonardo Da Vinci and the double work of art is Virgin of the Rocks. The Virgin of the Rocks, theologically, is invoked during periods of plague, so it is timely for us now. The first ended up at the Louvre, the second, created because of a contract dispute, ended up in London.

Virgin of the Rocks, Louvre

Art experts can quibble over which one came first, and which one was entirely the hand of Leonardo, and which one may have been the work of Leonardo’s trusted assistants.

For our purposes, each one shows the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus, the baby John the Baptist, and the angel Uriel (in some places referred to as Gabriel). The group allegedly met on the road during their flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s massacre of the first borns. They are seated in a pyramidal arrangement. John the Baptist points to the baby Jesus. Jesus acknowledges with a point or a wave. Mary holds her left hand protectively over the head of Jesus, while her right hand holds John’s shoulder. All four are depicted relating to each other, connected, but in the Louvre version, the angel is pointing to John but glancing out at the viewer.

Virgin of the Rocks, London

One expert concluded that because of Da Vinci’s use of various glazes and because of the water formation in the background, for the viewer, looking at the painting is more like looking into a mirror. We’ll return to that.

The Wilson work, Jitney, similarly exists in an original and a revised version. His characters are presented in relationship to each other, Becker to Booster, Youngblood to Rena, Youngblood to Turbo (in a hostile, not a loving way), Becker to all the drivers (boss to employees) and vice versa. A type of mutual discovery is constantly taking place in the play, for better or worse, but mostly for the better. Certainly, once you relax any existing assumptions, looking at the play Jitney is like looking into a mirror. You can see yourself (I hope) in the characters and relationships that make up the ensemble, though the glaze has long since lost its reflective power. And each participant is on a journey, literally as in a jitney ride, and figuratively in their own personal development, just as the figures in the painting were on a journey to Egypt. But who in the play is the angel glancing out into the audience?

Now, it’s not likely, given Wilson’s halted formal education, that he knew anything about this work by Leonardo Da Vinci or its repetition. Nor did he consciously plan the repetition of Jitney. These are mere coincidences. What is not a coincidence, in my second, slightly esoteric point, is the similarity between the two artists, the tendency to project and portray humanity in a classical and humanist way.

It is said of Da Vinci that, “a wish to get to the heart of nature and know the secrets was perhaps Leonardo da Vinci’s main impetus in everything he did; and such interest as he had in the painting might almost have been to set up rivals to nature, fusing all his knowledge of her into the creation of things super-natural.” That certainly sounds like August Wilson to me.

A quote by the turn of the century painter Kenyon Cox is pertinent here:

“The Classic Spirit is the disinterested search for perfection; it is the love of clearness and reasonableness and self-control; it is, above all, the love of permanence and of continuity. It asks of a work of art, not that it shall be novel or effective, but that it shall be fine and noble. It seeks not merely to express individuality or emotion but to express disciplined emotion and individuality restrained by law. It strives for the essential rather than the accidental, the eternal rather than the momentary. And it loves to steep itself in tradition. It would have each new work connect itself in the mind of him who sees it with all the noble and lovely works of the past, bringing them to his memory and making their beauty and charm part of the beauty and charm of the work before him. It does not deny originality and individuality – they are as welcome as inevitable. It does not consider tradition as immutable or set rigid bounds to invention. But it desires that each new presentation of truth and beauty shall show us the old truth and the old beauty, seen only from a different angle and colored by a different medium. It wishes to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish to break the chain.“(Murray, Richard N.  The American Renaissance. The Brooklyn Museum. 1979. p. 189)

My final point. We rush, perhaps, to compare August Wilson to other playwrights, to O’Neill, to Williams. We even call him the American Bard in homage to Shakespeare. But his focus on his 4B sources of inspiration, Bearden, Baraka, Borges, and the Blues, and his adoption of their styles, across genres, to his plays, makes him more of a Renaissance man that just a playwright. And as a Renaissance man, a more apt comparison is to other Renaissance men, like Da Vinci.

We can discuss over the course of the cycle whether Wilson was a classicist, a neo-classicist, or a modernist (or even a post modernist). I know I wear my feelings on my sleeve, as they say. No poker face here, much to my regret.

All the other session notes.

Some post-session notes.

No soliloquies in Jitney. Every word spoken is an exchange between two or more characters. No angel in the mix casting an inquisitive glace at the audience like in Virgin of the Rocks. We are on our own here and many of us are able to relate to those we see on the stage.

On Becker and Booster, my personal belief is that Booster’s adolescent acting up, including his dalliance with Susan McKnight leading to his incarceration, was all less a function of the trauma of seeing his dad made small by Mr. Rand the landlord in his formative years, and more a function of his rejection of the image and future Becker sought to consciously and subconsciously impose on him through out his youth. That sentence was too long, but you catch my drift.

The information that came out about the death penalty in Pennsylvania and the way Wilson wove it into Jitney was so interesting it sent me to the internet for more research. “In 1913, the state’s capital punishment statute was amended to bring executions under the administration of the state rather than individual counties, and also changed the method of execution to electrocution. Between 1915 and 1962, there were 350 executions in Pennsylvania, including two women. The last prisoner executed by means of the electric chair was Elmo Smith in 1962.”

One member noted that there are two veterans in the play, Youngblood (Darnell) and Doub. Youngblood served in Vietnam and Doub served in Korea. Only on one occasion do they “commiserate” regarding their common military experiences, early in Act 2, Scene 1. Also, no other play in the series has more than two military veterans.

Women very influentual to the play’s action never show up on stage to speak for themselves. Booster’s mother Coreen died of grief after he was given the death penalty and before his sentences was commuted to 20 years. Susan McKnight was Booster’s girlfriend at Pitt who cried rape when they were discovered and later was murdered by Booster. Cigar Annie, who was evicted, stands in the middle of the street raising her dress. Shealy’s wife, Rosie, put a curse on his future ability to have another woman in his life. Becker’s new wife is Lucille. Fielding has been separated from his wife for 22 years, but he knows she loves him. Philmore’s wife put him out, but she’s gonna beg him to come back, almost like the story of Wilson’s first wife.

We see Turnbo with his gun one time in Act 1. And we never see his gun again. That was a bit of a surprise.

I want to explore the comparison between Booster and Bigger Thomas in Richard Wright’s Native Son.

Shealy runs numbers and many drivers play. Turnbo and Youngblood play checkers. This game playing seems to be a recurring theme throughout the play. Also, along those lines, Booster hits the number just before he learns of his father’s passing, so he is in possession of some cash to perhaps help him fix up the place after he has taken over.