Some notes on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Wilson’s 4 B’s

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, based in part, or at the least, influenced heavily by Romare Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, presents us an excellent opportunity to introduce and talk about August Wilson’s four biggest influences – Bearden, Borges, Baraka and the Blues.

We’ll save Bearden for last.

Borges
Wilson says of Borges (in a conversation with Mark William Rocha),
It’s the way Borges tells a story. In Borges, it’s not what happens, but how. A lot of times, he’ll tell you what’s going to happen up front, as in [“The Dead Man”] in which we’re told at the beginning that a nobody from the slums will be shot in the head as a leader of his people. All of the interest is in how the story is going to be told.”

He further elaborates on Borges with Professor Shannon,
One of his techniques is that he tells you exactly what is going to happen.He’ll say gaucho so-and-so would end up with a bullet in his head on night of such and such. At the outset the leader of an outlaw gang with a bullet in his head would seem improbable. When you meet the guy, he’s washing dishes, and you go, “This guy is going to be the leader of an outlaw gang?” You know he’s going to get killed, but how is this going to happen? And he proceeds to tell the story, and it seems like it ’s never going to happen. And you look up, without even knowing it, there he is. He’s the leader of an outlaw gang.

The experts call this Borgesian technique magical realism, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” In Wilson, we have seen it so far in both Gem of the Ocean, in the voyage to the City of Bones, and in Joe Turner, in both Bynum’s vision of his meeting with his father and the Shiny Man, and in Loomis’ dreamlike state describing the bones emerging from the ocean and taking on flesh, and life. As an aside, Borges credits Edgar Allan Poe as one of his top influencers and one of Poe’s more obscure poems in his “A Dream Within a Dream.

I’m rushing a bit. We can discuss later in greater depth.

Baraka
While Wilson includes Amiri Baraka as one of his top four influences, his actual description of that influence is slightly muted. In several conversation and interviews, Wilson makes passing reference to Baraka’s espousal of black nationalism as something he “found value in.”

Baraka speaks in similarly muted terms about Wilson. In a conversation with Pittsburgh actor Sala Udin, Baraka says,

“August was a poet when we first talked. He didn’t write plays yet; he was a young poet talking to me about poetry and I thought that [his movement into the theater] was a miraculous kind of development. When I first met him, he wanted to know why I wasn’t a Beatnik anymore.

He continues, Next thing I know he had become a Muslim and joined the Nation of Islam which he stayed with for about that long [snaps fingers]. I think he and Sonia Sanchez got in the Nation of Islam about the same time and stayed about the same time. Thirty minutes. Then they were doing something else.

What neither Baraka nor Wilson mentions is the personal and professional “catharsis” both experienced in the year 1965, the year Malcolm X was assassinated. Wilson was 20 and Baraka was 31. Both had undergone conversion-to-Islam experiences within the organization that “produced” Malcolm X, and both decided, independently, shortly after his death to devote themselves to writing and the arts (Rocha/Elkins). That convergence is hardly insignificant.

Both began as poets. While it can be argued that Wilson’s dramatic work was somewhat less in-your-face about racial problems than was Baraka’s, Wilson was both a fan of Baraka’s Four Black Revolutionary Plays and a disciple of the Baraka manifesto, the Black Revolutionary Theater, as evidenced in his work in Pittsburgh in the early 70’s. See also Afrosurrealism.

A lot more to be said there.

The Blues
It’s not an overstatement to say that all Wilson’s plays are infused with blues music. And Wilson makes it clear that the blues are his top influence. Where do we see the blues in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone? The title itself is a W.C Handy blues song title. And everything Bynum says about finding one’s song, is, in effect, about the blues, singing it and living it

We will spend more times with the blues as a music genre in week 3 when we study Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. But every play (and every playlist) is chocked full of blues music.

Bearden
This is getting a bit long for a blog post, but we are almost done.

August Wilson attributes Bearden’s collages as the primary inspiration of two of his plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson. Here is a link to Bearden’s Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, a collage from Bearden’s Pittsburgh Memories collection, and the inspiration for Joe Turner: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/asset/aug15_img_bearden/. Look closely and you can see Seth and Bertha’s boarding house and four of its tenants.

As a young poet in the early 70’s, Wilson found inspiration in another Bearden collage collection, The Prevalence of Ritual, pieces of which Wilson saw featured in a National Geographic magazine follow the opening of the exhibit at MoMA.

There is a lot more to be said about Bearden, his connections to Pittsburgh, his involvement in the Black Arts Movement that spawned the Black Revolutionary Theater, his ties to the New Negro Movement and its extension, the Harlem Renaissance.

Tomorrow I will post pre-class notes on Joe Turner.

References

Campbell, Mary. 2018. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden.

Elkins, Marilyn, ed. 1994. August Wilson: A Casebook.

Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.

Bryer, Jackson and Mary Hartig, eds. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.

Fine, Ruth and Jacqueline Francis, eds. 2011. Romare Bearden, American Modernist.

Post class notes – Gem of the Ocean (3.9.2019)

The session got off to a strong start. The first group meeting was well attended and people were engaged and talkative about their reading. I went back to work and gushed to my boss about how excited I was for the first meeting.

One member of our group focused our attention on the stolen bucket of nails that resulted in Garret Brown’s death early in the play. Symbolically, Jesus was executed by being “nailed” to the cross, so that is a heavy metaphor. Nails are essential to carpenters and for building construction and that makes them valuable. England was the largest producer of nails worldwide during the American Revolution and nails were rare in the colonies. People would burn old houses just to extract the nails and many people “made” their own nails at home. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Just for kicks, here is a history of nails and a video of a blacksmith making nails.

This mention of “honor” brings us to another point in our discussion. Garret Brown could swim. Eli mentions in Act 1 Scene 1 that Brown was “treading water,” suggesting that he could have saved himself, had he so chosen. Brown chose death before dishonor because he knew he was not guilty of theft. We will see that theme of a sense of honor, and of preserving and protecting that honor in subsequent plays.

We didn’t discuss Solly’s occupation, collecting and reselling dog feces, called pure. Black Mary pooh-poohed it, but Aunt Ester was a regular customer, if not a connoissuer, distinguishing between 30-day old and 60-day old pure and pure resulting from the digestion of bone only. She used it on her tomatoes, but its principal use was in the tanning industry.

Happy folks are enjoying the You-Tube playlists. If you get a chance, check out the full movie version of The Music Man and refer to my comments on it here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/notes-on-gem-of-the-ocean-11-24-2018/.

There is more, and I welcome you all’s additions/comments to this blog post below. Tomorrow I begin reading my favorite play of the ten, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

postscript. There is a possible connection between the City of Bones and Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Certainly, the Twelve Gates of the City of Bones is connected to the mention of Twelve Gates in the Bible.

Pre-class thoughts after reading Gem of the Ocean (3/6/19)

Quite possibly because of current events, I found myself focusing early on two thoughts. First, i focused on the repetition by Eli that Aunt Esther’s house at 1839 Wylie Avenue is a peaceful house, a safe space, a place of sanctuary. Today we have sanctuary cities, whole cities that seek to provide a safe space, outside of and secure from the harm of the reach of immigration laws. Aunt Ester’s house was a sanctuary for migrants, not necessarily fleeing the long arm of immigration law, but certainly seeking to escape the reach of oppressive legal structures.

At the same time, why is Citizen Barlow allowed to stay? Because he can help Eli build a wall, a wall whose purpose it is ostensibly to keep Caesar (the Law) out. We see the wall and sanctuary as serving opposite masters. But perhaps this play gives us a different perspective on both sanctuaries and walls.

It also occurred to me that this play could be (perhaps should be) called “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” But to do so would perhaps detract from the development of other characters, from Black Mary who is “becoming” Aunt Ester; from Solly, who dies in spite of the contribution he makes to the “freedom” of so many Others; and from Caesar, who appears to be an unredeemable nuisance on the community, but who may, before it is all over with, may find redemption as well as “his justice.”

I was also struck by the sweetness of the courtship between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, where Black Mary is open to Citizen Barlow’s advances, but keeps it real at every level. And I can’t ignore the thoughtfulness expressed between both Aunt Ester and Eli (platonic) and Aunt Ester and Solly (too much romance talk for two old people, perhaps).

I spoke in an earlier session about how contrived I found the visit to the “City of Bones,” about how Eli, Solly and Black Mary must have enacted this routine before, rehearsed it, worked out its flaws. I also mentioned in an earlier post the sadness of the Garret Brown obit. For me, it still evokes the same feelings of poetic sadness and regret.

A new thought this reading is the similarity between Caesar Wilks long monologue (I’ll cite the location tonight) and the Parable of the Talents (overlook me, I’m always trying to find signs and signals of redeemability in Caesar, possibly because he reminds me so much of menfolk in my family, for better or worse). We can discuss this in class.

OK. Maybe that’s enough to think about for now. Please send me your thoughts.

Spring 2019 session

Welcome!

This study group begins Friday, March 8, 2019 and covers the 10 plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, one play for every decade in the twentieth century. Over ten successive weeks, we will explore a wide range of themes: the Great Migration; the plantation system in the post-Reconstruction South; mass incarceration; the recording industry; urban renewal and gentrification; Civil Rights and protest movements; political, social and business reform throughout the century. We investigate these and other themes through the lens of a small urban community in Pittsburgh, their daily successes and failures across the decades. We discuss themes of family relationships, conflict avoidance, and conflict resolution through those same lenses as we explore the structure of drama. We will read the plays chronologically, in order of decade.

Week 1: March 8, 2019 – 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.

Week 2:  March 15, 2019 –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.

Week 3:  March 22, 2019 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-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.

Week 4:  March 29, 2019 – The Piano Lesson (1986)

Synopsis: Set in 1936 and 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.

Week 5:  April 5, 2019 – 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.

Week 6:  April 12, 2019 – Fences (1984)

Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete

Week 7: April 19, 2019 – 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.

Week 8: April 26, 2019 – 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.

Week 9: May 3, 2019 – 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.

Week 10:  May 10, 2019 – 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 (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) 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.

Warm-up reading list for the Cycle

In no particular order

Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C., eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Interviews and conversations that provide enlightening background on the plays.

Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages inspired at least two plays in the cycle.Wilson often cites Bearden’s influence.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People. One of Wilson’s major influences, along with Bearden, Borges, and the Blues itself.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Places the migration to Pittsburgh and to the Hill District in historical context.

Whitaker, Mark. The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pittsburgh. Lots of context for the plays in the cycle.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Wilson credits Muhammad with supplying the first mythology (origin myths)  for black Americans.

Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Short critical analyses of each play in chronological order. Recommended for the course but not required.

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Essays on each play and on recurrent themes. All the top Wilson scholars are represented.

Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Extensive essays on the first six plays in the order written, plus an unabridged interview with August Wilson makes this volume a plus! I reference this volume often in discussions.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. A dictionary-type listing of all the characters and themes of the first nine plays (published prior to the completion of Radio Golf) along with a multi-generational timeline of all the events in the plays. Very helpful.