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!”
Consolidated notes from Sessions #1, #2, and #3