Background notes 03.08.2020

1. There was some mention after last Monday’s meeting of the famous Wilson/Brustein “debate.” It is worth listening to this conversation and NPR archived it for us here:
https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1109529and on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Dfc_u3Xdyf8 (saved to playlist)

2. This article may be more appropriately introduced prior to Fences, but it has great background material worth knowing up front: America’s Most Undefeated Playwright –
https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/

3. Finally, I cannot “not” share this article with you. It is a discussion that we should not avoid.
https://forward.com/culture/356896/the-secret-jewish-history-of-fences-author-august-wilson/

I will save these on the blog for future consideration.

p.s. I remain intrigued by Wilson’s identification of C.K. Williams as his favorite poet and of Kurt Weil as one of his favorite composers. Would love to do some research and discuss.

A few notes on Gem of the Ocean – 03.05.2020

Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?

They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.

From Wikipedia:

“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.

The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”

In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.

The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.

Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.

Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.

Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.

Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.

One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Session #1 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #2 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)

Email #2

Hello all:

1. I am attaching a couple of articles/interviews for your reading in preparation for our first meeting Monday, March 2nd. The John Lahr piece from the New Yorker has become so “definitive” over time that excerpts of it are used as the foreword to one of the plays in the hardback edition. The interview with Derek Walcott contains gems and richness that makes it unique among Wilson interviews.

2. A couple of you have emailed me with questions about the Arena Stage production of Seven Guitars. I have held off on finalizing plans to attend, though we intend to see it. There is as of yet no plan to try to see it as a group, but that certainly is something we can discuss next Monday.

3. I thought we would use the first meeting to discuss the attached readings and set the tone of the study group. It is always interesting to know how and why folks come to choose this study group, what you hope to get out of it (learning objectives), and the always interesting backgrounds we all bring to the group that may contribute to our understanding of the plays (learning subjectives). Then, on the second meeting, Monday, March 9, we will take the plunge into the first play, Gem Of the Ocean.

4. It is a good idea now to begin making arrangements to acquire the first three or four plays. If you are lucky, you can find a few at local public libraries, but in past sessions, most end up purchasing the books online or at local bookstores.

5. I’ve been maintaining YouTube playlists for each play through the past sessions. I will make those links available weekly, in advance of our meeting, as well as links to blog posts I’ve been making on each play. But the main work is to actually read the play, engage with the text, and be prepared to discuss when we get together in the study group. In previous groups, we have started out with each participant bringing in a passage to read and discuss. Something else to talk about when we get together on the 2nd.

6. OK. Enjoy what remains of the weekend! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Reading schedule for Spring, 2020

All: A proposed schedule. This will be the first session of not plunging into the first play in week one. But it means devoting a whole week to the important first play, instead of sharing that first meeting with getting to know one another, also an important part of the the study group. Of course, everything is subject to negotiations.   

Week 1:  March 2, 2020 – Introduction, discuss interview and selected readings

Week 2: March 9, 2020 – 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 3:  March 16, 2020 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984).  Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 featured in a Romare Bearden painting, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 4:  March 23, 2020 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982).  Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only 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 5:  March 30, 2020 – 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 6:  April 6, 2020 – 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 7:  April 13, 2020 – 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 8: April 20, 2020 – 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 9: April 27, 2020 – 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 10: May 4, 2020 – 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 11:  May 11, 2020 – Radio Golf (2005) and wrap up.   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.

March 2 start of the August Wilson American Century Cycle at OLLI-dc.org

We are three weeks and change away from the start of the 4th session of the August Wilson American Century Cycle study group in the spring semester of the OLLI program at American University. And another two weeks away from the biennial August Wilson Society Colloquium in Pittsburgh, March 12-15. It all runs together in terms of preparation work and I am so excited about it all!

Who visits this blog?

I would love to know who the folks are who visit, how they are attached to or engaged with August Wilson plays, and how they found this blog.

Please leave a comment, or feel free to email me at rdmaxwell@protonmail.com.

Thank you for visiting!

Fresh reactions to Radio Golf at Everyman Theater in Baltimore – 11/3/2019

Let me begin by saying this is the second time I’ve seen Radio Golf on the stage. The first time was nearly fifteen years ago, also in Baltimore, playing the regional theaters pre-Broadway.

Also, I am reading a book in preparation for the Spring 2020 session to sharpen my ability to look at a play analytically. David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. So that informs somewhat my review.

Finally, my GPS was on the blink and I missed the downtown exit and was five minutes late arriving at Everyman Theater, so I caught the first scene of the first act on a closed circuit screen, but got the rest of it on stage.

Altogether, it was a marvelous and amazing performance. Both Harmon (portrayed by Jamil Mangan) and Roosevelt (performed by Jason McIntosh) were compelling, convincing, and magnificent. In fact, by the end of the play I really disliked Roosevelt, emotionally, in a way I hadn’t from the mere reading and discussion of the play. He got to me. That must mean he really nailed his role. Charles Dumas as Elder Joe Barlow was delightful, personable, and charming and worked his way into everyone’s heart, including my own. Anton Floyd simply killed it as Sterling Johnson, the hard luck orphan and ex-convict from Two Trains Running, having become quite the wise man over the 30 years since his first appearance in the Cycle. I thought Mame Wilks was a bit weak, in fact, the weakest link in the ensemble, but I find myself questioning whether it was the acting, or perhaps Wilson wrote her role as not quite as compelling as, say, Risa, or Rose, or Berneatha, or many of Wilson’s other female character-types. When she says at the end, “I’m still standing here,” it rings a bit hollow and you wonder if their relationship will last or if, perhaps, she might run off with Roosevelt! At the same time, you wonder if Mame is right, and if Roosevelt is right, and if, perhaps, Harmon has taken this family thing too far. Then you remember Ceasar Wilks and Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean and you know that Harmon really is trying to do the right thing.

The stage setting was stunning and definitely added to the flow of the dramatic action. Bravo Zulu to Everyman Theater!

On substance, the staged production really accentuated the deterioration of the relationship between Harmon and Roosevelt. I could feel the tension between them growing, even while the “frat-boy” aspects of their college days managed to manifest itself in the plot development. I identified very strongly with Harmon, and I found myself almost despising Roosevelt for a number of reasons. And I also found myself anticipating action throughout, and I think that comes less from reading the play repeatedly and more from the actual acting and the practice of forwarding in the plat. The sound effects were also telling, especially the sound of the bulldozers at the end of the play.

Jitney @ArenaStage

Seeing Jitney @ Arena Stage week was an unforgettable experience. It was my first time seeing Jitney on the stage, after reading it at least a half dozen times for three sessions of the OLLI study group.

The stage/set was astounding, multidimensional, reflecting the passage of time through highlighting and darkening the skyline through the windows and on the background scene. The music opening each scene took the play to a new audio level, a nice blend of old blues and 70’s period jazz tunes. The ensemble cast had such a chemistry, with their well-rehearsed lines and with their spontaneous and improvised gestures between the lines. Finally August Wilson’s poetry wove it all together and made it into a total work of art. Might sneak back for a repeat!

I have to mention here an amazing thing the cast did at the end of Act 2 Scene 3. Booster comes into the station not knowing that his father is dead. When Doub tells him, Booster hits Doub in the face, then the folks in the station wrestle Booster down to the floor. In a bit of director’s license (I later discovered in conversation with the cast that it was Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idea and they worked on it for nearly an hour in rehearsal), all the folks in the station did a laying of the hands on Booster. It was a very powerful and a very spiritual gesture, a transference and a healing, something Toledo in Ma Rainey might have called an African conceptualization. While the play directions say “the lights fade to black,” in actuality the lights were trained on Booster and the hands of the station guys spread about Booster on the floor, in a way that only their hands and Booster were illuminated. Then the lights stayed there for a few moments before fading to black. Ah, I wish i could have taken a photograph!

August Wilson Festival – Designers Panel: Building the World of August Wilson

(Note: Wrote this for my poetry group. More details to follow for August Wilson aficionados).

Morning coffee. Trader Joe’s Ethiopian. Got something called Lifeboost on order. Report to follow . . .

Last night my wife and I attended the first of several events marking 70 years of operation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Long story short, Arena Stage, a venue for plays, readings, performing arts, and most recently, really interesting civic discussions, came into existence at a time in the city’s history when there were two performing arts venues. One allowed blacks to perform on stage but they couldn’t attend performances and sit in the audience. The other allowed blacks to attend and sit in the audience but they couldn’t perform on the stage. Won’t go into names since both venues still exist, but it was a real mess. Such was the design of American-styled apartheid. Some civic-minded folks from both sides got together and Arena Stage was born, allowing both performance and attendance by all segments of society.

And there is a second tie in for me. To commemorate 70 years, Arena Stage is doing what they call a Giants series, featuring the works of playwrights whose work has been performed most often there. And at the top of the list is my favorite playwright, a former poet of note, whose series of plays I have been “teaching” in the ModPo sense and mode for the past two years, though face-to-face and not online, the bard from Pittsburgh, August Wilson.

Last night’s lecture/discussion focused on stage and set design and featured an expert in actually building the set, and expert in composing music to accompany the plays, and an expert in costume design (who just happens to be the widow of August Wilson and the executor of his estate). Amazing discussion about these pieces of a dramatic production that sort of sit in the background while we focus on the play’s performance, and yet have a far-reaching effect on developing the whole work of art. 

Thursday there will be a discussion of food and cooking in the ten-play series that covers each decade in the 20th century, aptly called the American Century Cycle.

By this time, you may be rolling your eyes. Relax, it is just coffee talk! 

Chapter 8. Jitney consolidated notes

Session #1

First, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:
https://youtu.be/Zfe8tRYKzdQ

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood.

Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him were a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might have overcome his great disappointment and been able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood. Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

Characters

Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.

Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran. One of few August Wilson characters who is a military veteran.

Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.

Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip.

YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s. Another rare veteran.

Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.

Shealy, a flamboyant bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his numbers running operations.

Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.

Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.

Postscript. 1977. The seventies were considered by many the post-Civil Rights era. The seventies witnessed a local push back against urban renewal and opposition to 50’s and 60’s redevelopment projects in America’s urban areas. https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1970-1979-45445

p.s. There are the issues, peripheral and center stage, of urban renewal and prison reform, that bear discussion. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors above discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…

Specifically in 1977:
• Patricia Roberts Harris is the first African-American woman to hold a cabinet position when Jimmy Carter appoints her to oversee Housing and Urban Development.
• Andrew Young is the first African-American to become a U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations.
• For eight consecutive nights, the miniseries Roots is aired on national television. Not only is the miniseries the first to show viewers the impact of enslavement on American society, but it also achieved the highest ratings for a television program.

Links from Google Group.

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand-scenes-and-synposes-of-august-wilsons-10-play-cycle/3701/

http://old.seattletimes.com/html/obituaries/2002536239_august03.html

http://old.seattletimes.com/html/obituaries/2002536239_august03.html

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview

This first link provides a speech August Wilson gave upon his return to Minnesota in 1991. The speech is not specific to any particular Wilson play, but provides rich background to character and plot development for all his plays.

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/12/23/archives-august-wilson-fences-film-lou-bellamy

1st meeting of August Wilson Century Series study group

postscript.

Week 1 of the August Wilson study group is behind us! I thought 8-10 people would be an optimal size, but 18 signed up! We started off with an introduction to the methodology, focusing on the collaborative close read, and two concepts I borrowed from #Rhizo15, learning subjectives (vs objectives) coupled to the idea that “the community is the curriculum.”

Three quarters of the group members are retirees, one quarter are housewives and house husbands.

Here is what I posted to the Facebook ModPo Alumni Study Group:

Week 1 of my collaborative close read study group on August Wilson’s Century Series. The first play was “Jitney.”
1. First class went well. But we jammed together introductions and close read discussions in this first meeting and we ran out of time. I had hoped for 8 group members but we ended up with 18.
2. Implementing “The Community is the Curriculum” from #rhizo15 was/is a big hit. There are two high school english teachers in the group who have taught Wilson’s plays. There is a college professor who actually knew and was acquainted with August Wilson.Not everybody was able to access the Google Group where I had stashed a lot of background material. We hope to remedy that by 1) getting everybody a gmail account so they can access the group and 2} mirroring the group on a publicly accessible blog site.

3. Versioning presented a slight hiccup. Members had three versions of the play, so page # references didn’t align and we lost a minute or two in each presentation trying to get everybody on the same page (literally!).

4. It was interesting the way the group immediately seized on drawing general principles from specific instances in the play through the close reading process. (The play is about a small black community in 1970’s Pittsburgh but the group decided that the principles were/are universally applicable).
5. A big part of being a study group leader is conversation traffic direction! That’s a good problem to have because so far everybody is enthusiastic about contributing to the conversation .
6. In preparing the coursework and background material, I find a big role to be curation, looking for the best, most impactful “stuff” online to share with the group. Still ironing out technology wrinkles, i.e., some couldn’t access the Google Group (that I am trying to use in place of forums in the Coursera platform) and some are not in the habit of checking their email.
7. August Wilson considered himself a poet before he became a successful playwright and that comes through as we unpack the various sections of text (lines?, lyrics?).

Session #2.
Briefly, Jitney was August Wilson’s first big success at playwriting. Set in Pittsburgh, it played to sell out crowds in local theaters in 1982. It was late getting to Broadway, finally, in 2000, but to mixed reviews. But in 2017 it won the Tony for Best Revival and was a sensational success. Finally, the video of the revival Broadway production actors discuss the idea that Wilson began writing Jitney, put it down to write Seven Guitars, then returned to Jitney later. Some characters and lines overlap…
At the time of Jitney’s writing, August Wilson did not know (or was not aware) that he would be writing a century series of ten plays.

Some themes to consider as the plot(s) develops:
1. urban renewal/re-development. Cities that were the destination in the Great Migration being deconstructed, economic concentrations dissolved.
2. “black market” entrepreneurism. Unemployment high, services not being provided to black communities open door to off-the-books businesses.
3. relationships (men/women, men/men, father/son). Youngblood and Rena learning how to cope with each other. Becker and Booster, same. Youngblood and Turnbo conflict.
4. conflict resolution/manhood
5. incarceration/prison reform. Booster released. Counterpart to Youngblood in a sense.
6. rituals that punctuate daily life at the station. Checkers, the phone ringing, chats about relationships/women, blaming or not blaming whites for failures.

Cast of characters (from Professor Shannon):
1. The Hopefuls (Youngblood)
2. The Defeated (Fielding, Turnbo, Becker)
3. The Warriors (Booster)
4. The Survivors (Doub, Shealy, Philmore)

There has never been a series of plays written detailing/examining life and society in each decade of a century until August Wilson’s Century Cycle. All the plays except one are set in Pittsburgh (week two’s play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, is set in Chicago), but the setting could easily have been any city that served as a destination city in the Great Migration. My own North Carolina family has branches that have expanded over the generations in New York, Baltimore, Washington, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, St. Louis, wherever there were jobs.

Only three theaters on Broadway are named for playwrights: Eugene O’Neill; Neil Simon; and August Wilson. We know from interviews that August Wilson said he never saw a play performed on stage before he started writing them, but I think it is safe to assume he had read plays during that autodidactic period (several years) he spent skipping school and making daily visits to the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh.

Finally, no single city or place “owns” August Wilson. He sought to capture the spirit of a diaspora, of a movement of people and their adaptations to the new world they found themselves in. We will explore that idea in greater depth next week in Ma Rainey.

Discussion:
Like Shakespeare’s colleagues who collected his plays part by part, monologue by monologue, and soliloquy by soliloquy several years after his death, I’ll rely on you all to help me fill in the gaps I miss of our discussion each week. Please feel free to do so in the comments to this blog or in the submissions to the Google Group (or even in emails we send to each other). All channels are open. Below are a few notes I took to jog my memory.

We talked at length about the relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Had time been available, we could have talked about Youngblood and Rena, or about the tender father/son relationship Becker built with Youngblood while Booster was incarcerated, or about the relationship mentioned briefly in our discussion between Becker and any single member of the cast/ensemble/community that “hung out” and was employed in one way or another at the jitney station. Those relationships were dynamic things, evolving and enriching the humans involved as well as reinforcing the knitted structure of the otherwise fractured community.
We spoke particularly about how the characters of Becker and Booster changed over time, with respect to each other and with respect to their own, individual development. We hypothesized Booster’s inability to process events that happened in his childhood, his arrested development while incarcerated, and his return to a development path after serving his prison term and returning home. We speculated that perhaps, given sufficient time, or perhaps it was even imminent, Booster and Becker would reconcile and get their relationship back on a solid developmental path. But Becker died in the factory, and, we anticipate, Booster took over the jitney operation.

I confess I had not focused on Turnbo’s passing mention of the Sputnik and its impact until someone in class today brought it up,

Booster he liked science….won first place three years in a row (in the science fair)…. had his picture in the paper…. They let him into the University of Pittsburgh. You know back then they didn’t have too many colored out there, but they was trying to catch up to the Russians and they didn’t care if he was colored or not. Gave him a scholarship and everything.

After zeroing in on that passage at the beginning of Act 1 scene 3, I understood that not only was Becker extremely disappointed in Booster’s outcome, Turnbo was also disappointed. It may help explain the conflict we see between Turnbo and Youngblood, perhaps misplaced (or displaced), but reflective of Turnbo’s disappointment and disgust with the next generation, who, perhaps he felt, had opportunities that his generation did not. The same passage also provides a glimpse into the relationship between Booster and Susan, barely a glimpse, but enough to fuel our speculations.

We talked about the authenticity and poetic nature of the language of the play. And we talked about the exclusion, or the explicit absence of whites in the play’s action, in the scenes as portrayed, but of their presence behind the scenes, their implicit presence, a sort of second order existence throughout.

Late entry: I left out our discussion of Wilson’s 4B sources of inspiration:
Jorge Luis Borges (the librarian and poet),Romare Bearden (the collagist and painter),Amiri Baraka (the Black Arts movement poet, dramatist, and essayist),and the Blues.

Session #3.

Background and lifecycle of the play itself. The first edition of Jitney was completed in the 70’s and performed in 1982 by a small theater group in Pittsburgh. Wilson completed writing that early version of the play in ten days. Although it became the first completed play in the century cycle, at the time of its writing Wilson had no idea he’d be writing a play for each decade. Following his success with a produced play, Wilson declared himself a playwright and submitted Jitney to the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis in the mid 80’s, receiving a prize award of $2500. But when he submitted it to the National Playwrights’ Conference of the O’Neill Theater Center in New York it was rejected. Twice. He put it away and worked on other plays. Then, after completing Seven Guitars in 1985, he took a second look at Jitney and revised it, making the second act longer and adding several monologues throughout. Jitney was produced off Broadway in 2000, directed by Marion McClinton. In 2017 it was produced on Broadway as a revival, where it earned the Tony for Best Revival.

Characters as individuals. Jim Becker, called, “Becker,” manages the jitney station, which he has run for several years. He is a community pillar-type guy, retired from the mill, a homeowner, and deacon at his church. He settles squabbles between the other drivers. Doub, one of the drivers, even-tempered, is a Korean War veteran. Fielding, another driver, is an alcoholic, and was formerly a tailor who clothed for Count Basie and Billy Eckstine. Turnbo, yet another driver, gets involved in everybody’s business and also has a hot temper when he feels he has been disrespected (which is most of the time). YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), is the youngest driver on the staff. He is a Vietnam veteran in his late 20’s. He works several jobs to support his young family. Rena is YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse. Shealy uses the jitney station payphone to run his numbers operation. Philmore is a frequent jitney customer and a doorman at a local hotel. Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, is in his early 40’s. An outstanding scholar athlete in high school, he has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder.

Characters as groups and relationships. A key relationship in the play is the father-son relationship between Becker and his son, Booster. Booster showed great promise in his youth and earned a scholarship to Pitt. But in his first year he gets tangled up with a young coed and when they are caught in a compromising position, she claims rape. Long story short, he ends up murdering her and spending 20 years in prison. Pops is extremely disappointed and never visits Booster in the 20 years of his incarceration. When Booster is released, they attempt in a staccato way to rebuild their relationship.

Rena and YoungBlood are learning to be a couple and their relationship in the play floods and ebbs. Doub and Youngblood, both military veterans but of different generations, have an interesting almost father-son relationship. Becker and Youngblood have a similar father-son relationship. Fielding has an on and off relationship with Becker, his employer basically. In that light, Becker has an ongoing relationship with each driver. Turnbo has a very toxic relationship with YoungBlood. Shealy and Becker are pretty much polar opposites.

Compressed space considerations (play setting compared to others in the series). Each play in the series is set in a compressed space where characters sort of bounce off each other. The Jitney Station is no exception and if anything, breaks new ground for starkness and sterility for a Wilson play setting, in my opinion. That starkness and sterility adds to the plot flow as much as anything. The payphone is a handy device for pushing the action along. Jitney orders come in, as do numbers orders, as do phone calls from a variety of callers, family members, potential employees, outside contacts. Today, of course, Jitney operations would exist exclusively online (like Uber and Lyft) without the requirement for a station, much less a physical payphone.

Current events of the time, i.e., urban renewal and gentrification, incarceration, returning Vietnam Veterans, informal economy, fratricidal arguments. Urban renewal is a primary motive force in the play. The prospective boarding up and eventual destruction of the jitney station has everybody on edge as it may mean a potential end of employment and an end to an essential community service that has become a means of production. Mention is made of other business getting boarded up in the community. Eventually, whole communities are lost to urban renewal, with the promise, of course, that substitutes, especially for housing, will be forthcoming. In retrospect, we can see the beginning, not only of lost of business communities, but also of the problem of homelessness that plagues many American cities today. Spatial deconcentration, a by-product of urban renewal, resulted in the break-up of communities, of economies, of families.
It was also a time of returning Vietnam War veterans, many looking for a reward for their service overseas. We see that representation in YoungBlood, but we also see it in Booster, returning the world, as the vets used to say, trying to figure things out after 20 years of incarceration.

Returning vets, returning prisoners, looking for jobs where there were none, resorted to making ends meet in the informal economy, some call it the black or gray economy, outside the rules and regulations of regular business. Jitney companies’ emerged, providing rides and jobs for drivers in a place where there were few transportation options. August Wilson said, “The important thing was for me to show five guys working and creating something out of nothing.” This was one aspect of the informal economy, and perhaps a positive one. There were negative ones: selling drugs, prostitution and the beginning of human trafficking all emerged during this same period.

The repetition of fratricidal arguments in the struggling community, conflicting egos, some actually trying to do right, is represented in Jitney in the big argument between YoungBlood and Turnbo that almost ends in catastrophe. In Scene 3 of Act One, murder and tragedy are avoided but we have a good model for how normal differences coupled with misunderstandings can get escalated into chaos.

Central ethical theme of responsibility, even when options for exploration are limited. We will discuss this at length in our group meeting. Wilson, through Becker, Youngblood, Doub, and Booster (and others) dedicates lengthy sections of monologue to the theme of responsibility, moral and ethical.

Checkers vs. chess and other games of strategy. Just a short mention of checkers is in the play, but it made me consider some of the ramifications of game-playing in the series and how it evolves over the decades, from the hambone of Joe Turner, to the card-playing in Seven Guitars, to sports in Fences, to checkers in Jitney, to golf later in Radio Golf.

Jitney at Arena State, 10.15.2019

Seeing Jitney @ Arena Stage week was an unforgettable experience. It was my first time seeing Jitney on the stage, after reading it at least a half dozen times for three sessions of the OLLI study group.

The stage/set was astounding, multidimensional, reflecting the passage of time through highlighting and darkening the skyline through the windows and on the background scene. The music opening each scene took the play to a new audio level, a nice blend of old blues and 70’s period jazz tunes. The ensemble cast had such a chemistry, with their well-rehearsed lines and with their spontaneous and improvised gestures between the lines. Finally August Wilson’s poetry wove it all together and made it into a total work of art. Might sneak back for a repeat!

I have to mention here an amazing thing the cast did at the end of Act 2 Scene 3. Booster comes into the station not knowing that his father is dead. When Doub tells him, Booster hits Doub in the face, then the folks in the station wrestle Booster down to the floor. In a bit of director’s license (I later discovered in conversation with the cast that it was Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idea and they worked on it for nearly an hour in rehearsal), all the folks in the station did a laying of the hands on Booster. It was a very powerful and a very spiritual gesture, a transference and a healing, something Toledo in Ma Rainey might have called an African conceptualization. While the play directions say “the lights fade to black,” in actuality the lights were trained on Booster and the hands of the station guys spread about Booster on the floor, in a way that only their hands and Booster were illuminated. Then the lights stayed there for a few moments before fading to black. Ah, I wish i could have taken a photograph!