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.

https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2014/01/10/amiri-baraka-on-his-poetry-and-breaking-the-rules/

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.

http://research.culturalequity.org/home-audio.jsp http://www.openculture.com/2019/04/alan-lomaxs-massive-music-archive-is-online.html?fbclid=IwAR1AW_hKAjQtS1MPtAbc0qchWbPX_wiB86QRXhhIhbL6U3L3eR_Hu4l0msw

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.

Warm-up reading list for the Cycle

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

Bloom, Harold. 2009. August Wilson (Bloom’s Modern Critical Views). Another collection of essays on Wilson plays and themes.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Professor Borges: A Course in English Literature. New addition to the list. A posthumous collection of lectures Borges gave at the University of Argentina spanning the history and range of English literature.

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

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.

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

Nadel, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. Essays by leading Wilson scholars on plays and cross-cutting themes.

Nadel, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. A continuation of essays on the later plays.

Nadel, Alan. 2019. The Theatre of August Wilson. Next on my list. The major themes and motifs that unite Wilson’s ten-play cycle about African American life in each decade of the twentieth century.

Schwartzman, Myron. Romare: His Life and Art. Full length study of Romare Bearden, from his birth in North Carolina to his youth in New York and Pittsburgh, his student days in Paris, and his return to New York. Forward by August Wilson.

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.

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

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.

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.

Amiri Baraka on his poetry and breaking the rules

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHG60P2ECNk

. . . It’s the most subtle form of censorship not to publish it . . .

. . . I think it means that those of us who consider ourselves artists, intellectuals and activists have to create an alternative superstructure, an alternative network of institutions to carry the philosophy which is an alternative to the kind of imperialist philosophy which is, day by day, snatching all publishers out of the U.S. . . .

“…My hope is that the great poets that have existed in America will find their voice in a collective way and that we will be able to rescue all of the lost and the obscure, the willfully hidden poets in Poetry….the powers that be hide that literature which speaks against their rule, and they have done that since the beginning of time, and they will do that as long as they can, they will do that until, finally, we are in charge, the people are in charge of what needs to be published…”