Some random notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 3.26.2020

“The Play” stands out as one of the great introductions in the Cycle series and an excellent example of August Wilson’s talent and skill as a poet. It describes 1927 Chicago and its residents graphically and with deep feeling, so much so that one wonders why anyone might still call the plays the Pittsburgh series. Of course, we know why, every other play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. But with Ma Rainey, Wilson makes a statement that he is not owned by Pittsburgh or any other geographic location.

His description touches on a broad cross section of society’s inner city, the crooked and the straight, yet he leaves space in the imagination of the reader with his haunting “somewhere” alliteration: a man wrestling with the taste of a woman in his mouth; a dog barking; the fallen moon breaking into 30 pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver suggests betrayal, the denial of Peter, and in Exodus, the price of a slave.

The passage is also reminiscent of the poetry of Frank O’Hara, especially The Day Lady Died, do this and do that, a list of descriptive everyday activities. Surely Wilson must have been familiar with O’Hara during his poet days in the 60’s.

He closes with a reference to being both a victim and the ten thousand slain. There is the ten thousand in Xenophon’s Anabasis, ten thousand mercenaries who marched from the Mediterranean to Persia, but most of them lived. There is a ten thousand slain reference in Romeo and Juliet. There is the biblical reference of David’s slain ten thousand. We have many choices.

The epigraph, a Blind Lemon Jefferson song lyric, is significant in Jefferson’s similarity to Ma Rainey. Called “the Father of the Texas Blues,” Jefferson was one of the first solo guitarists to achieve monetary success as a commercial performer. The whole song is on the YouTube playlist.

We have discussed Levee is previous sessions. There’s always more to say about Levee. He’s an anti-hero, brash, impolite, unendearing, tragic, but central to the plot. In fact, the play could have easily been called the Adventures of Levee Green but it wouldn’t have made any money! Levee was traumatized as a child and once we learned about it our hearts poured out for him. But Levee refused to live by the rules, and he met a tragic end. From the music side, he saw himself as a modernist, breaking away from the old restrictive bonds. He was the archetypal Louis Armstrong, who also played for Ma Rainey as a young man. But he couldn’t get along with anybody, not Ma, not his fellow band members, not even Sturdyvant. I think Levee was deeply unhappy. Authentic but deeply unhappy.

Levee refers to himself in the third person. He tells his fellow band members, “Ain’t nothing gonna happen to Levee. Levee ain’t gonna let nothing happen to him.” He is stepping outside of himself, outside his own tragic story. At the same time, he is beginning to establish his brand. Later in the same scene, Levee proclaims, “I’m Levee. Just me. I ain’t no imitation nothing!” And further qualifies, “I ain’t no imitation white man. And I don’t want to be no white man.” Definitely the anti-hero.

Slow Drag, Cutler, Toledo, all great characters. I would have liked to hang out with such a crew. Although a tragedy, reading Ma Rainey always lifts my spirits. I have more margin notes in Ma Rainey than in any other play in the series.

Addendum: Some thoughts on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Ma Rainey is set in a combined recording studio and band room. The story being told is primarily about music and its reproducibility for the mass market. Ma repeatedly makes the distinction between the people who may buy records and her fans on the road, with a decided preference for the later. Ma says, “I ain’t playing with you, Irvin. I can walk out of here and go back to my tour. I don’t need to go through all this.” Later she says, “What I care about Bessie? I don’t care if she sell a million records. She got her people and I got mine. I don’t care what nobody else do. Ma was the first and don’t you forget it.”

Benjamin distinguishes between live art that served a purpose in magic and religious rituals, and mechanically reproduced art that “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Many years ago I saw a jazz group, Spyrogyra, in their early days, perform in a venue in Providence, Rhode Island that was not much larger than a very large living room. Prior, I had only heard their music on cassette tape. There was magic and an energy exchange ritual between performers and observers in that living room that could never be replicated with the finest of recording devices. The same thing happened when I went to a very young Wynton Marsalis concert in a tiny auditorium at Old Dominion University after only having heard his music emitted via speakers and a turntable. Emancipating a work of art from dependence on ritual has its place, but the experience is just not the same.

Ma says, “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.”

A “meta”- example that the play demonstrates is the distinction between seeing a play performed on a stage versus seeing it as a movie, performed on a screen. There is an interaction on the stage, and an energy exchange that flows off the stage into the playhouse that you just don’t get watching a film. There are, however, degrees of freedom granted to the film director and the cinematographer that do not exist for the stage director. And vice versa. And animation takes film direction to an all new height, I suppose.

Some interesting tidbits from the Sandra Shannon interview with August Wilson on Ma Rainey.

  1. Broadway producers offered Wilson $25,000 for his play but with no creative direction. They wanted to turn it into a musical. Although Wilson was only making $85 per week as a short order cook at the time, he rejected the offer. Then he contacted Lloyd Richards at Yale Rep, who gave him full artistic direction.
  2. The key actor in the first Broadway production of Ma Rainey, Theresa Merritt, was locked out of her hotel room during the production because she insisted on paying weekly instead of night to night. She moved to the Hilton, where she found flowers and fruit in her room.
  3. The cast arrived at Manhattan Records to record Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the production. The producer met them and said, “You boys come on it. I’ve got sandwiches for you.” This was 1985. But just like in the 1927 play. Theresa was late, and when she arrived, she complained about the heat in the studio. The heat never came up. They recorded in their coats.

YouTube playlist

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Ma Rainey Obituary: Overlooked No More

The Queer Lady Who Reinvented the Blues

A few random thoughts on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 03.15.2020

Like Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG) begins with a statement, except it is more like a scene setter than a prologue. And in similarity to Gem’s allusion to the Tuesday divinity in the Yoruba religion, Ogun, JTCG opens with a subtle yet direct hymn to the deity, Ogun, also known as the God of Iron, with repeated references to steel, steel mills, and the steel-like nature of the human soul, malleable, shapable, adaptable. As such, JTCG is a tragedy, a near-Greek tragedy, with a character, Herald Loomis, who is brought to total destruction and ruin, almost, nearly. And the scene setter is a sort of Greek chorus, almost. Yet Loomis survives, and is redeemed and transformed, more in keeping with Judeo-Christian tragedy. We will continue to track these traces of Greek, Judeo-Christian, AND Yoruba dramatic elements as we proceed through the cycle.


All the literature on JTCG mention as a central theme in the play the false promise of emancipation. Loomis gets caught up in the system of peonage, a type of court-sanctioned return to slavery. Without committing any crime, he gets swept away and forced to do hard labor for seven years in a kidnapping/sharecropping system that basically prolonged involuntary servitude. So much for emancipation. Upon completion of his term, he seeks to regather the far flung pieces of his life. An incredible challenge awaits him as he seeks to reunite his family.


The boarding house run by Seth and Bertha is slightly reminiscent of Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The two plays get compared from time to time, but the similarity is only superficial (the name, Joe Mott, a character from Iceman, does show up in Radio Golf, the final play in the cycle). Yet, each resident has his or her story, the individual plot lines intersect or intertwine at times, and each resident benefits from the experiences of every other resident. And every resident, though temporary, is a part of the great migration North after emancipation. In that regard, the house is a sort of archeion, housing the records and data, through human stories, narratives, and lived lives, of the Great Migration.


I noticed an interplay of the words “bind,” “bound,” and “bond.” Bynum “binds” together those who cling. Jeremy gets his “bond” paid when he is thrown into jail for public drunkenness. And “bound” is the past participle of bind, an action completed in the past, but also related to “bondage,” which is how characters refer to the period of enslavement. In a possible connection to Wilson’s brief experiment with the Islamic religion, the first revelation in the Holy Qur’an, A Clot of Blood, is also translated as “a clinging thing,” in reference to the clot of congealed blood that becomes an embryo and illustrates humankind’s humble origin. But that may be a stretch!


Loomis, though formerly a church deacon, has decidedly rejected traditional religious faith. At the end of both Act 1 (Holy Ghost) and Act 2 (Jesus) Loomis demonstrates his disdain for Christian faith and beliefs. It’s almost like two bookends and it is almost as if Wilson wants to send this message in a very strong way.


Early in the play Bynum references the cleansing power of blood and bleeding and Herald Loomis makes a similar reference at the end of the play. A cleansing ritual. Again, bookends almost. I don’t know what it means beyond the Christian representation of communion and the imbibing of Jesus’ blood and his flesh in a sacred ritual. But I do know Wilson included it and placed it where he did, twice, for a reason.


Finally, just a note on Romare Bearden, whose painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, was a piece in The Prevalence of Ritual exhibition that provided Wilson the inspiration for JTCG. Here is the image:

Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket

Wilson wrote, in the Foreword to Myron Schwartzmann’s “Romare: His Life and Art,”

“My friend Claude Purdy had purchased a copy of The Prevalence of Ritual, and one night, in the Fall of 1977, after dinner and much talk, he laid it open on the table before me. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at this.” The book lay open on the table. I looked. What for me had been so difficult, Bearden made seem so simple, so easy. What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I don’t recall what I said as I looked at it. My response was visceral. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

p.s. How did I leave out Wilson’s memorialization of the 23rd Psalm in the final scene, as Martha Loomis (now Pentecost) recites it trying unsuccessfully talk down her husband, Herald, from hurting someone with the knife he has drawn. Luckily, Bynum helps Loomis back down on his own in a way that is reminiscent of Toledo’s description of “African conceptualization” in Ma Rainey (next week) and Berneatha’s calling on the ancestor spirits in Piano Lesson (two weeks hence).

Addendum: 3/22/2020. Two characters from GEM reappear or are mentioned. Selig, the pot seller and people finder shows up in both. Still trying to figure out the bid deal about dustpans. I heard a story once about how, in the slave quarters, they would use brooms to sweep the ground down to a hard surface to prevent the growth of weeds and that it kept rats away. Maybe that practice migrated North.

Rev. Tolliver is another name that repeats, performing the funeral for Garret Brown in GEM, and leading the congregation in its move North in JTCG.

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)

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!

first draft of a proposal for the 2020 August Wilson Society Colloquium

To preserve and make accessible the human record: the archivist as storyteller and facilitator in the pedagogical ecology of the American Century Cycle

Whether one goes to a bookstore or a theater to “buy” a particular August Wilson play, one is not merely purchasing entertainment for the evening in the traditional sense of going to a movie or a play, or taking part in a temporal event. My experience of leading discussions of the American Century Cycle plays in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute program, one by one, over several sessions, has convinced me that each play in the Cycle, and all the plays in the aggregate, represents a collection of human records (I am an archivist and manuscripts librarian on my day job). These records, in the continuous and dramatic form of each play, contain encoded items and documents that tell us a history of a people at a critical juncture in their evolution as a people. Moreover, they present us with a learning system for understanding human existence, theirs and ours, on the page, on the stage and screen, and in our lives. Exposure to this encoded learning system, whether consciously or unconsciously, is what in my opinion accounts for the continued popularity of August Wilson’s plays.

In this paper, I will analyze these learning system features, this pedagogical ecology as set forth in a couple of plays, defining terms along the way. I will include in the discussion the learning aids we developed in our discussions, YouTube playlists, outside readings, and works of art. These aids smoothed the bumps in the learning process, obstacles I contend the playwright intentionally placed to aid the student, the reader or the playgoer in achieving the mastery he intended for us to achieve. In our study groups we discuss the Cycle as a voyage, a journey, and an initiation into a mystic order. In this paper we begin the process of unmasking the process, revealing the aspects of the Cycle’s inherent learning system so that it becomes universally accessible and applicable.