Some pre-class notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (3.21.2019)

There are two plays. There is the superficial plot of the play – a Ma Rainey recording session that ends in the production of a record by the star and a a tragic act committed among the band players. And there are several meta-plays that the playwright and all the characters both generate and represent between the lines. Let’s talk about the first, then the second.

Deep inside Act 1, after meeting all the band members and the staff of the recording company and learning through their “locker room talk” what makes them tick as individuals, Ma finally arrives with her girlfriend and her stuttering nephew and a police officer in tow. There’s been a traffic altercation that gets fixed with a small side payment.

The recording session, already behind schedule, gets further delayed as Ma (1) insists on getting a soft drink from outside the studio, and (2) insists that the band will do multiple takes until her stuttering nephew can get the voice introduction to her hit song right. Once the recording session is complete, or so we think, the recording crew discovers that a microphone was disconnected. So they have to do it one more time. Once completed, Ma refuses to sign the release, though after a short period of protestation, she signs and departs. And the fun begins. Levee (Levi, Louis Armstrong) the trumpet player, fired by Ma for being a hot shot (and for making overtures to Ma’s girlfriend), has been working a side deal with the record producer to produce his own band. The producer at length rejects Levee’s recording proposal, but offers him $5 for the score and “his troubles.” Levee feels dejected and disappointed and carries those feelings back to the band room, whereupon, he gets involved in a final altercation with Toledo, the piano player, resulting in what appears to be Toledo’s death by stabbing. As the curtain falls the sound of Levee’s trumpet is heard.

Time for a network break.

OK. An alternate perspective. Or several.

The “real” play is a series of representations. There is the waiting game that Professor Shannon writes about. Waiting for Ma to show up late. Waiting for the policeman to get his bribe. Waiting for Ma to get her Coke. The band members waiting for their alcohol and marijuana high to kick in. Waiting for Sylvester, the stutter to get his part right and without repetitions. Waiting for Levee to make his move on Dussie. Waiting for the microphone to get fixed so they can do one more take. Waiting for Slow Drag to finish his card trick. Waiting for Ma to sign the release. Waiting for Toledo to die. Professor Shannon writes about “The Long Wait” in Ma Rainey, linking it to African Americans’ long wait for freedom.

Professor Nadel writes about the metaphor of making the record, that is to say, writing the history. Wilson has written words to the effect that the blues contains history, philosophy, psychology and cosmology. But what distinguishes the performed blues of Ma with her fans on the road from the mechanically reproduced blues distributed by the recording company? If you’ve ever been to a live concert or a blues club the size of a large living room, you know the answer to that question.

Finally (or perhaps not but this blog post can’t go on forever!), remember, they (the New York/Broadway establishment) offered Wilson $25,000 for this play, but with no artistic direction on his part. They wanted to make it into a musical. In the end, Wilson rejected their offer (even though he was only making $80 a week as a short order cook) and forged the relationship with Lloyd Richards and the Yale Rep that preserved his artistic freedom.

In a meta sense (I propose that poets and playwrights tell three stories: the autobiographic (about their lives); the ethnographic (about their immediate environments); and the meta-poetic (about their experience with the process of writing itself), I hear August Wilson’s voice talking about writing and producing plays throughout this play. Stretch your imagination. In the character of the intellectual, Toledo (“Everything changing all the time. Even the air you breathing change.” And “Levee ain’t got an eye for that. He wants to tie on to some abstract component and sit down on the elemental.” And “That’s what you call an African conceptualization. That’s when you name the gods or call on the ancestors to achieve whatever your desires are.”) In the character of the band leader, Cutler (“We ain’t talking about the paper. We talking about you understanding where you fit in when you around here. You just play what I say.” and ” Levee’s confused about who the boss is. He don’t know Ma’s the boss.” And “You plays the piece. . . Whatever they want! Ma says what to play! Not you! You ain’t here to be doing no creating.”)

And, yes, in the character of Ma, the diva herself (“White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.” And, “If you colored and can make them some money, then you all right with them. Otherwise, you just a dog in the alley. I done made this company more money from my records than all the other recording artisits the got put together. And they want to balk about how much this session is costing them.”)

Although I haven’t mentioned it much here, the play is in large part Levee’s biopic. He is the character whose development we see the most of, from his childhood to his tragic act at the end of the play. As the Louis Armstrong surrogate, Levee heralds the new music, the modern blues, and modernism itself. As the only reader and writer of music in the ensemble, his final act brings to an end the life of the only literate member of the band, the only one who has an appreciation for history and culture and, in turn, the neoclassical approach. Rest assured that Levee gets a short sentence, and returns to music making (history writing) on his own terms, eclipsing Ma and all the others of his cohort, in Act 3 of this play.

Here are Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom notes from session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/

Here are Ma Rainey notes from session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/notes-on-ma-raineys-black-bottom-10-01-2018/

Some discussion points for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

First session notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/27/some-takeaway-notes-from-joe-turners-come-and-gone/

Second session notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/15/notes-joe-turners-come-and-gone-10-14-2018/

Pre-class notes. First, I’d like to draw everybody’s attention to the scenesetter at the beginning, called “The Play.” Gem of the Ocean began with a short prologue that set the stage for the play. Joe Turner opens with a short essay that constructs a framework for an era in time. Gem’s opening prepares us to look backward for guidance, for a message, while postponing the present to a time in the future (Tuesday). Joe Turner’s opening analyses the present and sets forth future options. If you get the chance, please compare the two for discussion.

We learn some things in Scene 1. Seth is a landlord and an owner, the son of free blacks, and a craftsman. He has little regard for Bynum’s “heebie-jeebie stuff,” i.e., African/southern spiritual traditions. He reminds me a bit of Caesar Wilks, he has little patience with what he considers backwardness.

Bynum, based on his description in the play notes, is essentially a Stoic. He is not bothered by outward appearances of things. He tends to his garden and completes his daily rituals centered in nature, whose practice, we later learn, he has inherited from his father. The first interaction in the play is between Bynum and Seth, the traditional vs. the proto-modern, moderated by Bertha, Seth’s wife, who straddles both worlds.

Selig, introduced in Gem of the Ocean as a trader, gets identified racially in Scene 1. We assumed his race in Gem from his name and mannerisms – now we know for certain. Selig buys manufactured housewares from Seth wholesale, then peddles them retail to the public. From his retail work, door to door, Selig knows where people are located and becomes known as a People Finder. Bynum is looking for a shiny man and solicits Selig’s assistance. From their dialogue, we learn the details of Bynum’s vision.

We meet ne’er-do-well Jeremy. We meet Loomis and Zonia and Mattie and Reuben. Jeremy is looking for love, Mattie is looking for lost love, Loomis is looking for Martha, his wife and Zonia, her mother. Selig, the People Finder is ready to help. That’s a lot of action for one scene, but it sets the framework for the rest of the play.

There are some interesting repetitive occurrences in the play and between Joe Turner and Gem. Seth says seven times words to the effect that something is not right about Loomis. Seven times! Jeremy hangs out with Roper Lee, and Citizen Barlow hung out with a Roper Lee earlier in Gem. Loomis makes a reference to tongues on fire when he comes in during the Juba and Citizen Barlow sees people with tongues on fire in the City of Bones.

While Loomis appears to be the star of the ensemble, it is Bynum who, in discovering his Shiny Man (Loomis), achieves transcendence and completion. At best, then, Loomis is Best Supporting Actor to Bynum’s Best Actor, in my estimation.

I may add to this before Friday. And I’ll post post-class notes after class.

More discussion points – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

  1. Largest ensemble cast of any Wilson play. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper
  2. Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket
  3. Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles (not so sure about this anymore. In fact, the reverse. Let’s discuss.)
  4. Themes that recur:
  • Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil.
  • Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense of agency.
  • The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen.
  • Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
  • Bynum’s spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes.

       5. Play Structure

  • Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
  • Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
  • Climax: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
  • Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
  • Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
  • Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.

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.

Notes on Gem of the Ocean (11.24.2018)

Gem of the Ocean is the penultimate play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, and the first play in chronological order of the ten decades covered in the series. It is Aunt Ester’s play, as she figures prominently among all the characters in the ensemble cast. We’ll come back to that, but first, let’s chat briefly about the title.

The title, Gem of the Ocean, comes from a patriotic song and unofficial national anthem written in the 1840’s by Thomas A’Becket, a British musician and long time resident of Philadelphia, at the request of David T. Shaw. Columbia Gem of the Ocean is often compared to the British song, Britannia Pride of the Ocean, which appeared a few years later, and in fact, reasonable people differ about which one came first. But that part is not important for our discussion here. What is important is that the song saw a great resurgence in the 1957 Broadway hit, The Music Man, a musical set in 1912 Iowa about a con man, Harold Hill, who convinces schools to buy marching band uniforms and instruments but who is not a musician and has no intention of teaching the bands how to perform. The play has an interesting thematic connection to O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, also set in 1912, which also featured a con man, Theodore Hickman, aka Hickey. The Music Man won five Tony awards in 1958. 

Also, in 1957, jazz musician Charles Mingus produced an album, The Clown, which included a spoken word piece by Jean Shepard featuring a seal climbing and descending a ladder playing Columbia Gem of the Ocean on a plastic trumpet.

We’ve gone far afield of the Wilson play. Aunt Ester is not a con man like Harold Hill in The Music Man or Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. But she is clearly a magician and her “ro utine” is the play within a play she and the residents of her rooming house perform when they “take” Citizen Barlow to the mythical City of Bones. Let’s unpack this play within a play, starring Ester Tyler. (WARNING: Don’t try this at home without professional supervision).

Step 1. Aunt Ester directs Barlow to take a bath, put on clean clothes, and say a prayer. Black Mary helps him prepare the bath.

Step 2. Eli and Solly share a drink of whisky with Barlow. (Eli, Solly, and Black Mary are all “in” on it and clearly have participated in this “routine” before.

Step 3. The hypnotism begins. Citizen Barlow goes “under” at Aunt Ester’s suggestion. He goes down to the bottom of the boat. He can feel the boat rocking. Eli, Solly and Black Mary reinforce the hypnotic suggestion.

Step 4. Eli and Solly don masks and pretend to chain Barlow to the boat’s bottom. Barlow becomes convinced he is chained to the boat.

Step 5. At Aunt Ester’s suggestion, Barlow sees other faces chained in the boat’s bottom. They all have his face.

Step 6. Terror stricken, Barlow lets go of the symbolic paper boat Aunt Ester tells him he needs to enter the city. The paper the boat was made of was Aunt Ester’s Bill of Sale when she was a slave. But he still has the chain link that Solly gave him for good luck. The link is from an ankle chain that Solly kept after escaping slavery, so it serves the same symbolic purpose.

Step 7. Solly and Eli, still masked, symbolically whip and brand Barlow and throw him into a hull where he is alone. He is thirsty, but there is no water. He lapses into unconsciousness.

Step 8. Awakened by Black Mary’s voice, softly singing Twelve Gates to the City (see playlist), Barlow comes to and sees the City of Bones. Black Mary points him in the direction of the Gatekeeper (Solly in a different mask).

Step 9. Barlow, still under hypnosis, acknowledges that the Gatekeeper is Garrett Brown. He confesses to Brown that he was the one who stole the nails and seeks forgiveness.

Step 10. The Gatekeeper opens the gate allowing Barlow to enter the City of Bones. He sees the people inside with their tongues on fire.

“Finally, there was the impartation to them of a new strange power to speak in languages they had never learned. It was because they were filled with the Holy Spirit that this extraordinary gift was exhibited by them. Not only did the Spirit enable them thus to speak, but even the utterance of words depended on His divine influence–they spake “as the Spirit gave them utterance.”

Citizen Barlow’s rebirth completed, he sits down and cries. The journey ends and he emerges from the hypnotic spell. He is back at Aunt Ester’s house, his soul transformed, redeemed.

In what can arguably be called the third act of this two act play, signaled by Eli’s pronouncement, “This is a peaceful house,” Caesar gets kneecapped by Solly, who then escapes. Citizen Barlow and Black Mary form a pact for the future. Caesar arrests Aunt Mary for harboring a fugitive, then, in the next scene, shoots and kills Solly. In a symbolic gesture after Solly’s passing, Barlow places the two pennies he collected for his journey to the City of Bones in Solly’s hand to pay the ferryman.

Paying Charon, the boatman, to cross the River Styx. 

Later he takes off his coat and puts on Solly’s coat and hat and takes Solly’s walking stick, signaling his succession as the new underground railroad conductor, smuggling blacks from post-Emancipation servitude the South.

More is here in the notes from the first session.

Eli’s eulogy of Solly is one of the more stirring passages in the play:

“They laid him low. Put him in the cold ground. David and Solomon. Two kings in the cold ground. Solly never did find his freedom. He always believed he was gonna find it. The battlefield is always bloody. Blood here. Blood there. Blood over yonder. Everybody bleeding. Everybody been cut and most of them don’t even know it. But they bleeding just the same. It’s all you can do sometime just to stand up. Solly stood up and walked.

He lived in truth and he died in truth. He died on the battlefield. You live right you die right.”

postscript. Some interesting facts and anomalies in Gem of the Ocean:

  1. Garret Brown, whose suicide resulted in Barlow’s transformation, is also the name of a filmmaker and inventor who developed the Steadicam in the 1970’s. Brown’s invention allows camera operators to film while walking without the normal shaking and jostles of a handheld camera. He also invented the SkyCam (for football games), DiveCam (following olympic divers) and MobyCam (underwater camera following olympic swimmers).
  2. Selig bought his horse, Sally, from a Jacob Herlich, who went to New York to go into business with his brother. In real life, a Jacob Herlich joined his brother in New York in the mattress business.
  3. Selig repeats his lines from Scene One describing his horse in the next play of the series, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, word for word. 
  4. Eliza Jackson, Solly’s sister who wrote him from Alabama, was also the name of a woman in Lancaster County, PA, who, along with her Quaker activist husband, Day Wood, ran an Underground Railroad station. (see below)
  5. Jefferson Culpepper was the name of a caricature of a black college professor in early film versions of Our Gang.
  6. There are two mistakes in the reproduction of William Cullen Bryant’s poem, Thanatopsis, both in the penultimate line: should be “like one who” not “like one that,” and “the drapery of his couch,” not “the drapery of his cough.”

   

Some found poetry from Aunt Ester:

I got a strong memory.
I got a long memory.
People say you crazy to remember.
But I ain’t afraid to remember.
I try to remember out loud.
I keep my memories alive.
I feed them. I got to feed them
otherwise they’d eat me up.
I got memories go way back.
I’m carrying them for a lot of folk.
All the old time folks.
I’m carrying their memories,
and I’m carrying my own.

postscript from Facebook update:


The theater is filling up fast for the first Saturday night performance of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.

postscript. Excellent production, evidenced by prolonged standing ovation. Stephanie Berry as Aunt Ester really gave Phyllicia Rashad a run for her money. Her stage presence was sublime. Solly won my heart on the stage in a way that he never had from merely reading the text. Oooh, that walking stick! Spoiler alert: on the ride home down a rainy Wisconsin Ave we hypothesized that Solly may have been Citizen Barlow’s biological AND spiritual father.

Don’t miss it! — at Round House Theatre. Review of Bethesda performance


Postscript. From an email Carole Horn shared with me.

Stage Matters

and other matters, starting from the North Coast of California.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Who is Aunt Ester?

Aunt Ester, referred to in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, is a central character in Gem of the Ocean. In the preface to King Hedley II, August Wilson wrote: “Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle. The characters, after all, are her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personality and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce, and for exposing all the places it is lacking in virtue.”

There is a symbolic dimension in her reputed age, which makes her precisely as old as the first slaves brought from Africa to the Americas. Her home is at 1839 Wylie Avenue, a real address but one which signifies the year of the Amistad slave rebellion. (No building currently exists at that address, although as far as I know, what stood there before hasn’t been researched.)

But there may be an historical ancestor to the character of Aunt Ester. The title of the play comes from the 19th century song”Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” which was about an actual ship, the Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate the globe. By then, the figure of “Columbia” as a symbol of America, and a female one (counterposed to Columbus) was well known as well. According to the OSF guide to this season’s plays, the latest scholarship suggests that Columbia was first used in this way by Phillis Wheatley, an ex-slave who became the first black poet living in America to publish a book of poems, in 1773.

I think she may also be something of a model for Ester Tyler. Both were taken from Africa and sold as slaves when young girls, both were domestic servants to white women, took their last names and stayed with them until their deaths. Both have first names with slightly unconventional spelling. There are differences, the most obvious being that Phillis Wheatley died at the age of 31. BKat5:46 PM

Postscript.

Here is a link to the poem where Phillis Wheatley mentions “Columbia.” Ironically, or maybe not, it was enclosed in a letter she wrote to General Washington, which this mentions, but without background. In later years, Washington spoke favorably about Wheatley.
https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/his-excellency-general-washington
more here: https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/phillis-wheatley
Still haven’t located the Leroi Jones play. It is definitely not online for mere mortals like me, though it may be accessible in more academic settings. I am going to try to go to American U Friday to check.
Also want to mention here a lineage between Phillis Wheatley, Emily Dickinson, and Gwendolyn Brooks that I have often considered but on which I have as of yet done no research.


some initial thoughts on Week 10 – #RadioGolf

Week 10 – Radio Golf – some initial thoughts

Very first impression: my wife and I saw this on stage in Baltimore in 2006. It was still “fresh off the press,” being performed across the country, not yet ready for prime time on Broadway. Reading it now, at the end of the Century Cycle, I realize that I missed a lot of the plot action when I saw it performed in 2006. It seemed at the time to have no context, no unifying structure. But this time, it all makes sense.

Here is a link to the playscript: http://mypage.siu.edu/leitner/pdfs/radiogolf.pdf

This study guide has good background material for all of Wilson’s works.

https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Documents/Study%20Guides/0607%20Season/RADIO%20GOLF%20Student%20Guide.pdf

Characters

Harmon Wilks, grandson to Caesar Wilks 100 years before in Gem of the Ocean.

Old Joe Barlow, son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean. (Recall Black Mary and Caesar Wilks were half siblings)

Sterling, older and wiser but still Sterling, from Two Trains Running.

Mame Wilks, wife of Harmon.

Roosevelt Hicks, college buddies with Harmon at Cornell.

1839 Wylie Street, home of Aunt Ester, willed to Black Mary, left to Old Joe Barlow, her son with Citizen Barlow, purchased by Harmon Wilks for delinquent taxes, sold to Bedford Hills Redevelopment run by Roosevelt Hicks and Harmon Wilks.

There is a lot to be said about the reappearance of the Barlow/Wilks family from #9 and the first decade of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean. I saw Caesar Wilks last week as a type of “godfather” figure and that was borne out in his and his son’s paying of the taxes on Aunt Ester’s house for all those years. We saw the chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary last week. Happy to see that worked out. When Mame says “I tied myself so close to you that there is no me. I don’t know if i can carry this any further” I immediately thought about Rose in Fences, who mentions a similar submergence of the wife’s personality into that of the husband’s. I personally think Mame and Harmon will make it, but the path immediately ahead will be rocky.

It appears that Roosevelt gets his way in tearing down Aunt Ester’s house. But the story may not end there. I suspect the Roosevelt/Harmon relationship, business-wise and socially, will not survive this dramatic breech of trust.

The play treads all so gingerly on the subject of gentrification, which is bound to accompany redevelopment of the Hill district due to its close proximity to the center of Pittsburgh.

Radio Golf. What’s in a name? Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a white businessman Harmond does not trust. Hicks is the “blackface’ that enables purchase of a radio station at a deep discount with an FCC Minority Tax Certificate. Hicks is the front man, in charge of day-to-day operations, even though he has no radio experience. And because he loves golf, he produces a radio program where he offers golf tips. It’s also a symbolic representation of an attempt, in sharp departure to the other nine plays in the cycle, to portray the black middle class: Harmond the real estate developer/attorney running for mayor, Roosevelt (his humble origins are betrayed by his first name) the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat. It’s the Cosby/Huxtable family all over again except we never see the children. But they are there.

From the Urban Dictionary:

Huxtable: A reference to an “upscale” or “Upper Middle Class” black person or family. NOT derogatory when used by white people, but can be derogatory if used by blacks, about blacks. Derived from the Huxtables on the Cosby Show. Also used to define “poser” black families, trying to act “white”

On the subject of golf, Roosevelt’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1 where he reflects on his first experience hitting a golf ball was both stirring and moving. Poetic, in fact. But the same monologue also betrays Roosevelt’s deep-seated sense of insecurity, if not inferiority with regard to race.

And who is this play’s Wilson Warrior? Which character shows the greatest transformation? Which one “finds his song?” Harmond Wilks has my vote. While Sterling and Old Joe have the best lines in the play, the most poetic monologues, Wilks goes the greatest distance in his discovery of his roots and his changing outlook to reflect that discovery. Radio Golf extends the Wilsonian vision to the black middle class and gives them as a class their own separate hero. I think that is a good thing.

Finally, this play is a huge advertisement for genealogy. AncestryDNA should not only be thrilled, they should be tripping over themselves to underwrite local productions of the #AmericanCenturyCycle.

postscript.

Here is the NYTimes review of the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf.

Events of the 1990’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447

1990

Playwright August Wilson wins a Pulitzer Prize for the play, The Piano Lesson.
Sharon Pratt Kelly becomes the first African-American woman to lead a major city in the United States when she is elected mayor of Washington D.C.

1995

Ron Kirk is elected mayor of Dallas. Kirk is the first African-American to hold such a position.

1996

Ron Brown, Commerce Secretary, was killed in a plane crash in Eastern Europe.
The first African-American to win a Pulitzer Price for Music is George Walker. Walker receives the award for the composition “Lilies for Soprano or Tenor and Orchestra.”
When Tiger Woods wins the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., he becomes the first African-American and youngest golfer to win the title.

1997

Harvey Johnson, Jr. is the first African-American mayor of Jackson, Miss.
The Million Woman March is held in Philadelphia.
Lee Patrick Brown is elected mayor of Houston—the first African-American to hold such a position.
Wynton Marsalis’ jazz composition “Blood on the Fields” wins a Pulitzer Prize in Music. It is the first jazz composition to receive the honor.