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!
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for visiting!
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.
Gem of the Ocean
Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/notes-on-gem-of-the-ocean-11-24-2018/
Carole’s notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/28/caroles-notes-on-gem-11-28-2018/
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Piano Lesson
Session #2 notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/22/notes-on-the-piano-lesson-10-19-2018/ (see Carole’s notes in the comments section)
Carole’s notes on Fences: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/carole-horns-notes-on-fences-olli-au10-11-2018/
Two Trains Running
Session #2 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/post-notes-on-two-trains-running-4-26-2019/
Session #2 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/04/28/post-notes-on-two-trains-running-4-26-2019/
King Hedley II
Session #3 post class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/11/some-afterthoughts-on-king-hedley-ii-5-11-2019/
Session #3 pre-class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/17/radio-golf-some-thoughts-5-16-2019/
Session #3 post-class notes: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2019/05/18/radio-golf-post-class-thoughts-5-18-2019/
- Harmond as Job, Harmond as Wilson warrior.
- Jacob and Esau, Harmond and Raymond, Harmond and Roosevelt
- Did Sterling steal the golf clubs, then resell them to Harmond?
- Roosevelt reduces Old Joe’s life to “bullets” on a police record
- Aunt Ester’s house, architecture and carpentry as archive
The above list details a few of the ideas we discussed in our final group discussion of the session.
The Job story. At the end of Radio Golf, Roosevelt has used Bernie Smith’s money to buy Harmond out. Harmond has lost his stake in the project and his voice in its management. He has lost a long term friendship with Roosevelt in a broken business relationship. Curiously reminiscent of language in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Harmond, in obvious disappointment, tells Roosevelt,
“Enter Roosevelt Hicks.
The shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile.
How much he pay for something like that?
After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?
A hundred dollars?
Three hundred dollars?
Or are you one of them high-class whores?
Harmond has apparently lost his shot at becoming mayor of Pittsburgh, and his wife, Mame, has correspondingly lost her spot on the shortlist to become the Governor’s press representative. Mame, in a Rose Maxsom moment, says,
“You jumped but I’m falling too.
I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks.
That’s all the governor sees.
All any of the other board members see.
What all our friends see.
I tied myself so tight to you
that there is no me.
I don’t know if I can carry this any further.
We are left to wonder if Harmond’s marriage is salvageable. Harmond loses all, just like Job in the Bible. At the end of the play, outside the text but in the director’s notes, we see Harmond painting lines of his face, like Sterling did earlier when he tells Roosevelt, “I learned that from Cochise. We on the battlefield now,” though Harmond reveals to us in his final monologue with Roosevelt that he was always on the battlefield. If you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the old Negro spiritual:
I am on the battlefield for my Lord.
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord,
and I promised Him that I
would serve Him ’til I die;
I’m on the battlefield for my Lord.
We believe that it all works out for Harmond because that’s what Wilson wants us to believe. Harmond retians his family real estate business, effectively putting Roosevelt out of the office at the end and tearing down the Tiger Woods poster (too bad on that one, given Tiger’s recent greatest comeback of all time). Just as it all works out for Old Testament Job. After enduring all of God’s trials and tribulations, Job is a better man. Riley Temple, in his classic work, Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed, compares Harmond Wilks to Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, a sort of reborn Adam with a quickening spirit.
The Jacob and Esau story. I mentioned in our discussion without giving it full thought at the time the story of Jacob and Esau, then backed down when I wasn’t able to carefully articulate the subtle nuances of the comparison. I still am not, but i think it is worth mentioning and memorializing. In the play we have allusions to the relationship between the twin brothers, Harmond and Raymond, with Raymond bolting from the father’s plan early to attend an HBCU followed by his decision to enlist, which led to his unfortunate and untimely demise. Harmond, on the other hand, stayed with his father’s plan for him and almost made it to the mayor’s office, which could have been followed by the Senate, and perhaps even the White House. We will never know, though we can venture to speculate that Harmond Wilks might have been better equipped to occupy the White House than Obama was. Back to the discussion. In a way of thinking, Raymond sold his birthright to pursue an independent track, leaving the “promise” to Harmond. Similarly, Harmond and Roosevelt extend the Jacob and Esau story, except this time, it is Roosevelt selling his birthright for immediate, temporary gain, again, leaving the “spiritual” and “metaphysical” promise of saving the community to Harmond.
Who stole the golf clubs? Did anyone else find it curious that the golf clubs went missing from Harmond’s trunk, only to be purchased by Sterling, who in turn sold the the clubs back to Harmond, later accusing Harmond of “receiving” stolen property (with an implied threat of future blackmailing)? Did anyone else connect the dots and conclude that Sterling actually stole the golf clubs in the first place? Why else would he return Harmond’s payment that was to cover his own payment to the fence (the alleged intermediary who actually stole the clubs, and an allusion to yet another August Wilson play) in the first place? We play Sterling cheap at our own peril. Sterling is a messenger from the past (Two Trains Running) just as Elder Joe Barlow is a messenger from the past (Gem of the Ocean), both present to serve as midwives for Harmond’s spiritual birth as a Wilson Warrior.
Life as a record. Roosevelt, after consulting with the local police department, is only too happy to attempt to smear Old Joe’s character by citing points on his police rap sheet, thereby somehow harming his claim to the property at 1839 Wylie (Ad hominen fallacy). In Act 2 Scene 3, Roosevelt reads the list, to which Harmond replies, “All that doesn’t matter. That doesn’t mean anything. i don’t care if he’s a criminal. We can’t tear down his house.” Roosevelt again shows us a vile side of his character.
Aunt Ester’s house as the archives. We don’t know what Harmond studied in school, but he has a definite appreciation for interior design. In Act 2 Scene 2 he descibes the interior of Aunt Ester’s house:
“It’s a Federalist brick house with a good double-base foundation. I couldn’t believe it. It has beveled glass on every floor. There’s a huge stained-glass window leading up to the landing. And the staircase is made of Brazilian wood with a hand-carved balustrade. You don’t see that too often. . . .You should feel the woodwrok. if you run your hand slow over some of the wood you can make out these carvings. There’s faces. Lines making letters. And old language. And there’s this smell in the air . . . .The air in the house smells sweet like a new day.”
One senses, through Harmond’s discovery and descriptions, that the lives of generations of families are carved into those walls, recorded in those carpentry fixtures, much like a primitive archive, much like Bereniece’s piano in The Piano Lesson. Early in the history of record keeping, records and data were carved into walls, as displayed in this John White Alexander mural at the Library of Congress. The series of murals is entitled, “The Evolution of the Book.”
postscript. One day I’ll write about the military veterans among August Wilson’s characters, Solly Two Kings in Gem, Floyd Schoolboy Barton in Seven Guitars, Gabriel Maxsom in Fences, Doub and Darnell “Youngblood” Williams in Jitney, and Elder Joseph Barlow in Radio Golf. Today, on Memorial Day weekend, my attention is drawn to Elder Joseph Barlow, Old Joe, and specifically, his monologue near the end of Act One where he describes his participation in a World War II battle. In his story, Joe Mott, the flag bearer, gets shot in battle, and Joe Barlow picks the flag up and carries it throughout the battle and until the day of his discharge. You have to read it and I wont spoil it for you. But here’s the deal. Joe Mott was also the name of a character in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, one-time proprietor of a Negro gambling house. I don’t think it was just a coincidence that the name shows up here in this setting. With August Wilson, there are no coincidences.
Just a short note to thank you all for the card you signed, the honorarium, and the opportunity to take this 11-week journey with each and every one of you. What remains to be said/done?
With this email we are all in touch with each other so we can continue to build on the August Wilson bond we’ve developed together.
I have a few more emails to send with the aggregated links to blog posts for each play. At some point, I will send out an email to all three session groups as we approach time for the Arena Stage and National Theater plays in the upcoming season.
I originally proposed this course to OLLI because I had all the plays on my to-read list but didn’t want to read them alone. I guess I got that done! But with each reading of the plays I discover new depths to plumb, in the plays, and in some cases, in myself. That’s a bit of a confession, but heck, y’all know me now!
OK. Have a great weekend, and keep in touch!
p.s. For those who missed the final meeting, I will mail you your completion/initiation certificate. r
I am struck by the repetition and frequency of shifting loyalties in Radio Golf. Let’s try to tease one or two of them out.
The big sort of climax in the play is the breakup of the friendship between Harmond Wilks, the ensemble’s central character, and his old college roommate and current business partner, Roosevelt Hicks. Harmond Wilks is from old money, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as the old folks say. His father ran the real estate business before him and his grandfather before his father. In fact, we know his grandfather, Cesar Wilks, from the first play in the series, Gem of the Ocean. Wilks’ business partner, Roosevelt Hicks, on the other hand is so nouveau riche, that he believes 1) that if he doesn’t have a current business card on the golf course the other players will think he is the caddie, and 2) if the current deal goes south he will lose his house and his wife’s car. They even vary with regard to golf, with Harmond thinking the golf course is a place where one can learn rules for success, while Roosevelt considers success on the golf course as a pretense for showing off his manhood. It is frankly a wonder they have remained connected for as long as they have, with such fundamental differences in outlook and priorities.
Let’s work backwards for better detail resolution.
There is a big fallout at the play’s end. Harmond seeks to redesign a land development deal to honor a family relationship that he has just learned he has. Rather than tear down a house that once belonged to Aunt Ester, a friend of his grandfather’s, and that currently belongs to Aunt Ester’s successor’s son, Old Joe, who, it turns out, is also Harmond’s second cousin, he seeks a way to build around the old house, preserving a piece of the original neighborhood. Once Roosevelt learns of the “new” deal, he bolts and develops an alternate plan to buy Harmond out of his share of the project, using money from a new found friend who is already using him as the black face of a media project in order to qualify for minority set-aside funding for both the media project and ultimately, for the real estate deal. When Harmond confronts Roosevelt about the ethics of the business arrangement, Roosevelt responds that’s just the way deals are cut and he won’t be deprived of his opportunity to “hang out” with the big boys of business. Not only will Roosevelt turn his back on a long standing friendship with Harmond, he will also turn his back on his own community. Tsk, tsk.
For his part, Harmond is too willing to back away from “the plan” once he learns that family is involved in it, because that’s where he places his values. We applaud Harmond for creating disappointment that contributes to his sense of family and community. But we criticize Roosevelt for his disloyalty when it is based on the profit motive or personal achievement, no matter how temporary. Harmond’s wife, Mame, is none too happy about his new decisions, and she blames her job loss on Harmond’s political face loss in the whole situation. Yet she promises to stand with her husband, through think and thin.
Radio Golf, thus, can serve as Wilson’s morality play, much as King Hedley served as Wilson’s Greek tragedy. Through it, Wilson is pointing us in a moral and ethical direction for our own future behavior. He is saying, quietly and gently, don’t be like Roosevelt, be like Harmond.
I hope in our discussion tomorrow to address the Radio part of the play, the use and utility of media, and the Golf part of the play, how games and sports serve as a surrogate for our lives.
p.s. The Radio Golf Play game.
How many times in Radio Golf do you feel like you are in a different August Wilson play?
Of course, every time Elder Barlow speaks you feel like you are in Gem of the Ocean. He even sounds like Aunt Ester, doesn’t he?
“But you got to have the right quarter. American is a giant slot machine. You walk up and put in your coin and it spits it back at you. You look aat your coin. You think maybe it’s a Canadian quarter. It’s the only coin you got. If this coin ain’t no good then you out of luck. You look at it and sure enough it’s an American quarter. But it don’t spend for you.” Act 1 Scene 2
And every time Sterling speaks you are transported to Two Trains Running, expecting to hear from Risa and Hambone: “I’ve been waiting for this office to open a long time. I do construction work. I’m looking for a job.” Act 1 Scene 2
Except here, Sterling sounds like Floyd Barton’s seven ways speech in Seven Guitars:
“I just wanted to know what it was like to have some money. Seem like everybody else had some. I said let me get some. So I robbed that bank.” Act 1 Scene 1Harmond says, in Act 1 Scene 1 “You mix them all up in a pot and stir it up and you got America. That’s what makes this country great.” Doesn’t that sound like something Toledo would say in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?
But when he says, “You teach the kids how to play golf and they have all the rules they need to win at life. You ever play golf?” he sounds like the anti-Troy Maxsom in Fences who hates sports for his son because it didn’t work out for him.
Old Joe says “You strut like you a rooster. You the King of the Barnyard. You strut through the barnyard during the day. At night you roost high up on the rafters. But when you get to the bottom of it a rooster ain’t nothing but a chicken.” Straight from Canewwell’s monologue in Seven Guitars.
Mame has lines at the end that sound just like something similar from Rose in Fences. “You jumped but I’m falling too. I’m the wife of Harmond Wilks. That’s all the governor sees. . . . I tied myself so tight to you that there is no me.”Early in Act 1, Harmond says, “See those marks. It’s all hand tooled. That’s the only way you get that pattern detail like that. That tin ceiling’s worth some money.” Maybe a bit like the description of the piano in The Piano Lesson?
OK. Your turn to play.