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!
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.
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.
The decades of the 20th century covered by each play are listed clockwise, beginning top and center with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. The blue lines with arrows indicate the order in which the plays were written, beginning with Jitney. Still working on the meaning & frequency of lines that cross.
Characteristics of the rhizome related to August Wilson’s plays (hypothetical).
1. Connections. The connections between plays/decades is just as important as the plays/decades themselves.
2. Heterogeneity. Any play can be connected to any other play or any series of plays.
3. Multiplicity. There is no original order for the plays, no prior unity.
4. Assignifying rupture. Connections between plays fail, rupture and remake themselves in various combinations.
5. Cartography and decalcomania. Discussions of themes can be entered via any play, mapped to any other play, and can conclude at any play.
It’s been a while since I’ve posted at #clmooc, but I haven’t forgotten you (or it). My work has taken me out of the classroom, but my volunteer activities have all been involved in various settings of adult education.
Most recently, I led a study group reading and discussing the plays of August Wilson that comprise his #AmericanCenturyCycle. Fiddling around, I came up with a rhizomatic approach to the plays, one for each decade in the 20th century.
Wilson’s plays all depict life in the black community (mostly in Pittsburgh), decade by decade. But here is the question. Can one deconstruct and reconstruct the order of a community’s history (through its surrogates, the plays) to find new meaning? In effect, is there a rhizomatic approach to history itself which we normally think of in linear terms? And what does this portend for teaching (and learning)?
Just beginning to arrange thoughts. Would love to hear ideas from the community.