Radio Golf, and Wilson debts to Dunbar and O’Neill

Session #5

In the final two plays of the Cycle, August Wilson performs double duty, at least. One, in Radio Golf he tightens up any loose ends that remain in the narrative arc of the century of plays. Two, he establishes himself and his work as heir to the rich legacy of both the proto-Harlem Renaissance great poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and the great American dramatist, Eugene O’Neill.

Here’s a list of connections to loose ends tied of other plays in the Cycle:

The hand tooled tin in Aunt Ester’s old house connected to the tin burning in the factory Solly set on fire in Gem of the Ocean.

Sarah Degree, for whom Harmond wants to name the new community health center, was first mentioned in Seven Guitars, then in Two Trains Running, and is an actual person from Wilson’s childhood who used to take the community kids to Sunday school.

Model Cities Program relates to urban renewal efforts in Two Trains Running and Jitney.

Sterling wanted “to know what it was like to have some money” in the same way that Floyd Barton “wanted to know” what it would be like in Seven Guitars.

Bucket vs. Cup analogy. In Two Trains Running, West tells Sterling to get a cup instead of a ten gallon bucket, i.e., to lower his expectations. In Radio Golf, Old Joe complains that at the Mission, missionaries were drilling holes in the bottom of cups.

Old Joe tells Harmony if he gets elected, the city will only give him half the keys. In King Hedley II, the only key that matters is the Key to the Kingdom (forgiveness).

America as a giant slot machine that requires the right quarters ties to the jukebox at Memphis Diner (Two Trains) that never works when quarters are inserted.

Old Joe tried to tell people at Hill House that he wasn’t a dog, just as Hedley proclaimed in Seven Guitars, “the Negro is not a dog.”

Old Joe refers to Roosevelt as the King of the Barnyard Rooster, described previously in Seven Guitars.

The cat that appears on Roosevelt’s car is the resurrected cat from King Hedley II, the spirit of Aunt Ester revived.

Mame’s reduction of the religious “miracle” of a preacher putting his hand in a boiling cauldron to just “a Negro from Mississippi with some dry ice.” Does it resolve the ghost appearances in The Piano Lesson?

Sterling recounts his consultation with Aunt Ester in Two Trains as advised by Holloway.

Old Joe establishes his direct descent from Black Mary (she was his mother) who later was the successor to Aunt Ester.

Harmond and Old Joe are able to trace their common ancestor, Henry Samuels, who was the father of both Caesar Wilks and Black Mary.

Woodwork in Aunt Ester’s old house has carvings, faces and letters in it, seeming related to Berniece’s piano as a family artifact.

In Old Joe’s police record, Roosevelt makes fun of mention of a journey to the City of Bones.

Mame sounds a lot like Rose, in that she submerged her identity into that of her husband’s.

And there are more . . .

OK, so what’s this Paul Laurence Dunbar and Eugene O’Neill talk? First Dunbar.

I opened with the most often anthologized and most often recited poem of the Dunbar body of work, We Wear the Mask. Very appropriate for life today with COVID. In Gem of the Ocean, before embarking on the journey to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Solly and Eli to get and don their European masks. It’s all theater and it appears they have done this thing before, but to Citizen Barlow it appears to be a real voyage to a real destination. In Radio Golf, the masks are more subtle but just as effective because the masks are a variety of blackface worn by black characters in the play.

Much (not all) of the following comes from a paper written by Patrice Rankine, August Wilson and Greek Drama: Blackface Minstrelsy, “Spectacle” from Aristotle’s Poetics, and Radio Golf.

Mame, the PR expert, is overall in charge of image for her husband’s mayoral campaign and in her day job, for the governor’s office. Her name is a play on Mammy, the blackface female character from silent films.

Roosevelt, the literal black face of the radio deal he is running with Bernie Smith, is a fraud in many ways. He is barely two paychecks away from not being able to pay his rent and the note on his and his wife’s cars. He appears to be in a token position at Mellon Bank, where he works as VP, a position he eventually quits because of performance issues. He is unfaithful to his wife, and ultimately, he is unfaithful to his friend. Though well educated, he comes across as being quite the buffoon, while Old Joe, another name borrowed from the silent film and vaudeville era, who should be playing the buffoon, actually comes across as being quite profound at times. A bit of a role reversal as the opposites face off repeatedly.

Harmond, for his part, masquerades in the black face of respectability politics until events shift and he gets bought out by his partner. Then, recognizing that he has in fact been wearing a mask, a mask the poet says above “that grins and lies,” he aligns himself with his distant cousin old Joe, and the handyman, Sterling, and puts warpaint on his face to enter the battlefield, yet another mask.

Roosevelt puts up a poster of Tiger Woods signaling his love for golfing. But behind the surface, one is reminded that Tiger Woods has never self-identified as a black man (his father was African American, his mother was Asian).

Then, finally, and in the ultimate insult, Sterling identifies Roosevelt derogatorily as “a Negro,” and Harmond (harmony) refers to Roosevelt as “the shuffling, grinning nigger in the woodpile,” a throwback to a 1904 silent film still available on Youtube, yet another blackface masked actor. And to add insult to injury, Harmond asks Roosevelt if he is a hundred dollar, a three hundred dollar, or a thousand dollar whore paid by Bernie Smith.

What about Eugene O’Neill? Remember Old Joe’s war story about the flag bearer who gets shot and dies in battle? Then Old Joe picks the flag up and carries it for the duration of the war. That flag bearer soldier was named Joe Mott. Joe Mott happens to be the name of the one black member of Hope’s Bar crowd of pipe dreamers in The Ice Man Cometh, who has dreams of opening a colored gambling house and eventually passing for white.

Session #4

Consolidated notes from Sessions #1, #2, and #3

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Random thoughts on Seven Guitars (04142021)

Random topics I may or may not have covered in earlier sessions.

The play’s structure with the end up front, followed by the action in the middle and the end at the end is both standard structure for Greek tragedy and a shoutout to Borges, one of Wilson’s principle influencers. Wilson pointed out how Borges tells his readers what is going to happen in advance, yet there is still a sense of suspense. Then it comes about. No doubt this is Wilson’s Greek tragedy play with Borges hints. See more on Wilson’s Greek tragedy structure in Session #4.

We have instances of Floyd’s functional illiteracy throughout the play. While in prison he paid someone to write letters to Vera. He didn’t understand the words in a letter from the prison detailing the procedure for claiming his pay for each day he was imprisoned. Even Red Carter accuses Floyd of not being able to read. It is not a huge leap to reason that Floyd’s issues with his early recording contract could have stemmed from his inability to read. I wonder how he made it through his enlistment in the Army and how he survived the war without being able to read. We see this issue of the impediments of illiteracy in other characters in the Wilson Cycle.

(Note: 4% of Americans are non-literate and 14% are below basic literacy levels. 34% are at the basic literacy level. 52% read under the 8th grade level. These are 2013 levels, from data collected by the OECD every ten years, but levels of illiteracy are sure to rise with the present influx of non-English speakers across the southern border.

Vera describes a dress she was wearing when she met Floyd as two shades of blue or, to be precise, “two different kinds of blue.” I saw this initially as a distinction between the blues of Buddy Bolden, for whom Hedley was named, and the blues of Muddy Waters, the mentor for our bluesman, Floyd Barton. Extending the frame of reference to another Wilson play, there was the “jug-bucket” blues of Ma Rainey vs. the dance music blues of Levee. A short search yields a multiplicity of different kinds and types of blues music, including Memphis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues. Each has its own peculiar sound and its unique performers.

Throughout the play there are various lists of things, recipes with various steps, and categories of things. Included are types of beer, brands of cigarettes, types of card games, little rhymes, types of weapons, a blow-by-blow boxing match final round, types of roosters, and a recipe for cooking greens. Floyd lists seven ways to go.

I was struck by the similarities between Hedley’s tuberculosis condition, the testing and treatment of it, etc., and current concerns about COVID. Sort of brings it up to date. Tuberculosis, like COVID, was not extremely understood in its early days and often patients were “herded” together in sanitoriums to die, much like the nursing home scandals in New York and Michigan. Eventually, the nature of the disease became better understood and medications were developed that eradicated it. We can only surmise what happens in Hedley’s case, though Louise’s descriptions make it sound like it is already in its advanced stages.

Speaking of Hedley, he is the first person we’ve come across who is not from the south like so many other migrants to Pittsburgh. It sets up a different dynamic in personal relations that we see playing out in Hedley’s interactions with other members of the ensemble. This reflects what actually happened with so many black Caribbean immigrants moving to Northern cities and having to interact with a new country, a new black society unlike what was most prevalent in the south, and in many cases, a new religious order. In effect they, these immigrants from the Caribbean faced separate challenges than southern migrants of a completely new society. Hedley makes Seven Guitars a special case for studying the great migration. Another aspect of the great migration not covered in the American Century Cycle, however, is the rural to urban migration that took place within the south and never crossed into northern states.

Louise explains to Vera multiple times that Floyd “just doesn’t know how to do.” Also known as “savior faire,” Louise says that Floyd lacks basic knowledge and information about the way things work. Of course Vera ignores Louise’s warning because she has a pipe dream of “being a different person” at her new destination that matches Floyd’s pipe dream of “making it” in Chicago. Similarly, Hedley has a pipe dream about a future life on a plantation he will be able to buy with money from his dead father’s ghost.

And what is up with Red Carter claiming he once dated seven women at the same time? Red Carter is lying and he knows it. Perhaps this “locker room talk” adds to the flow of the plot. A monologue for the boys in the band, Canewell, Red Carter, and Floyd. Wilson has said in interviews that nothing in his plays is superfluous and everything ties to something else in building the plot.

Ruby arrives and all the men go crazy. All the men. I could only shake my head. We will discuss, perhaps.

Wilson makes a big deal about Highway 61. I didn’t get it until I looked it up. Highway 61 runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota. It was a major thoroughfare out of the deep south and the subject of many blues songs. In fact, Bob Dylan made a complete album in 1965, Highway 61 Revisited, that included much of the music and blues tradition. See the playlist for other examples. Interesting that the earliest blues pieces describe trains and railroads, because railroads were the primary method of conveyance. Later, with the development of interstate highway systems, automobiles and highways become the underpinning subject of blues. (Note: Upon reflection, the earliest blues pieces may have focused on walking and shoes and we have certainly seem those themes in plays in the Cycle.)

A subplot within the plot, Hedley kills the neighborhood rooster as a signal that he will kill again, and soon. Hedley confesses to Ruby that he once killed a man who would not call him by his given name, King, a sign of things to come for his (alleged) and Ruby’s offspring in the future.

Session #4

Post-Session #3

Pre-Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

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