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.