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!
A few things we spoke about in our group discussion Friday are worth recapitulating here.
Did Ruby intentionally kill King at the end? The thought completely escaped my reading, but when we discussed it I had to give it some consideration. Ruby was about to begin a “new” life in her prospective marriage with Elmore. Elmore’s revelation to King that Leroy, not Hedley, was his father was a slight fly in the ointment that Ruby should have disclosed much earlier, but she chose not to and it really wasn’t a show stopper. Interestingly, King and Elmore in their final confrontation had both gone to the brink, to the edge of causing each other harm, but both backed away in a sort of truce of mutual forgiveness (“The Keys to the Mountain,” as Stool Pigeon proclaimed following the confrontation). When Elmore lowered his gun and the sound of discharging it into the ground reached Ruby, she screams out, “Elmore!,” her first concern, perhaps. Ruby fires her pistol and King shouts, “Mama!” It would be the only time in the play King acknowledges Ruby as his mother. But it would be too late. The fired bullet hits King in the throat, killing him.
The question remains, did she mean to do it? Mister calls King’s name three times and rushes over to him. Tonya says twice, “Call 911.” Elmore goes over to King to be by his side. Where is Ruby while all this is going on? Sitting on the ground singing Red Sails in the Sunset. Strange. Strange, indeed. The play ends and we are left to try to figure it out.
Tonya’s monologue on abortion is the the longest in the play. Abortion can be a touchy subject but the fact that it occupies so much real estate in the play forces us to face it squarely. Tonya’s defense is persuasive (to everybody except King) and equally compelling. Abortions are legal after Roe v. Wade, accessible, and relatively inexpensive. By all measures, it is a convenient option for Tonya for all the reasons she so eloquently states
But historical numbers and trends tell a slightly different story, one to which August Wilson calls our attention. In the aggregate, CDC reports 45,789,558 abortions performed in the U.S. between 1970 and 2015 (California, Maryland and New Hampshire do not report abortions to CDC, so this is by definition an undercount). In 2013, CDC reported 134,814 (37.3%) white, 128,682 (35.6%) black, and 68,761 (19.0) (Hispanic) abortions performed (same under-reporting applies, but overall percentages have been trending lower for whites and higher for blacks and Hispanics over the past few years).
Hedley explains at the end of Act 2 Scene 3 what, to him, is the significance of this pregnancy: “That’s why I need this baby, not ’cause I took something out of the world, but because I wanna put something in it. Let everybody know I was here. You got King Hedley II and then you got King Hedley III. Got rocky dirt. Got glass and bottless. But it still deserves to live. Even if you do have to call the undertaker. Even if somebody come along and pull it out by the root. It still deserve to live. It still deserves that chance.”
King and Elmore discuss the murders they committed as a sort of badge of honor. The first mention of honor and dignity, having it and keeping it, comes at the end of Act 1. King talks about being born with honor and dignity and Elmore says the way to keep your dignity is to make your own rules. Elmore says in Act 2 Scene 2, “See, when you pull that trigger you done something. You done something more than most other people. You know more about life ’cause you done been to that part of it. Most people don’t get over on that side . . . that part of life. They live on the safe side, But see . . . you done been God. Death is something he do.”
Finally, we didn’t give much attention to Elmore’s admission in Act 1 Scene 3 that he is dying slowly from some terminal ailment. He tells Ruby, “The doctor say this thing is killing me by degreees and ain’t but so many degrees left. I’m dying on my feet.” A long pause follows.
I’d like to focus on just three elements of this penultimate play in the American Century Cycle. First, there is the structure of the play, especially with the single narrator Prologue by Stool Pigeon, formerly known as Canewell the harmonica player in Seven Guitars, an expert on roosters. I’ve decided that if this play were a Greek tragedy, and some may argue that it may be, Stool Pigeon fulfills the role of the Greek Chorus, and of Coryphaeus, the leader of the Greek Chorus, in the Prologue, and everywhere he speaks in the play. Let that sink in for a minute, then go back through the play and attribute all Stool Pigeon’s speaking parts to the Greek Chorus, beginning at the very end of Scene 1, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamps down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!“
In brief, the function of the chorus in Greek Drama is to provide commentary on actions and events occurring in the play, to allow time and space to the playwright to control the atmosphere and expectations of the audience, to allow the playwright to prepare the audience for key moments in the storyline, and to underline certain elements and downplay others. Go back and re-read Stool Pigeon’s parts and it becomes evident that is the role he is playing. And oh, by the way, Stool Pigeon often quoted the Bible throughout the play. But guess what? None of those quotes are actually from the Bible that most folks know about. I postulated in an earlier session that his quotes may actually be from The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, a book written in the early 1900’s that became popular among New Age spiritual groups in the 70’s and 80’s.
The second element that stood our during my reading was King’s insistence, first to Mister (in Act 1 Scene 1) and later to Elmore (in Act 2 Scene 1), that he had a halo above his head. (Could have also been early signs of glaucoma!) King is alerting folks around him (and in the audience) that he has been singled out for a special purpose, a special mission in life. The play is a tragedy for King. Nothing works out right. He has been lied to all his life about his parentage. He has resorted to a life of petty crime. Now his wife has aborted the baby he had high hopes of raising, possibly his last chance at redemption. He had a relationship with Aunt Ester, and she gave him a gold key ring, but without a key (we’ll get back to that in the third element).
Spoiler alert! At the end of the play King dies a grisly, ritualistic death, cementing his personal tragedy. But there is yet redemption in King’s ultimate price payment. His spilled blood (he is shot in the neck) makes its way to the grave of Aunt Ester’s cat and the cat returns to life (magical realism) with a meow as the lights go down and the set fades to black. Maybe it means there is a possibility for a resurrection of Aunt Ester and salvation for her people. We have to read Act Three to know for sure.
OK. The third element. The Key to the Mountain. Early in Act 2, Scene 5, King returned to the yard, having learned earlier that Leroy was his real father, and carrying his false father’s machete, loaded for bear (Elmore). Scene 5 has competing choruses, spurring King on to two alternate and opposite outcomes. Mister, son of Red Carter in Seven Guitars, tells King, “Blood for blood,” urging him to fulfill a destiny of extracting revenge, that will surely result in his death. Meanwhile, Stool Pigeon reminds King, “You got the Key to the Mountain,” which is forgiveness even in the face of a great wrong, an alternate destiny that results in life. King chooses forgiveness, sticking the machete into the ground. In turn, Elmore chooses to forgive, firing his gun into the ground and not towards King. Then, confused from the sounds in the yard, Ruby appears and fires the pistol Mister gave her, without looking, fatally shooting King in the throat. In the battle of competing choruses, Mister wins out, Kings fulfills his destiny, and his sacrifice restores life to Aunt Ester.
Notes from Session #1: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/class-notes-for-king-hedley-ii/
Notes from Session #2: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/11/notes-on-king-hedley-ii-11-11-2018/
Here is the YouTube playlist: