Letter #3 – Syllabus

Syllabus – August Wilson American Century Cycle
SG-685 – OLLI-AU. Spring 2021

Course Description
The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be required to read each play at home and be prepared to contribute to a group discussion on what they have read. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each group member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to read aloud to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods
The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading of a passage selected by each group member.

Required Texts
Group members will be required to procure all the plays listed below. The first five plays are linked in the syllabus, others will have to be purchased or borrowed from the library. The complete set of plays in hardback is available on Amazon for $100-$160. Each play can be found separately in paperback for $6-10 each.

Additional Suggested Texts
Bigsby, Christopher. Editor. 2007. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson.
Bryer, Jackson and Mary C. Hartig. 2006. Conversations with August Wilson.
Elkins, Marilyn. 1994. August Wilson, A Casebook.
Herrington, Joan. 2004. I Ain’t Sorry for Nothing I Done.
Nadal, Alan. 1994. May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the drama of August Wilson.
Nadal, Alan. 2010. Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle.
Nadal, Alan. 2018. The Theatre of August Wilson.
Shannon, Sandra and Dana Williams. 2004. August Wilson and Black Aesthetics.
Shannon, Sandra. 1995. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. 2004. August Wilson: A Literary Companion.
Temple, Riley Keene. 2017. Aunt Esters Children Redeemed.

Course Requirements
Class participation. Each study group member will be expected to contribute to each week’s discussion.

Week 1: March 4, 2021 – Jitney (1979)
Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
- Lahr New Yorker Interview, 2001. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
- Suzan Lori-Parks Interview, 2005. https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
- Racist Roots of Urban Renewal. https://www.fastcompany.com/90155955/the-racist-roots-of-urban-renewal-and-how-it-made-cities-less-equal
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/jitney.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Week 2: March 11, 2021 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.
- The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin. https://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/benjamin.pdf
- My blog post has lots of links: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/03/08/some-links-to-background-material-for-ma-raineys-black-bottom/ Ma Rainey film adaptation screenplay
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Week 3: March 18, 2021 – Fences (1984)
Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbageman. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory.
- Freytag’s Pyramid Dramatic Structure article: https://www.clearvoice.com/blog/what-is-freytags-pyramid-dramatic-structure/
- Article on Negro Baseball leagues. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/16/sports/baseball/mlb-negro-leagues.html
- America’s Most Undefeated Playwright: https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO
- Full play pdf: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/fences1.pdf

Week 4: March 25, 2021 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
- Article on convict leasing programs: https://www.thoughtco.com/convict-leasing-4160457
- Romare Bearden: The Prevalence of Ritual – https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2018/09/06/the-prevalence-of-ritual-on-romare-beardens-projections/
- Maslow on Self-Transcendence. https://reasonandmeaning.com/2017/01/18/summary-of-maslow-on-self-transcendence/
- Full play pdf: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qe
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

Week 5: April 1, 2021 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.
- Exploring the Use of Myth and Mystical Practice in August Wilson’s Century Cycle – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/colloquium-presentation-3-april-20186.pdf
- Article on Parchment Prison/Farm – https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
- Youtube playlist (includes film adaptation): https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Week 6: April 8, 2021 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
- Dear White People – Two Trains Running is Not About Race: http://phindie.com/11061-11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/
- August Wilson Life and Work Timeline: https://www.post-gazette.com/ae/theater-dance/2012/06/01/August-Wilson-s-Life-and-Work-A-timeline-1945-2005/stories/201206010268
- YouTube Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Week 7: April 15, 2021 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.
- Aristotle Poetics, Parts 13-15 – https://gointothestory.blcklst.com/studying-aristotles-poetics-part-13-a-a-perfect-tragedy-2bced5e9ed3c
- A Short History of the Legend of Buddy Bolden – https://www.jazziz.com/a-short-history-of-the-legend-of-buddy-bolden/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK
- Educational guide and synopsis: https://wp.me/a4gJ6W-qu

Week 8: April 22, 2021 – King Hedley II (1991)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven Guitars.
- The Function of the Chorus in Greek Drama article – http://krishaamer.com/function-chorus-greek-drama/
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv
- Curriculum guide and synopsis: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/king-hedley.pdf

Week 9: April 29, 2021 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty, he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
- August Wilson in the “City That Encourages Dreams”. https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/project_muse_588846.pdf
- Prologue: definition and examples – https://literarydevices.net/prologue/
- Baraka: Columbia the Gem of the Ocean – https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/baraka-gem-of-the-ocean.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb
- City of Dry Bones sermon: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/city-of-bones.pdf

Week 10: May 6, 2021 – Radio Golf (2005)
Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
- Radio Golf Student Guide: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/radio-golf-student-guide.pdf
- The Ground On Which I stand: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/the-ground-on-which-i-stand.docx
- Alan Nadal, The Theatre of August Wilson, Chapter 9: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.files.wordpress.com/2021/02/chapter_9_the_century_that_cant_fix_nothing_with_the_law_radio_golf.pdf
- YouTube playlist: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd

Week 11: May 13, 2021. Wrap-ups (TBD)

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on the silver screen!

I meant to mention our viewing of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom on Netflix. We unsubscribed from Netflix a couple of years ago, maybe three, when it became evident that changes on its board might have effects on its content. We missed a couple of seasons of Orange is the New Black and Black Mirror, and the latest Dave Chapelle. But for August Wilson, I am back for one month.

It was impossible to resist, having experienced the magic of George C Wolf’s stage direction in The Iceman Cometh, the screenwriting wizardry of Ruben Santiago-Hudson, whose production of Jitney we had recently seen at Arena Stage, and the overall production artistry of Denzel Washington. Washington is committed to bringing all ten plays of the American Century Cycle to the screen (one can only imagine what he will do with Joe Turner, or Seven Guitars, my two favorites in the cycle).

The screen version was slightly compressed but excellently done. Many of the lines of my favorite character in the play, Toledo, were left on the cutting board. Toledo, performed by the great actor Glynn Turman, so impressed me that I wrote a sonnet featuring him during our last session of the Cycle. May I share it with you here?

Lockdown sonnet #12

I just listened to the new Bob Dylan drop.
Some kind of weird incantation –
A forced repetition, for a hypnotic effect,
a magic ritual in an ancient oral tradition.
Also, a shout out to the musical ancestors,
Invoking each of the gods by name.
An African conceptualization is what Toledo
would call it. Oh, you don’t know Toledo?
How could you? He was Ma Rainey’s piano player.
Ain’t never been the same fool twice. Don’t worry,
You’ll see it on Netflix when it comes out.
A piano lesson disguises the real drama.
Old Bob gives the devil his due. Play that funky
music white boy. Spell it with a K in B flat.

All the attention is on Viola Davis, who plays Ma Rainey, and Chadwick Boseman, who plays the brash trumpeteer, Levee. Davis is at the top of her game, a respectable top considering the Academy and Tony awards to her credit. Boseman, who is pretty much the star of the show, gives an Academy Award worthy performance in his final stage appearance (Boseman died last year after a lengthy battle with cancer). In fact, I am not alone in saying that the play was much more about Levee than about Ma Rainey, but, keeping it real, Ma Rainey actually existed, while at best, Levee, a fictional character, represents a composite of people who lived and performed during the same era (Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton).

Here is the true kicker. The best review of the film I have seen so far appears in, of all places, Good Housekeeping. That is about as good as it gets in modern day America!

Alternatively, and as Troy Maxsom from Fences would say, “you gotta take the crookeds with the straights,” here is a not so complimentary review from the right of center, National Review, “The Fiasco of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

And here is Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s film adaptation screenplay.

Some random notes on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 3.26.2020

“The Play” stands out as one of the great introductions in the Cycle series and an excellent example of August Wilson’s talent and skill as a poet. It describes 1927 Chicago and its residents graphically and with deep feeling, so much so that one wonders why anyone might still call the plays the Pittsburgh series. Of course, we know why, every other play is set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. But with Ma Rainey, Wilson makes a statement that he is not owned by Pittsburgh or any other geographic location.

His description touches on a broad cross section of society’s inner city, the crooked and the straight, yet he leaves space in the imagination of the reader with his haunting “somewhere” alliteration: a man wrestling with the taste of a woman in his mouth; a dog barking; the fallen moon breaking into 30 pieces of silver. Thirty pieces of silver suggests betrayal, the denial of Peter, and in Exodus, the price of a slave.

The passage is also reminiscent of the poetry of Frank O’Hara, especially The Day Lady Died, do this and do that, a list of descriptive everyday activities. Surely Wilson must have been familiar with O’Hara during his poet days in the 60’s.

He closes with a reference to being both a victim and the ten thousand slain. There is the ten thousand in Xenophon’s Anabasis, ten thousand mercenaries who marched from the Mediterranean to Persia, but most of them lived. There is a ten thousand slain reference in Romeo and Juliet. There is the biblical reference of David’s slain ten thousand. We have many choices.

The epigraph, a Blind Lemon Jefferson song lyric, is significant in Jefferson’s similarity to Ma Rainey. Called “the Father of the Texas Blues,” Jefferson was one of the first solo guitarists to achieve monetary success as a commercial performer. The whole song is on the YouTube playlist.

We have discussed Levee is previous sessions. There’s always more to say about Levee. He’s an anti-hero, brash, impolite, unendearing, tragic, but central to the plot. In fact, the play could have easily been called the Adventures of Levee Green but it wouldn’t have made any money! Levee was traumatized as a child and once we learned about it our hearts poured out for him. But Levee refused to live by the rules, and he met a tragic end. From the music side, he saw himself as a modernist, breaking away from the old restrictive bonds. He was the archetypal Louis Armstrong, who also played for Ma Rainey as a young man. But he couldn’t get along with anybody, not Ma, not his fellow band members, not even Sturdyvant. I think Levee was deeply unhappy. Authentic but deeply unhappy.

Levee refers to himself in the third person. He tells his fellow band members, “Ain’t nothing gonna happen to Levee. Levee ain’t gonna let nothing happen to him.” He is stepping outside of himself, outside his own tragic story. At the same time, he is beginning to establish his brand. Later in the same scene, Levee proclaims, “I’m Levee. Just me. I ain’t no imitation nothing!” And further qualifies, “I ain’t no imitation white man. And I don’t want to be no white man.” Definitely the anti-hero.

Slow Drag, Cutler, Toledo, all great characters. I would have liked to hang out with such a crew. Although a tragedy, reading Ma Rainey always lifts my spirits. I have more margin notes in Ma Rainey than in any other play in the series.

Addendum: Some thoughts on Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Ma Rainey is set in a combined recording studio and band room. The story being told is primarily about music and its reproducibility for the mass market. Ma repeatedly makes the distinction between the people who may buy records and her fans on the road, with a decided preference for the later. Ma says, “I ain’t playing with you, Irvin. I can walk out of here and go back to my tour. I don’t need to go through all this.” Later she says, “What I care about Bessie? I don’t care if she sell a million records. She got her people and I got mine. I don’t care what nobody else do. Ma was the first and don’t you forget it.”

Benjamin distinguishes between live art that served a purpose in magic and religious rituals, and mechanically reproduced art that “emancipates the work of art from its parasitical dependence on ritual.” Many years ago I saw a jazz group, Spyrogyra, in their early days, perform in a venue in Providence, Rhode Island that was not much larger than a very large living room. Prior, I had only heard their music on cassette tape. There was magic and an energy exchange ritual between performers and observers in that living room that could never be replicated with the finest of recording devices. The same thing happened when I went to a very young Wynton Marsalis concert in a tiny auditorium at Old Dominion University after only having heard his music emitted via speakers and a turntable. Emancipating a work of art from dependence on ritual has its place, but the experience is just not the same.

Ma says, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out (exhibition value) but they don’t know how it got there (cult value). They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better (again, exhibition value). You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life (cult value).” Benjamin cites two planes on which works of art are received and valued, the cult value where artistic production connects to ritual artifacts that serve a limited cult of elite observers, versus the exhibition value where art practices are freed from ritual with increased opportunities for “distribution.”

A “meta”- example that the play demonstrates is the distinction between seeing a play performed on a stage versus seeing it as a movie, performed on a screen. There is an interaction on the stage, and an energy exchange that flows off the stage into the playhouse that you just don’t get watching a film. There are, however, degrees of freedom granted to the film director and the cinematographer that do not exist for the stage director. And vice versa. And animation takes film direction to an all new height, I suppose.

Some interesting tidbits from the Sandra Shannon interview with August Wilson on Ma Rainey.

  1. Broadway producers offered Wilson $25,000 for his play but with no creative direction. They wanted to turn it into a musical. Although Wilson was only making $85 per week as a short order cook at the time, he rejected the offer. Then he contacted Lloyd Richards at Yale Rep, who gave him full artistic direction.
  2. The key actor in the first Broadway production of Ma Rainey, Theresa Merritt, was locked out of her hotel room during the production because she insisted on paying weekly instead of night to night. She moved to the Hilton, where she found flowers and fruit in her room.
  3. The cast arrived at Manhattan Records to record Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom for the production. The producer met them and said, “You boys come on it. I’ve got sandwiches for you.” This was 1985. But just like in the 1927 play. Theresa was late, and when she arrived, she complained about the heat in the studio. The heat never came up. They recorded in their coats.

YouTube playlist

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

Ma Rainey Obituary: Overlooked No More

The Queer Lady Who Reinvented the Blues

March 2 start of the August Wilson American Century Cycle at OLLI-dc.org

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!