Three things you may have missed if you only watched the movie.
What was up with the card trick Slow Drag was so anxious to show his fellow band members in Act #2?
The card trick Slow Drag was so anxious to show the band members was a basic one: you draw a card out of a deck face down, return the card, and the person holding the deck tells you what card you drew out. I’ve seen people play the trick, though I do not know mself how to do it or how it is done. What is significant here is that Toledo drew the six of diamonds.
So I did a search on “six of diamonds.”
“The six of diamonds refers to a loss or the absence of someone. It refers to an empty space. In its occult dimensions, this card refers to losing something that seemed established. Next to the hearts, the six of diamonds refers to a romantic problem, such as losing your loved-one linked to a break-up or a form of betrayal.”
Here August Wilson is using a technique he attributes to Borges’ magical realism. He is telling, though the mechanism of the card trick and the fact that is is Toledo who drew the 6 of diamonds, that Toledo is going to die. So at perhaps a subconscious level, we know that Toledo is the one to die, but we don’t know how. How, it turns out is at the hand of Levee, but only after Levee suffers one more humiliation at the hands of the white manager, reinforced by one more humiliation when Toledo inadvertently steps on Levee’s new shoes. Levee, the antihero, traumatized as a child, goes into a blind rage and acts out against the most vulnerable, his fellow band member. A tragedy for Toledo, for Levee, and for the band as a whole.
Levee the tortured genius and his parallel to the emergence of Impressionism in Art.
We know from the stage directions of Levee’s entry that he is younger than the other men, that he is flamboyant but it may be subtle and sneak up on you, that his temper is rakish (having or displaying a dashing, jaunty, or slightly disreputable quality or appearance) and bright, that he “lacks fuel for himself and is somewhat of a buffoon,” that his buffoonery can be intelligent and “calculated to shift control of the situation to his grasp,” and finally, that he often confuses his skill with his talent (‘Talent’ is something that one is born with; it is your natural ability to do something without really thinking about it. … ‘Skill’, on the other hand, is something that you acquire after putting in a lot of hard work; unlike talent, it is not inborn, but learned). We also know that Levee experienced the brutal rape of his mother and the murder of his father at a very young and tender age. You can tell by the way Levee loses his cool at inappropriate times that he is still working through the traumatization of his youth.
All that aside, Levee knows how to write music, even though he is otherwise illiterate, and Levee has stumbled upon a new way of composing music, similar to how a few French painters stumbled upon a new way to paint. But much like the French painters of the late 1800’s, traditional practitioners rejected the innovations, referring to it not as painting but as an “impression of painting.” Ma said of Levee, “You play ten notes for everyone you supposed to play. It don’t call for that.” “You ain’t supposed to go off by yourself and play what you want.” “You call yourself playing music.”
“The early Impressionists faced harsh opposition from the conventional art community in France. The name of the style derives from the title of a Claude Monet work, Impression, soleil levant (Impression, Sunrise), which provoked the critic Louis Leroy to coin the term in a satirical review published in the Parisian newspaper Le Charivari.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressionism
The development of Impressionism in the visual arts was soon followed by analogous styles in other media that became known as impressionist music and impressionist literature.”
The new style was characterized “small, thin, yet visible brush strokes, open composition, emphasis on accurate depiction of light in its changing qualities.” Its competition was photography, and it sought, in one sitting, to capture the lighting effects of the new medium while retaining the “sketchy” elements of landscape painting. Initially rejected by art critics, it soon became the standard with such names as Monet, Renoir, Manet, Degas, and later, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Picasso, and others.
Similarly, Levee’s idea of “too many notes” and “variation on a theme” became the standard for blues, jazz, and even classical music of the period and beyond, most notably Ravel and Debussy in classical music and Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, et al., in jazz music.
The Cult value of Ma vs. the Exhibition value of Levee and why the play is named for Ma Rainey and not for Levee Green.
In a way related to #2 above, we see played out the juxtaposition of Ma’s live performance blues, honed and sharpened on the road, at county fairs and in city honky tonks, and now being subjected to mechanical reproduction for commercial purposes, and Levee’s new music, that perhaps lends itself to even greater profits through the mechanical reproduction it is, perhaps, designed to eventually succeed at.
It also follows somewhat the Walter Benjamin distinction of cult value art, designed for ritualistic observance in the performance of magic rites and ceremonies, contrasted with mechanically produced exhibition value art, whether music or paintings, that is separated from ritual and magic via reproduction, and hence more accessible to greater numbers of people. It may be argued that the cult value will always be of higher quality because it exists in service to higher powers, to magic, to ritual, where the exhibition value art exists solely to satisfy the commercial profit motive.
From session #4:
Ma says in the play, “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.”
Final notes before I ship to the group.
Who’s in charge? I counted 17 places in the text, six before Ma arrives, where Cutler and Slow Drag (and Ma) form a sort of Greek chorus to reinforce Ma’s authority over the music and how it is to be played. Cutler and Slow Drag are true believers. Toledo has a different role, a seer, a griot, somewhat detached. Levee has a moment of lucidity and makes a valid point (I think) when he says, “Ma’s the boss on the road! We at a recording session. Mr. Sturdyvant and Mr. Irvin say what’s gonna be here! We in Chicago, we ain’t in Memphis!” The original play did not include the band members at all. They were added later and located downstairs in the band room, where the two violent altercations occur. It may be a subtle hint pointing us to the oldest known piece of literature produced by an African American, Bars Fight, by Lucy Terry, a freed African in Massachusetts in 1746.
Art begets art. Last year this time I wrote a series of poems I called “Poems for the Pandemic – The Lockdown Sonnets.” I ended the series with this sonnet that features Toledo:
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 Musik white boy. Spell it with a K in B flat.
Finally, a member of an earlier OLLI group typed these notes on her iPhone and sent them to me. I share it with her permission.
October 1, 2018: My Ma Rainey notes—
Related to Toledo’s first revealing commentary, and based on the premise that August Wilson was a pretty brilliant auto didactic and did not include anything in this play that he did not choose with a purpose—the Hull Train Crash in February 1927 in England—two trains on the same track in head-on collision led to 1927 Pathe film Express Train Disaster;
Carbon monoxide and hydrogen —in “all things change” lines are in fact a potentially explosive combination (which could be disastrous) and in 1927 covalent hydrogen bonding was revealed in a paper by London and Heitler which elucidated quantum mechanics, and Heisenberg uncertainty principle was also elucidated the same year—both of which provided information leading eventually to the atomic bomb.
Toledo ‘s references to changing and atoms and molecules and trains on the same track may suggest Wilson’s foreshadowing of Levee’s clashes with Cutler over the existence of God and with Toledo when he was overcome by anger—leading to two knife threats and a stabbing. Buddy Bolden was the cornetist credited by King Oliver as his influence—and King Oliver pioneered use of mutes, jazz solos—in Chicago in the 1920s.
Toledo’s almost correct logic premise statement: Aristotle says in logic it takes two premises to reach a conclusion—all men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore Socrates is mortal, is the classic Aristotelian example—Toledo is mortal, too.
His Pan Africanist “stew” comments about Slow Drag’s comments maybe related to WEB Dubois theories and Marcus Garvey’s Return to Africa movement—there were four world conferences—third in 1923 and fourth in 1927—at the time Toledo begins to develop his theory about how the white man has digested the stew of African natives and how all “Negroes” who remain are leftovers—
The Blind Lemon dedication may have been chosen because he struggled with the same problem Ma Rainey did—he was brought from Dallas to Chicago by Mayo Williams to record for Paramount and this first widely successful recording was in 1926–unhappy with what he was paid, he moved with Mayo Williams in 1927 to Okeh Records for one record—may have accounted for some of Ma’s bravado about her options with Sturdyvent and her agent—
Lemon was born in Streetman, went from there to Dallas—knew Leadbelly and T Bone Walker—and wrote very popular railroad blues during the peak in the late 20s of the first wave of the mass migration.
Also in 1927, a doctor named Raymond Pearl attacked the theory of eugenics in a book labelled The Biology of Superiority, criticizing the use of race in eugenics theory (regarding superiority of the white race), another piece of information accessible to a reader like Toledo, and maybe informing his black stew commentary.
Louis Armstrong’s Mahogany Hill Stomp was a blues song about Lulu White’s brothel and barroom in New Orleans, where Levee offers to take Slow Drag to find a woman.
Post discussion notes.
The unsympathetic nature of the diva Ma Rainey, who stole the blues from another, was dismissive of her protege, Dussie, and allowed if not precipitated Levee’s going over the deep edge.
Was Toledo a Garveyite? Or maybe a Moor Scientist follower of Noble Drew Ali? That may explain his political and philosophical positions. But why did he have to die? Why was his death meaningful to the telling of the story. We will see another manifestation Two Trains Running, in Seven Guitars, and in King Hedley II.
The musicality of the Reverend Gates ritual story that all the band members obviously already knew, drawn out over several pages to relieve the tension of the story being told.
Wilson’s skill in providing us mental space for the absorption of difficult messages.
Ma and her demand for Coca Cola and the memorialization of the beverage in the script.
The ensemble’s string quartet musicality and give-and-take regarding the character of Sylvester and his performance on the stage.
The marriage of the horn and the voice once the horn arrived. Early blues just had chords on a guitar.
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!