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)

Notes on Seven Guitars 04.12.2020

Let’s start with a recognition of the play’s dedication, to Wilson’s wife,  Constanza Romero, and the Note from the Playwright, a sweet inscription to Wilson’s mother, Daisy Wilson Kittel, that details both his attention to character development and his recognition of culture as a prime mover of history. He spells out the play’s name, Seven Guitars, as an analog and a surrogate for the content of his mother’s life.

Using Aristotle’s Poetics as a frame of reference, let’s first note the prologue/Greek chorus in Act 1. Scene 1. It takes us forward in time to the funeral of the main protagonist, Floyd Schoolboy Barton. So we know up front what is going to happen. Floyd dies. There are no surprises, we just have to wait and see how the plot develops and how events unravel leading Floyd to his end. Even so, strangely enough, as spectators, we have hope, hope for Floyd, hope for his future as a recording artist, hope for his relationship with Vera. As we read we sit on the edge of our seats. Silly us, because the playwright told us up front. Why is there suspense?

Aristotle’s perfect tragedy does not involve the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity, nor does it involve a villanious man in a similar condition. It should be a man in between, a guy like Floyd Barton, perhaps. The change of fortune should be from good to bad and should come about not because of some vice, but because of an error in judgement of a similar frailty. Floyd, after several ups and downs, has just enjoyed a successful debut playing his hit song at the local dance club, and is on his way, Vera his true love on his arm, to Chicago to record an album. The success he has hoped and dreamed for is almost within his grasp.

Then by some quirk of fate, Canewell discovers the money Floyd stole and buried in the yard, later acknowledging the “ownership” to Floyd, but right in time for an intoxicated Hedley to show up and assume the buried money is the result of some alcohol-crazed dream he had of his father and Buddy Bolden. Whereupon Hedley retrieves the machete recently gifted to him by Joe Roberts, and uses the machete to whack Floyd in the neck, severing his windpipe. 

Of course, a lot happens in the interim. There is the complication of Floyd’s release from incarceration without access to either finances nor the means to earn wealth from his music as his instrument as well as the drummer’s drum set are in hock at the local pawn ship and the term for retrieving them has expired. There is the disappointment Vera experienced when he abandoned her earlier for Pearl Brown that he must now overcome, despite negative reinforcements from the landlady, Louise. Things are not looking good for Floyd.

Then in a reversal of fortune, Floyd comes into a bit of cash (from illegal activity, nonetheless), buys a new electric guitar, a new dress for Vera, and makes his date at the dance club, all to a rousing success. Collapsed into the same event, there is recognition of Floyd’s musical talents. The final spectacle collapses pathos and catharsis, for Hedley and Canewell at least, with Floyd, unfortunately, on the losing end.

It is important to recall that Seven Guitars is a prequel of sorts, and many seemingly random threads will establish their significance in the second part, the penultimate play in the Cycle, King Hedley II. But we should also note the archived information Wilson preserves, the card games (bid whist and pinochle), the cigarettes smoked (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, Camel), the beer brands (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label) , the menu items for Vera’s dinner (Chicken, potatoes and green beans), the four types of roosters, Canewell’s recipe for cooking greens, the blow-by-blow account of the Joe Louis fight, and the mention of Toussaint L’Overture and Marcus Garvey, all preserved for posterity inside the play.

We cannot overlook the bits of magical realism in the initial and final scenes of the play. Canewell, Vera and Hedley all see the six angels who escort Floyd into heaven. I have no interpretation for why those three in particular see the vision, except that Vera had accepted Floyd’s marriage proposal, making her perhaps the character closest to Floyd, Canewell survives the prequel and shows up later with a new name, and Hedley “fathers” the next tragic figure, King Hedley II, in the only play in the Cycle named for a character.

Finally, favorite lines, both from Vera: “I done told you, my feet ain’t on backwards” and “It was two different shades of blue.”

Post group discussion: Seven in numerology. One source says seven means wholeness, completion and comprehensiveness. Another source goes into the symbolism of seven: seven is the number of the spiritual quest. Seven, a prime number, is popular in both religion, i.e., seven throughout Revelations, seven in the monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), seven in Freemasonry, mythology and Theosophy, seven in Greek and Roman mythology, and in culture, i.e., Seven Habits, Seven Secrets, Seven deadly sins, etc., etc., etc.

A short word about structure in the play. The first scene of Act 1 ends precisely with the same line as the 9th scene of Act 2, the finale of the play. So the two are bookends “housing” the whole play. Also interesting the way the scenes get shorter, more compact, and more condensed in Act 2, sort of drawing us, pulling us, dragging us through the action to the end, which we already know, while keeping us on the edge of our seats. It is amazing how the structure of the play is used to unwind and unravel the action, almost collapsing linear time.

Post-Session #3

Pre-Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

YouTube PlayList

Some notes on The Piano Lesson 04.05.2020

Toni Morrison’s Foreword

Toni Morrison’s foreword, first of all, left me breathless. Too bad it was not included in her last collection of essays, The Source of Self-Regard. In the foreword she writes,

“It was in reading the text that I was struck by the beauty and accuracy of August Wilson’s language, as well as the richness waiting to be mined from the interstices between performance and text, between stage and the readerly imagination.”

She goes on to point out the “narrative threads” that figure most prominently the the unravelling of the plays central plot, the life of the truck that Boy Willie and Lymon arrive in and constantly go back to throughout the play, and the fear (and suspense) that animate the play.

The truck barely makes it to Pittsburgh with breakdowns, loss of breaks, failure of the radiator, etc., then throughout the play it reminds us that although the truck provides mobility, it only barely does so. There are the watermelon selling escapades (an inside joke) off the back of the truck, and there is Grace as a willing passenger for both Boy Willie (one night) and Lymon (another day). Ultimately the truck is to be the vehicle that takes the piano to its new owner (although it never happens) and alternately, the vehicle that Lymon uses to resettle in Pittsburgh since Boy Willie aims to return by train.

I’ll stop here so as not to spoil for you the reading. If anybody doesn’t have the version that has the Morrison foreword, I’ll send it out separately.

The weird end of the play.

A mixture of weird events marks the end of the play, presenting what is bound to be a super challenge for any stage director. In a few pages at the end of Act 2 Scene 5, we go from Boy Willie’s wrestling with Sutter’s ghost, to Avery’s failed attempt to bless the house, to Berniece’s calling on the ancestors as she plays the piano which finally puts the ghost’s expressions to rest. There is a type of time collapse that takes place that can only be attributed to and explained by Borgesian magical realism.

We have mentioned that Wilson cites his top influences as the 4 B’s, Baraka, Bearden, Borges, and the Blues. On the surface, we are aware of Bearden’s immediate influence. His collage, The Piano Lesson, provides the primary inspiration for the play. We find in Borges magical realism a possible explanation for the appearance and reappearance of Sutter’s Ghost as well as the rapid recovery from an intense spiritual experience at the very end of the play.

This passage comes from an earlier blog post.

The repeated appearance of Sutter’s ghost and the whole yarn about the Ghost of the Yellow Dog are vital elements in the unfolding of the play’s various plots. Every time Boy Wille and Lymon try to move the piano, they hear the sounds of Sutter’s ghost. Berniece sees Sutter’s ghost at the top of the stairwell, holding his head. Doaker sees the ghost but remains silent about it. Maretha sees the ghost upstairs and is traumatized. Avery fails at expelling the ghost from the house, Boy Willie has an actual physical altercation with the ghost and gets thrown down the stairs (better than the well, I’d say!), and ultimately, Berniece returns to playing the piano, calls on all the ancestors (a la Toledo’s African conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Altogether, this represents Borgesian magical realism at its finest, one of Wilson’s top influences. I mentioned magical realism in an earlier post, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” It serves as motive force for internally pushing the plot forward, but it also tells its own story.

Wilson addresses issues in The Piano Lesson in several interviews. He refers to Boy Willie as the heroic figure in the play, yet he calls his character development static as opposed to dynamic: Boy Willie enters with a firm plan, reflected, not coincidentally, in the play’s epigraph, lyrics to a blues song by Skip James that becomes a sort of mantra that Boy Willie recites throughout the play. He lets on in conversations that he admires Boy Willie’s intention to return to the south and buy land, farm that land, and secure financial independence. Yet he says Berniece is the star of the play and that the play is about Berniece, not Boy Willie. It is Berniece’s character that develops and evolved, and at the end she breaks through and does what she must to quiet Sutter’s ghost. He mentions that in the first write, he gave Berniece some very “feminist” lines that were eventually removed as it would have been out of place for 1936. When Wilson is asked whether or not Berniece and Avery eventually get married, he expresses doubt, explaining that Avery’s accomodationist tendencies are unlike character traits of other men in her life, her father, her first husband and her brother, for example.

Wilson refers to The Piano Lesson as his best play.

The relationship between Boy Willie and Beniece

There are several clues in the play that give us important information about the brother sister relation. A few facts are important. Berniece is five years older than Boy Willie. Following the murder of their father, Papa Boy Charles, their mother was essentially so emotionally impaired (there are subtle hints of this) that she was no longer able to effectively parent her children and Berniece more or less took over at Boy Willie’s mother figure. This became very apparent in the scene where Maretha is having her hair ironed and Boy Willie criticizes the way Berniece speaks to her daughter (as if she may have spoken to him like that in his childhood (my interpretation)). This tension overrides their relationship throughout the play.

Finally the question of the hour. Does Lymon sleep with Berniece?


During our group discussion we talked about how the idea to divide the proceeds from the sale of the piano was a concept that seemed to have evolved during the course of the play. Someone mentioned that in the case of a dispute like this over jointly held family property, the proper recourse would have been to sell the property and split the proceeds across the heirs or family members with a claim on the property. When Boy Willie first arrived, he was dead set on selling the piano and taking the proceeds to buy the property down south. Later on he modified his position to share the proceeds with Berniece, half and half.

Another discussion we had was the three part or tripartite religious spiritualism that ranged from the otherworldliness of magical realism, to elements of African spirituality, to more traditional Christianity and how issues and events moved back and forth on that spectrum, perhaps positing that the African Spiritualism in the middle was somehow the golden mean. Avery, then, represented the traditional Christian faith, Berniece ended up representing the African spirituality, and Boy Willie wrestling with Sutter’s ghost represented the Borgesian magical realism and otherworldliness clearly distinct from anything else mentioned.

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes