Notes on Session #4 of Radio Golf

As we turn the bend and complete the ten-play cycle with Radio Golf, I find my normal sense of humanism about all things evolving to a slight skepticism that I hope I can resolve or at least work through by writing about what I have read this week.

I want to start with Harmon’s keen eye for detail in interior design that sets him off from his two contemporaries in the play, his wife Mame and his business partner, Roosevelt. Harmon takes note of the hand-tooled embossing on the tin in his office. Mame’s response, “Then take it down and sell it.” God bless her soul, she is just cut from a different cloth. Unrelated (or perhaps not), when in the same scene Roosevelt asks Mame about her new job as the Governor’s press rep, she says, “If they find out I’m too excited about that job they’ll determine I must not be qualified.” To which I wonder, well, is she qualified or isn’t she? A truly qualified person should not have to add that step into the system of equations, racial considerations aside.

In Act2 Scene2, Roosevelt decides to leave his job as VP at Mellon Bank. He barges into his boss’s office, ignoring all protocol, and says “Kiss my ass, I quit.” That might have gotten some laughs from the audience, but what kind of professional does that? I mean really? And hasn’t he considered that his attractiveness to his new financier, Bernie Smith, is tied to the big picture, which includes his employment at Mellon Bank? I wrote in the margin, “bad move.”

Getting back to interior design, in the same scene, Harmon and Roosevelt are discussing the house at 1839 Wylie and Harmon asked Roosevelt if he has even been inside the house. Of course Roosevelt hasn’t, because he pays no attention to detail. Harmon goes on and on about the architectural style of the house and the solid foundation, the beveled glass trim on every floor, the large stain-glassed windows and the hand-carved balustrade on the staircase. All this is reminiscent, as Elam points out, of The Piano Lesson and the piano, which is both an archive and a Holy Grail for the Charles family. And what is Roosevelt’s response? “. . . people don’t like that kind of shit anymore.” When Harmon says the house smells like a new day (a very symbolic reflection), Roosevelt blames it on the mothballs. Roosevelt has a bit of cash and a Cornell degree, but he totally lacks class.

Further, the way Roosevelt flaunts Old Joe’s criminal record, as if it makes a condemnation of Joe’s character, and the way he dresses down Sterling late in Act2 Scene 4, or tries to dress him down, demonstrates not only his lack of compassion, but his total hatred for those less fortunate than he. On the other hand, towards the end of the play, we see an alignment between Harmon and both Old Joe and Sterling that shows Harmon’s sense of community and his social awareness, the fortunate circumstances of his birth notwithstanding.

So there is a basic incompatibility, between Harmon and Roosevelt, and perhaps even between Harmon and Mame. Harmon and Roosevelt are united by their time at Cornell and their love of golf, though upon close inspection, even those two things reflect greater differences than similarities between the two. Harmon and Mame are united by marriage and a dream of mutual accomplishment and achievement. But when Harmon backs away from “the plan” and decides to try to do the “right thing” about Aunt Ester’s house, we see Mame backing away ever so slightly.

Harry Lennix and the Elam article, Radio Golf in the Age of Obama

Harry Elam gives us much food for thought in his article, “Radio Golf in the Age of Obama.” He asks us to examine the incongruity of “radio” with “golf,” a combination in the play’s title that does not quite fit. He calls our attention to a vision of black pragmatism that Wilson crafts in the play and that vision’s lineage throughout the plays in the series. He mentions the creation of “Barack Obama as a political juggernaut dependent on manipulations of reality and the play of incongruity.” But here he leaves out an interesting detail. The actor who played Harmon Wilks as the play toured and made it to Broadway, Harry Lennix, is the same actor who claims in real life to have “taught” Barack Obama in the 90’s the articulations and gesticulations of an educated black Chicagoan before his first foray into state level politics. Lennix said in a press account, “He mimicked me, he followed me for years, and they wanted me to train him and teach him how to act….like a an educated south side African-American.” Life follows art.

In a very interesting repetition highlighted in the Elam article, Harmon’s grandfather, Caesar, says to the then Aunt Ester, “Now you know Miss Tyler, you got to have rule of law other wise there’d be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” And Harmon “mansplains “ to Mame and Roosevelt, “You got to have rule of law. Otherwise it would be chaos. Nobody wants to live in chaos.” I say “mansplains” partly in jest, but partly to illustrate that Harmon speaks from an implied sense of authority when he needs to make a point, much as he “mansplains” to Mame in the beginning of the play, “ Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight,” a statement that Mame is correct to question, in my opinion.

Elam introduces us to Pierre Nora’s Lieux de Memoire, sites of memory, as a way of analyzing the importance and significance of Aunt Ester’s house, the intersection of history and memory in “moments of history torn away from moments of history.” Finally, Elam connects Harmon’s warrior spirit to that of Solly and Citizen in Gem, Loomis in Joe Turner, Levee in Ma Rainey, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, Floyd Barton in Seven Guitars, Troy in Fences, Sterling (same Sterling) in Two Trains Running, Booster in Jitney, and King in King Hedley II.

Here’s a sonnet to celebrate completion of the cycle:

confined to quarters – a sonnet and a farewell to Wilson’s ten-play cycle

What must we conclude when the cycle ends?
Is there cause for hope, for optimism,
A balm we can surely find in Gilead?
Or isn’t all just a wink and a nod,
Yet another slave narrative that shows
the futility of our pleas for peace?

As a teen I thought Robert Redford might
Someday be President. I mean, Bobby Seale
Didn’t really stand a chance and Redford
Was at least a man of action. But there
was no great art in his films, well, except
in that spy flick he did with Dunaway –
Who had been my secret crush forever –
Where, under duress, she said, “This is . . . unfair!”

 

Consolidated notes from Sessions #1, #2, and #3

Youtube playlist

 

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!

Post class notes – Gem of the Ocean (3.9.2019)

The session got off to a strong start. The first group meeting was well attended and people were engaged and talkative about their reading. I went back to work and gushed to my boss about how excited I was for the first meeting.

One member of our group focused our attention on the stolen bucket of nails that resulted in Garret Brown’s death early in the play. Symbolically, Jesus was executed by being “nailed” to the cross, so that is a heavy metaphor. Nails are essential to carpenters and for building construction and that makes them valuable. England was the largest producer of nails worldwide during the American Revolution and nails were rare in the colonies. People would burn old houses just to extract the nails and many people “made” their own nails at home. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Just for kicks, here is a history of nails and a video of a blacksmith making nails.

This mention of “honor” brings us to another point in our discussion. Garret Brown could swim. Eli mentions in Act 1 Scene 1 that Brown was “treading water,” suggesting that he could have saved himself, had he so chosen. Brown chose death before dishonor because he knew he was not guilty of theft. We will see that theme of a sense of honor, and of preserving and protecting that honor in subsequent plays.

We didn’t discuss Solly’s occupation, collecting and reselling dog feces, called pure. Black Mary pooh-poohed it, but Aunt Ester was a regular customer, if not a connoissuer, distinguishing between 30-day old and 60-day old pure and pure resulting from the digestion of bone only. She used it on her tomatoes, but its principal use was in the tanning industry.

Happy folks are enjoying the You-Tube playlists. If you get a chance, check out the full movie version of The Music Man and refer to my comments on it here: https://augustwilsonstudygroup.wordpress.com/2018/11/24/notes-on-gem-of-the-ocean-11-24-2018/.

There is more, and I welcome you all’s additions/comments to this blog post below. Tomorrow I begin reading my favorite play of the ten, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.

postscript. There is a possible connection between the City of Bones and Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Certainly, the Twelve Gates of the City of Bones is connected to the mention of Twelve Gates in the Bible.

Too cool not to include: August Wilson’s Poem for my grandfather

And the transcription (HT to Jeannie McClem)

This is a poem I wrote for my grandfather.
Since I never knew my grandfather, I am speaking
in a generational sense, a generational grandfather.
This is your grandfather, my grandfather,
all of us’s grandfather.

Poem for my grandfather

His chest stripped open
to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.

Bynum Cutler.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.

Bynum Cutler,
who spread his seed
over the nine counties
in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind,
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton
planted in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season
welcoming its architects
and ennobling them
with gifts of blood.

Some takeaway notes from “Fences”

There is a lot to unpack in all these plays and Fences is no exception.

Late with this week’s blog post. I guess it took some time to process the play, the text I read twice, and the film adaptation we watched on TV. I want to begin by highlighting an August Wilson quote from Samuel Freedman’s foreword to my edition of Fences that I call “found poetry”:

"I found myself trying to figure out 
the intent of these lives around me.
Trying to uncover the nobility
and the dignity I might not have seen.
Part of the reason I wrote Fences
was to illuminate that generation,
which shielded its children from all 
the indignities they went through.

I have to confess that until our group discussion laid it out on the table with multiple inputs, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of the use of the play’s title “Fences” as a metaphor. That is what I’d like to address in this week’s post. But first, let’s recapitulate the pre-class notes:

  1. Market forces that influenced the play: advisors recommended a play with a nuclear family, something “more accessible” than the previous plays.
  2. Wilson’s insistence that the film adaptation have a black director was not well received by the entertainment industry.
  3. Who is the central protagonist in Fences? Is it Troy Maxsom, a “big man” who “fills all the empty spaces” in the lives of everybody around him?  Or is it Rose, the constant, steadying influence, the glue that holds everything together and nudges the men around her into true manhood? Or maybe Cory, the future, the promise, the unflawed character?
  4. The name of the play is Fences, but there are only occasional mentions of fences, or even of a single fence. Is the fence something central or merely incidental to the play? A metaphor?
  5. What about Bono? He gets better as the play progresses, better at dominoes, better at being a husband to Lucille, better at being a friend to Troy and Rose. He progresses through the timeline of the play. His character develops.
  6. This week we introduce Freytag’s Pyramid. A useful way to unpack and track the development of the play’s plot.
  7. What is the play’s introduction? Does the Troy-Bono dialogue (with Rose entering part way through the conversation) at the beginning of Act 1 effectively set the scene for the entire play?
  8. Rising action: Cory’s football hopes counterposed with Troy’s laments about his failed baseball career. Troy’s efforts to get a promotion to driver at work. Troy talks about past successful struggles with Death.
  9. Climax: Troy’s announcement that Alberta is pregnant, followed by a heated discussion with Rose and Cory’s entrance and defense of Rose in what he perceives to be his father’s physical attack. Strike 2.
  10. The Falling Action: Gabe gets arrested and institutionalized. Alberta dies in childbirth. We never see Alberta, but she is always lurking behind the scenes. Troy comes to grips with his new responsibility.
  11. Resolution: Rose adopts Alberta’s daughter, Raynell. Cory leaves home and joins the Marines. Troy dies. Lyons goes to jail but returns for the funeral. Cory also returns home for Troy’s funeral. Bono organizes the pall bearers.

But back to the Fences metaphor. Bono says early in Act 2, “Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” There is only one fence being built in the play, but the play has many fences, hence the plurality of the title. Troy and Bono met in prison, where they were “fenced” in, so to speak, in a hyper-controlled environment with rigid boundaries. That controlled space is also the place that gave Troy the discipline to learn the game of baseball, a sport with an infield for base running and an outfield generally enclosed and contained by a fence. Batting the ball “over the fence” is considered a score, a home run.

Troy considers his own marriage a type of prison to which he has been sentenced, a prison bounded by a fence, but at the end of an 18-year sentence, he wants freedom from “the same place’ where he has been standing still. He says towards the end of Act 2 Scent 1, “Then I saw that girl . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand, after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. [. . . .] I  stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought. . . well, goddamn it . . . go on for it.

On the other hand, and extending the metaphor, “fencing” is the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise. The person who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to resell them is known as a “fence.” Troy, using baseball imagery, refers in a conversation with Rose to his adultery with Alberta as “stealing second base.” Troy himself, in this sense, is the “fence” who purchased stolen property (Alberta’s affection and attention) and resells it as his own image of himself.

We can debate about whether Troy was a sympathetic or a despicable character. Professor Shannon points out in her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Troy “reverses a stereotype found in portrayals of the black family: the conspicuously absent father,” but that he is also an “amalgam of blues personalities,” i.e., a railroad man in his infidelity, a bluesman who is depressed and finally, “womanless,” and a trickster (you pick the poison). You gotta read Professor Shannon’s book.

Last but not least, Riley Temple, in his book, Queen Ester’s Children Redeemed, included Troy Maxson in a reference to the Wilson Warriors, characters who “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. . . . These men and women are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”  Temple includes in that list of warriors, from plays we have already completed, Boomer from Jitney and Levee from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another book you gotta read!

Well, I’ll stop here because time is passing, the weekend is approaching, and play #4, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, awaits my discover.

postscript. The 1950’s.

In 1954, in a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state laws segregating public schools for African-American and white children was unconstitutional. The case, known as Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, which was handed down 58 years earlier.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling was a landmark case that cemented the inspiration for the Civil Rights Movement.

The case was fought through the legal arm of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which had been fighting civil rights battles since the 1930s.

https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1950-1959-45442

1957

Congress establishes the Civil Rights Act of 1957. This is the first legislative act protecting the rights of African-Americans since the Reconstruction period by establishing the Civil Rights section of the Justice Department. Federal prosecutors are now able to get court injunctions against those who interfere with the right to vote. Under this act, the Federal Civil Rights Commission is also established.
Dorothy Irene Height is elected president of the National Council of Negro Women. Height holds this position for 41 years.
Federal troops are sent to Little Rock, Ark by Dwight Eisenhower to enforce the desegregation of Central High School. The troops are also instructed to protect nine African-American students who are enrolled in the school and remain for the entire academic year.
The Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights (ACMHR) was established in Birmingham.
Perry H. Young becomes the first African-American pilot of a commercial passenger airline.

Amiri Baraka on his poetry and breaking the rules

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHG60P2ECNk

. . . It’s the most subtle form of censorship not to publish it . . .

. . . I think it means that those of us who consider ourselves artists, intellectuals and activists have to create an alternative superstructure, an alternative network of institutions to carry the philosophy which is an alternative to the kind of imperialist philosophy which is, day by day, snatching all publishers out of the U.S. . . .

“…My hope is that the great poets that have existed in America will find their voice in a collective way and that we will be able to rescue all of the lost and the obscure, the willfully hidden poets in Poetry….the powers that be hide that literature which speaks against their rule, and they have done that since the beginning of time, and they will do that as long as they can, they will do that until, finally, we are in charge, the people are in charge of what needs to be published…”