Musings on August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson (3.30.2021)


For each session, my intention is to come up with some unique perspective in understanding the play. Sometimes I succeed and achieve that goal. Sometimes I do not. This time I come pretty close.

The key issue, and the central lesson of The Piano Lesson, is repeated by August Wilson in interview after interview. The issue is, ”can you acquire a healthy sense of self worth by denying your past?”

On the surface, it might appear that Berniece is the one who wants to preserve the historical basis of the family’s sense of self-worth through her refusal to sell the piano with all its artifacts that detail family history. Similarly, on the surface, it might appear that Boy Willie is willing to ignore that history in order to buy the 100 acres of farmland where their ancestors were slaves and later, sharecroppers.

But beneath the surface, we learn that 1) Berniece never plays the piano; and most significantly, 2) Berniece has never explained to her daughter Maretha the history of the piano and its symbolic artifacts, the history of the family, or anything else that might actually suggest a sense of self worth. Berniece tells Maretha to “don’t act your color,” suggesting there is something inherently inferior about her complexion. Additionally, while “fixing her hair,” Berniece tells Maretha that if she were a boy, they wouldn’t have to go through that painful process of placing a hot comb to her scalp, suggesting there may be something inferior, as well, about her gender. That Berniece is a piece of work! Berniece wants to ignore her family history in the rural south in order to build a different future for her family in the urban north.

Boy Willie, perhaps on the other hand, acknowledges his southern roots, so much that he wants to buy the land his ancestors worked when they were enslaved. But in order to complete the purchase, Boy Willie has decided he needs the proceeds from selling the family heirloom, the piano.

The tradeoff, stripped of all the accompanying baggage, seems very straight forward.

Let’s pause here and come back later. Let’s talk about the art.

According to Wilson, the Romare Bearden painting, The Piano Lesson, provided him inspiration to write the play. In the Bearden painting, you see what appears to be Maretha seated and Berniece standing over and instructing her at the piano.

Bearden: Homage to Mary Lou Williams, The Piano Lesson

The painting actually was a tribute to the jazz singer/artist/performer Mary Lou Williams, with whom Bearden’s wife Nanette and her dancing company had done an artistic collaboration while Williams was Artist in Residence at Duke University. The original Bearden collage/painting didn’t have all the family portraits carved into the wood. That was Wilson’s innovation.

But back to the collage. In a wide ranging interview with Myron Schwartzmann in a huge coffee table book Schwartzmann completed entitled, “Romare Bearden: His Life and Art,” whose foreword was written, by the way, by August Wilson, Bearden takes us from the original diagrammatic drawing (ink on paper), to the black and white 1983 oil with collage of the Mecklenburg Autumn series, to the silkscreen ink on tracing paper, to the final 1984 version fully colored.

The complete Mecklenburg Autumn series, named for the North Carolina county where Bearden was born, included, among many, a piece called Autumn Lamp, which featured a guitar player and his guitar. In producing the painting/collage, Bearden followed a procedure established by the French impressionist Edouard Manet, as recorded by his contemporary, another French impressionist, Claude Monet. Monet wrote that Manet always wanted to give the impression that a painting was completed in one sitting, so at the end of each day in production, he would scrape down whatever he had produced, keeping only the lowest layer. Then each new day he would “improvise” on that bottom layer. At some point, Manet would stop the process, but in fact, a Manet painting made in this manner was never actually completed.

In other paintings in the series, Bearden used images from his childhood.

For The Piano Lesson, also called Homage to Mary Lou Williams, Bearden found inspiration in two Matisse paintings, The Music Lesson and The Piano Lesson, left to right, below.

Without going too far afield, one can see not only how Bearden’s images influenced Wilson, but also how his processes and production “technologies” influenced how Wilson produced plays, going through multiple rehearsal revisions, yet improvising on the ever present foundation drawing, the original vision if you will. Yet another piece of the story is that Matisse was influenced by Van Gogh, who did his own “Piano Lesson,” Marguerite Gachet At The Piano. I will leave this link with you for further study and investigation. https://www.vincent-van-gogh-gallery.org/Marguerite-Gachet-At-The-Piano.html

Bearden continues in this part of the interview with other influences on his work, his study of the Dutch Masters, especially Vermeer, his study of the French impressionists during his sojourn in Paris, and his reading of Clausewitz, On War, and how the chaos of war is resolved though the elimination of options. He wrote of classic Chinese painting which he considered the “greatest of paintings,”


For instance, a Chinese painter, in the classic days, when he looked at the rocks and trees, felt a certain oneness with them. And he was, himself, although painting it, part of the landscape which he was painting. He looked upon the large tree, let us say, as a father tree, the others as his children; the largest mountain, perhaps, as a father mountain, or a mother, and smaller, children mountains. So he imbued nature with human concerns. . . . In this way he was ablest the very beginning, to think of the relationships in his painting because of the relationships with a family.”

I have gone a bit off on a tangent with this Bearden thing, but when Wilson says that Bearden was one of his principle influences, we really should both take that at face value and look deeper.

An interesting story captured by Richard Long, essayist and critic, in his essay “Bearden, Theater, Film and Dance,” reports how he noticed an op-ed Wilson wrote for the New York Times that mentioned his indebtedness to Bearden’s influence. Long showed the op-ed to Bearden over breakfast and asked him if he had seen it and what he thought about it. Bearden, who had never met and would never meet Wilson remarked, “Well, he could have at least sent me tickets to the show.” Wilson would say in subsequent interviews that he actually stood outside Bearden’s apartment but would not go in to see him (hoping perhaps to catch him in transit, maybe). It’s a shame they never directly collaborated.

Two more thoughts on The Piano Lesson before I stop.

It dawned on me, and perhaps on you, that Boy Willie and Berniece are quibbling in the play over what amounts to stolen property. In a previous session I traced the lineage, the provenance of the artifact, the piano. The transaction that resulted in the Charles family acquiring the piano was a theft by Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, along with his uncles, Doaker and Wining Boy. Plain and simple. I know all about how the piano was exchanged for two enslaved people who were also ancestors of Boy Willie and Berniece and I know how horrible slavery was as an institution. I am descended from enslaved people and I grew up hearing the stories. But let’s be honest. Slavery was protected and preserved by the U.S. Constitution. Slavery was the law of the land in the states where it was legitimately practiced. The state legislatures approved it. The national Senate and House of Representatives allowed it. And the Supreme Court affirmed its legitimacy in a number of cases and decisions. They were all in on it. It took a Civil War and the deaths of six hundred thousand soldiers on both sides to correct the wrong that was slavery, something that should have been able to be worked out by rational people over a dining room table.

Yet, try as we might, we cannot really morally justify the theft of the piano, no matter what images were carved into it. Don’t get sucked in by the emotional appeal.

Finally, I want to call your attention to the fact that The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, and for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Le’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson than ever before. As we know from earlier reading, mechanical reproduction will increase the exhibition value of Wilson’s work but what is lost is the cult value, the ritual of the romance of the energy exchanged across the stage and into the audience.

postscript. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year, and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.

postscript#2. NaPoWriMo requires a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?

The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.

Session #4

Session #3 post-class notes 3.30.2019

Session #3 pre-class notes 3.28.2019

Session #2 notes

Session #1 notes

YouTube playlist

Field notes – Fences. March 18, 2021

Below is the Romare Bearden collage, Continuities, that inspired Troy’s character in Fences. He is bringing the baby home after her mother died in childbirth. Note the disproportionate size of the hands.

Romare Bearden – Continuities

Fences always floods me with thoughts, as do all the plays in the cycle. Perhaps that is why leading the study group every Spring has become such a ritual for me. Fences is August Wilson’s “family play.” It and all the rest of the plays in the cycle depict the black family, Wilson’s chosen identity, although he had a white immigrant German father. An English professor I met in Ghana once told me that the African family, and by extension, the African village are Africa’s contribution and gift to all of humanity.

Let’s begin with the name of the tragic hero, Troy. The name refers both to a place in legend and a real-life archaeological site. Helen of Troy, a Spartan queen, was abducted by Paris, the son of Troy’s King Priam, which started the Trojan Wars. The city was, in legend, besieged for 10 years. Troy was eventually conquered by a Greek army led by King Agamemnon. So Troy as a name is already legendary, as was the soft-spoken pianist in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Toledo, also named for a legendary European city.

Through the story and background of Troy Maxxom, Wilson introduces his audiences to the wonders and the greatness of the Negro Baseball League, and such legendary players as Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Jackie Robinson, the first black player to break into the Majors. The first professional black team, the Cuban Giants, formed in New York in 1885. The National Colored Baseball League was established in 1887, failed, and was re-established in 1920. It lasted competitively until 1951 when major league baseball integrated. Baseball itself was “born” in Confederate prison camps in the south during the Civil War as a past-time for prisoners. At the end of the war, prisoners returned home and took baseball with them to their home towns. Troy learns to play baseball while imprisoned for murder and theft in the 1920’s and 1930’s. A Negro League star player and athlete, Troy resented never getting a crack at the Major League, being considered too old and past his prime.

Troy has an outsized personality, befitting a former professional athlete, and all the other characters revolve around him, that is until he begins to make mistakes, then one by one, each character drifts away from his orbit. Troy’s relationships with those around him are often complex and always genuine and authentic, but his indiscretions catch up with him and enclose him in a very personal and tragic hell of his own making.

The play is set in 1957, three years after the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v Board of Education, which put an end to the legal underpinning of the American style of apartheid. But nothing happens suddenly, and in my early teenage years in the late 1960’s, over a decade after the Supreme Court decision, I found myself involved in several initial integration efforts – the local public library, Boy Scout camp, public school and prep school. In fact, throughout my professional career, in the submarine Navy and in the diplomatic corps, I still have not seen a level of black participation even close to proportionate to our percentage of the population. Some fences work.

Rose has Troy building a fence so she can keep the family she cherishes in and the negative elements out. She seeks to achieve a type of “separateness,” a separate peace if you will. But it is not to be. Cory grows up and leaves, Troy seeks other love interests, and even Rose herself eventually finds outside solace in the church. The fence is not effective as a barrier wall against outside intrusion. We see analogues in the body politic. The countries of Southern Europe are vulnerable to African immigrants willing to take their chances with the perils of crossing the sea, a type of barrier. (Note: the Qaddafi fence kept that movement of immigrants in check for many years. End note.) Similarly, the U.S. finds itself embroiled in a coming economic cataclysm as South American immigrants take advantage of Biden executive actions to lower the barrier to entry by lessening the risks of illegal entry into the United States via its southern border. Israeli PM Netanyahu said just last week (March 10, 2021):

In fact, I put up a fence, you know,” he added. “They call it a wall. But I prevented the overrunning of Israel, which is the only first-world country that you can walk to from Africa. We would have had here already a million illegal migrants from Africa, and the Jewish state would have collapsed. The Jewish State, Conservative, Reform, Orthodox, would have collapsed.”

Looking at real world uses of fences helps to put things in perspective.

Pay special attention to Wilson’s epigraph because it emerges at several fractures in the play. Also pay attention to Wilson’s prologue, called simply, “The Play.” It is laden with hints and secret surprises.

The play “paints” Troy as a pretty unsympathetic creature, especially vis-a-vis his son, Cory, and his wife, Rose. But is he really so bad a guy? Similarly, Cory is presented as pure as the driven snow, without spot of blemish. But he does lie to his father and sometimes he treats his father badly. Rose appears to be the long-suffering wife, but might that also be an optical illusion, a diversion from the reality that nobody is perfect?

Troy’s bantering about his struggles with the devil are entertaining, but it is only a subterfuge for real struggles and traumas he has faced in his life. His warnings to Cory about sports are legitimate and I don’t think Cory made a bad choice in joining the Marines, so long as he gets out at the end of his enlistment and before Vietnam heats up. Nobody needs to die in a foreign war.

I mention in notes from an earlier session that the spoken affection Troy has for Bono, and Bono reciprocates, is fairly unusual for men in the 1950’s. That impressed me. When Lyons asked Troy to come see him play at the local club, Troy remarks that he doesn’t like that Chinese music. I had to look up that reference. Turns out jazz was very popular in Shanghai and even in Beijing from the late 1920’s, about the time, coincidentally, of Ma Rainey’s popularity in the U.S. Known as shidaiqu, a type of fusion between European jazz and Chinese folk, it was obliterated from the scene during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Speaking of which, Lyons’ verbalization of his attraction to music is strongly reminiscent of words Ma Rainey used. I’ll bring that up in discussion Thursday.

There will be more notes after Thursday’s discussion. In the interim, here are links to previous sessions and to the playlist which is really quite good!

Post-session notes.

Both Joan Herrington, in her essay “The Complexity of Conflict,” and Joan Fishman, in her essay, “Developing His Song: August Wilson’s Fences,” present us with what I call longitudinal cross sections of the various editions of Fences from its inception and first performance to its final edition that we now see on stage and adapted for film. Two Joans. There are so many examples to cite of plot changes and line reversals. The most poignant for me it the analysis of the final conflict between Cory and Troy. An early edition has Cory swing the bat at Troy, followed by Troy getting a gun and actually cocking back the hammer and pointing the gun at Cory. Cory scurries into the alley and is not heard from again until Troy’s funeral. Shortly before the next edition of the play, the singer Marvin Gaye had been killed by his father with a gun. Wilson decided to drop the gun detail from the story.

While not pronounced loudly, it is significant to mention that Troy was a unionized employee and it was the union that interceded when he sought the promotion to driver on his job. I only focused on it after reading about efforts this week to unionize workers at the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, AL.

Session #4

Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

Youtube playlist

Special bonus from Minnesota Public Radio

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)

A few random thoughts on Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 03.15.2020

Like Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (JTCG) begins with a statement, except it is more like a scene setter than a prologue. And in similarity to Gem’s allusion to the Tuesday divinity in the Yoruba religion, Ogun, JTCG opens with a subtle yet direct hymn to the deity, Ogun, also known as the God of Iron, with repeated references to steel, steel mills, and the steel-like nature of the human soul, malleable, shapable, adaptable. As such, JTCG is a tragedy, a near-Greek tragedy, with a character, Herald Loomis, who is brought to total destruction and ruin, almost, nearly. And the scene setter is a sort of Greek chorus, almost. Yet Loomis survives, and is redeemed and transformed, more in keeping with Judeo-Christian tragedy. We will continue to track these traces of Greek, Judeo-Christian, AND Yoruba dramatic elements as we proceed through the cycle.


All the literature on JTCG mention as a central theme in the play the false promise of emancipation. Loomis gets caught up in the system of peonage, a type of court-sanctioned return to slavery. Without committing any crime, he gets swept away and forced to do hard labor for seven years in a kidnapping/sharecropping system that basically prolonged involuntary servitude. So much for emancipation. Upon completion of his term, he seeks to regather the far flung pieces of his life. An incredible challenge awaits him as he seeks to reunite his family.


The boarding house run by Seth and Bertha is slightly reminiscent of Hope’s bar in Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. The two plays get compared from time to time, but the similarity is only superficial (the name, Joe Mott, a character from Iceman, does show up in Radio Golf, the final play in the cycle). Yet, each resident has his or her story, the individual plot lines intersect or intertwine at times, and each resident benefits from the experiences of every other resident. And every resident, though temporary, is a part of the great migration North after emancipation. In that regard, the house is a sort of archeion, housing the records and data, through human stories, narratives, and lived lives, of the Great Migration.


I noticed an interplay of the words “bind,” “bound,” and “bond.” Bynum “binds” together those who cling. Jeremy gets his “bond” paid when he is thrown into jail for public drunkenness. And “bound” is the past participle of bind, an action completed in the past, but also related to “bondage,” which is how characters refer to the period of enslavement. In a possible connection to Wilson’s brief experiment with the Islamic religion, the first revelation in the Holy Qur’an, A Clot of Blood, is also translated as “a clinging thing,” in reference to the clot of congealed blood that becomes an embryo and illustrates humankind’s humble origin. But that may be a stretch!


Loomis, though formerly a church deacon, has decidedly rejected traditional religious faith. At the end of both Act 1 (Holy Ghost) and Act 2 (Jesus) Loomis demonstrates his disdain for Christian faith and beliefs. It’s almost like two bookends and it is almost as if Wilson wants to send this message in a very strong way.


Early in the play Bynum references the cleansing power of blood and bleeding and Herald Loomis makes a similar reference at the end of the play. A cleansing ritual. Again, bookends almost. I don’t know what it means beyond the Christian representation of communion and the imbibing of Jesus’ blood and his flesh in a sacred ritual. But I do know Wilson included it and placed it where he did, twice, for a reason.


Finally, just a note on Romare Bearden, whose painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, was a piece in The Prevalence of Ritual exhibition that provided Wilson the inspiration for JTCG. Here is the image:

Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket

Wilson wrote, in the Foreword to Myron Schwartzmann’s “Romare: His Life and Art,”

“My friend Claude Purdy had purchased a copy of The Prevalence of Ritual, and one night, in the Fall of 1977, after dinner and much talk, he laid it open on the table before me. “Look at this,” he said. “Look at this.” The book lay open on the table. I looked. What for me had been so difficult, Bearden made seem so simple, so easy. What I saw was black life presented on its own terms, on a grand and epic scale, with all its richness and fullness, in a language that was vibrant and which, made attendant to everyday life, ennobled it, affirmed its value, and exalted its presence. It was the art of a large and generous spirit that defined not only the character of black American life, but also its conscience. I don’t recall what I said as I looked at it. My response was visceral. I was looking at myself in ways I hadn’t thought of before and have never ceased to think of since.”

Session 1 notes

Session 2 notes

Session 3 notes

JTCG and Wilson’s 4 B’s

p.s. How did I leave out Wilson’s memorialization of the 23rd Psalm in the final scene, as Martha Loomis (now Pentecost) recites it trying unsuccessfully talk down her husband, Herald, from hurting someone with the knife he has drawn. Luckily, Bynum helps Loomis back down on his own in a way that is reminiscent of Toledo’s description of “African conceptualization” in Ma Rainey (next week) and Berneatha’s calling on the ancestor spirits in Piano Lesson (two weeks hence).

Addendum: 3/22/2020. Two characters from GEM reappear or are mentioned. Selig, the pot seller and people finder shows up in both. Still trying to figure out the bid deal about dustpans. I heard a story once about how, in the slave quarters, they would use brooms to sweep the ground down to a hard surface to prevent the growth of weeds and that it kept rats away. Maybe that practice migrated North.

Rev. Tolliver is another name that repeats, performing the funeral for Garret Brown in GEM, and leading the congregation in its move North in JTCG.