Random thoughts on Seven Guitars (04142021)

Random topics I may or may not have covered in earlier sessions.

The play’s structure with the end up front, followed by the action in the middle and the end at the end is both standard structure for Greek tragedy and a shoutout to Borges, one of Wilson’s principle influencers. Wilson pointed out how Borges tells his readers what is going to happen in advance, yet there is still a sense of suspense. Then it comes about. No doubt this is Wilson’s Greek tragedy play with Borges hints. See more on Wilson’s Greek tragedy structure in Session #4.

We have instances of Floyd’s functional illiteracy throughout the play. While in prison he paid someone to write letters to Vera. He didn’t understand the words in a letter from the prison detailing the procedure for claiming his pay for each day he was imprisoned. Even Red Carter accuses Floyd of not being able to read. It is not a huge leap to reason that Floyd’s issues with his early recording contract could have stemmed from his inability to read. I wonder how he made it through his enlistment in the Army and how he survived the war without being able to read. We see this issue of the impediments of illiteracy in other characters in the Wilson Cycle.

(Note: 4% of Americans are non-literate and 14% are below basic literacy levels. 34% are at the basic literacy level. 52% read under the 8th grade level. These are 2013 levels, from data collected by the OECD every ten years, but levels of illiteracy are sure to rise with the present influx of non-English speakers across the southern border. https://www.wyliecomm.com/2020/11/whats-the-latest-u-s-literacy-rate/)

Vera describes a dress she was wearing when she met Floyd as two shades of blue or, to be precise, “two different kinds of blue.” I saw this initially as a distinction between the blues of Buddy Bolden, for whom Hedley was named, and the blues of Muddy Waters, the mentor for our bluesman, Floyd Barton. Extending the frame of reference to another Wilson play, there was the “jug-bucket” blues of Ma Rainey vs. the dance music blues of Levee. A short search yields a multiplicity of different kinds and types of blues music, including Memphis Blues, New Orleans Blues, Chicago Blues, Delta Blues, and Texas Blues. Each has its own peculiar sound and its unique performers.

Throughout the play there are various lists of things, recipes with various steps, and categories of things. Included are types of beer, brands of cigarettes, types of card games, little rhymes, types of weapons, a blow-by-blow boxing match final round, types of roosters, and a recipe for cooking greens. Floyd lists seven ways to go.

I was struck by the similarities between Hedley’s tuberculosis condition, the testing and treatment of it, etc., and current concerns about COVID. Sort of brings it up to date. Tuberculosis, like COVID, was not extremely understood in its early days and often patients were “herded” together in sanitoriums to die, much like the nursing home scandals in New York and Michigan. Eventually, the nature of the disease became better understood and medications were developed that eradicated it. We can only surmise what happens in Hedley’s case, though Louise’s descriptions make it sound like it is already in its advanced stages.

Speaking of Hedley, he is the first person we’ve come across who is not from the south like so many other migrants to Pittsburgh. It sets up a different dynamic in personal relations that we see playing out in Hedley’s interactions with other members of the ensemble. This reflects what actually happened with so many black Caribbean immigrants moving to Northern cities and having to interact with a new country, a new black society unlike what was most prevalent in the south, and in many cases, a new religious order. In effect they, these immigrants from the Caribbean faced separate challenges than southern migrants of a completely new society. Hedley makes Seven Guitars a special case for studying the great migration. Another aspect of the great migration not covered in the American Century Cycle, however, is the rural to urban migration that took place within the south and never crossed into northern states.

Louise explains to Vera multiple times that Floyd “just doesn’t know how to do.” Also known as “savior faire,” Louise says that Floyd lacks basic knowledge and information about the way things work. Of course Vera ignores Louise’s warning because she has a pipe dream of “being a different person” at her new destination that matches Floyd’s pipe dream of “making it” in Chicago. Similarly, Hedley has a pipe dream about a future life on a plantation he will be able to buy with money from his dead father’s ghost.

And what is up with Red Carter claiming he once dated seven women at the same time? Red Carter is lying and he knows it. Perhaps this “locker room talk” adds to the flow of the plot. A monologue for the boys in the band, Canewell, Red Carter, and Floyd. Wilson has said in interviews that nothing in his plays is superfluous and everything ties to something else in building the plot.

Ruby arrives and all the men go crazy. All the men. I could only shake my head. We will discuss, perhaps.

Wilson makes a big deal about Highway 61. I didn’t get it until I looked it up. Highway 61 runs along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Minnesota. It was a major thoroughfare out of the deep south and the subject of many blues songs. In fact, Bob Dylan made a complete album in 1965, Highway 61 Revisited, that included much of the music and blues tradition. See the playlist for other examples. Interesting that the earliest blues pieces describe trains and railroads, because railroads were the primary method of conveyance. Later, with the development of interstate highway systems, automobiles and highways become the underpinning subject of blues. (Note: Upon reflection, the earliest blues pieces may have focused on walking and shoes and we have certainly seem those themes in plays in the Cycle.)

A subplot within the plot, Hedley kills the neighborhood rooster as a signal that he will kill again, and soon. Hedley confesses to Ruby that he once killed a man who would not call him by his given name, King, a sign of things to come for his (alleged) and Ruby’s offspring in the future.

Session #4

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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.

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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!