Margin notes from Two Trains Running (04062021)

Memphis, the cafe owner, has all the answers except why his wife left him two months before. They have four children. Risa, who works for Memphis in the cafe, has an idea.

Prophet Samuel is being buried on a Tuesday. Tuesday in Yoruba is Isegun, Day of Victory or Triumph. Aunt Ester sees visitors on Tuesdays. Prophet Samuel reminds us of Father Divine and Daddy Grace.

Hambone and Risa have a natural affinity. We later learn they both are involved in scarification.

“In some African tribes, it was like wearing your identity card on your face. True, some may hate that, but this was a mark of pride, not shame. In most African cultures, it was a major aesthetic and cultural component as can be seen on sculptures in museums around the world. Scarification patterns on sculptures are not only marks of beauty, but marks of one’s lineage as well, and in some cases protection against evil spirits. Lastly, in Africa like in Polynesia, scarification is more visible on darker skinned people than say, tattoos.” https://afrolegends.com/2015/09/16/scarification-an-ancient-african-tattoo-culture/

A man named Zanelli is behind in servicing the Jukebox. He is the “bringer” of music to the cafe, he controls the atmosphere. The jukebox only plays one song when it works, Aretha Franklin’s “Take a Look” (on the playlist). There a several reference to the broken jukebox throughout the play, a sort of sounding board for the general state of things. From Wikipedia:

Jukeboxes were most popular from the 1940s through the mid-1960s, particularly during the 1950s. By the middle of the 1940s, three-quarters of the records produced in America went into jukeboxes. Billboard published a record chart measuring jukebox play during the 1950s, which briefly became a component of the Hot 100; by 1959, the jukebox’s popularity had waned to the point where Billboard ceased publishing the chart and stopped collecting jukebox play data.

Traditional jukeboxes once were an important source of income for record publishers. Jukeboxes received the newest recordings first. Theybecame an important market-testing device for new music, since they tallied the number of plays for each title. They offered a means for the listener to control the music outside of their home, before audio technology became portable. They played music on demand without commercials. They also offered the opportunity for high fidelity listening before home high fidelity equipment became affordable.

The invention of the portable radio in the 1950s and the portable cassette tape deck in the 1960s were key factors in the decline of the jukebox. They enabled people to have their own selection of music with them, wherever they were. Jukeboxes became a dying industry during the 1970s, before being revived somewhat by compact disc jukeboxes during the 1980s and 1990s, followed by digital jukeboxes using the MP3 format. While jukeboxes maintain popularity in bars, they have fallen out of favor with what were once their more lucrative locations—restaurants, diners, military barracks, video arcades, and laundromats.

Holloway is a true believer in Aunt Ester, just as Risa is a true believer in Prophet Samuel. Their beliefs seem to co-exist throughout the play. Only Memphis criticizes Risa, and only West criticizes Holloway.

Aunt Esther here and in her other appearances is a true Stoic, advising her visitors always to change the way they look at a situation or a problem. She requires them to throw money into the river, i.e., to lessen their psychological dependence on money as a solution to their problems.

Memphis reminds one of Seth in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone when it comes to “traditional” beliefs, though Seth is the first one to grab the harmonica when it’s time to Juba. To his credit, Memphis credits his victory in court to Aunt Ester, not to his white lawyer. We later learn that Memphis has reading disabilities.

Memphis has a pipe dream of reclaiming his land in Mississippi just like Hambone has a pipe dream of getting his ham. Both misled by false, unrealizable hopes. Memphis sees that pipe dream in Hambone, but does not see it in himself. Scholars compare this the Hope’sBar in O‘Neill’s The Iceman Cometh.

Title cut: Two Trains Running. Ties to Doaker’s reflections on train motion in The Piano Lesson. Stovall, who Lymon was indentured to in The Piano Lesson, sold Memphis land without water rights in Two Trains Running, then led a bunch of men in chasing Memphis off the land and slaughtering his mule.

Mass incarceration = stacking niggers? Still working that one out.

Holloway mentions a little bit of history of Prophet Samuel, who was known as Reverend Samuel before he visited with Aunt Ester. Holloway makes a passing reference to Prophet Samuel wearing robes, baptizing people in the river, and going barefooted. That final reference reminded me of a personality known as the Barefoot Prophet who had a small following in my hometown in the 20’s and 30’s, along with his successor who was known as Mr. Bobo. Here is a bit of info: https://www.harlemworldmagazine.com/elder-clayhorn-martin-the-barefoot-prophet-in-harlem-1929/

The Barefoot Prophet – Elder Clayhorn Martin

Philmore the customer from Jitney shows up in Two Trains selling a property to West.

Does Memphis” criticism of “Black Is Beautiful” apply to “Black Lives Matter?” At least “Black is beautiful” was an identity and not a tautology.

Sterling mentions being brought up in an orphanage, Toner Institute. That orphanage really existed and operated until 1977, when State and county subsidies could not keep up with rising operational costs. http://www.brooklineconnection.com/history/Schools/TonerInstitute.html

Bubba Boy’s wife overdosed. It is the only drug-related death in the Cycle.

Memphis had a cathartic experience when his mother dies. He cried, things changed, looked differently. He felt he had been “cut loose.”

West visited Aunt Ester and refused to pay by putting money in the river. Memphis visited and complied with good results.

Session #4

Session #3

Session #2

Session #1

YouTube Playlist

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)

Some notes on Two Trains Running (04.27.2020)

Two Trains Running, set in 1969, covers a lot of territory. Let’s get started.

There’s much to be said, written and discussed about the play’s title, Two Trains Running. Wilson reveals in an interview with the dramaturg, Richard Pettengill, that

“There are two ideas in the play, or at least two ideas that have confronted black America since Emancipation, the ideas of cultural assimilation and cultural separatism. These were, in my mind, the two trains. I wanted to write a play about a character for whom neither of these two trains were working. He had to build a new railroad in order to get to where he’s going, because the trains are not going his way. That was the idea when I started out exploring.”

There is an element here from the Blind Lemon Jefferson blues tune, whose lyrics, or an excerpt of them, form the epigraph of an earlier play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:

“They tore the railroad down
So the Sunday Special can’t run
I’m going away baby
Build me a railroad of my own.”

And there is a second glimpse into this idea, I think, in the following Doaker monologue in The Piano Lesson, Act 1, Scene 1:

“They go so many trains out there they have a hard time keeping them from running into each other. Got trains going every which way. Got people on all of them. Somebody going where somebody just left. If everybody stay in one place I believe this would be a better world.”

That gets us to a starting point, at least. But as we learn from reading the play, it is only a framework, these two trains. Because in the play we see not two but four options pointed out, though at this point, it is suggested that only three are plausible. By 1969, the accommodationist model highlighted by Kingian non-violence has long since been abandoned and only receives fleeting mention in the diner discussions. What’s left are three discussable routes to inner and outer peace and progress, Prophet Samuel, Malcolm X, and Aunt Ester, and these three receive the bulk of mention as the play unwinds.

to be continued.

Youtube playlist

Session #3

A very good review on the “aboutness”of the play: http://phindie.com/11061-dear-white-people-two-trains-running-is-not-about-race/

Session #2 (including Carole Horn’s notes)

Session #1

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!