Spring 2019 session

Welcome!

This study group begins Friday, March 8, 2019 and covers the 10 plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, one play for every decade in the twentieth century. Over ten successive weeks, we will explore a wide range of themes: the Great Migration; the plantation system in the post-Reconstruction South; mass incarceration; the recording industry; urban renewal and gentrification; Civil Rights and protest movements; political, social and business reform throughout the century. We investigate these and other themes through the lens of a small urban community in Pittsburgh, their daily successes and failures across the decades. We discuss themes of family relationships, conflict avoidance, and conflict resolution through those same lenses as we explore the structure of drama. We will read the plays chronologically, in order of decade.

Week 1: March 8, 2019 – 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.

Week 2:  March 15, 2019 –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.

Week 3:  March 22, 2019 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-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.

Week 4:  March 29, 2019 – The Piano Lesson (1986)

Synopsis: Set in 1936 and 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.

Week 5:  April 5, 2019 – 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.

Week 6:  April 12, 2019 – Fences (1984)

Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete

Week 7: April 19, 2019 – 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.

Week 8: April 26, 2019 – 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.

Week 9: May 3, 2019 – 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.

Week 10:  May 10, 2019 – 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 (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) 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.

Warm-up reading list for the Cycle

In no particular order

Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C., eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Interviews and conversations that provide enlightening background on the plays.

Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages inspired at least two plays in the cycle.Wilson often cites Bearden’s influence.

Jones, Leroi. Blues People. One of Wilson’s major influences, along with Bearden, Borges, and the Blues itself.

Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Places the migration to Pittsburgh and to the Hill District in historical context.

Whitaker, Mark. The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pittsburgh. Lots of context for the plays in the cycle.

Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Wilson credits Muhammad with supplying the first mythology (origin myths)  for black Americans.

Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Short critical analyses of each play in chronological order. Recommended for the course but not required.

Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Essays on each play and on recurrent themes. All the top Wilson scholars are represented.

Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Extensive essays on the first six plays in the order written, plus an unabridged interview with August Wilson makes this volume a plus! I reference this volume often in discussions.

Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. A dictionary-type listing of all the characters and themes of the first nine plays (published prior to the completion of Radio Golf) along with a multi-generational timeline of all the events in the plays. Very helpful.


YouTube Playlists for each play

Jitney:   https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZapfkM43eU0KVt5QWBxdlK

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXb3E8p4pv7MmgNPoDUlqCB7

Fences: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYPmItHweBOyfAwDJ-x1qwO

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaWJ0J5IXBUUpwoVe-klNmc

The Piano Lesson: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYBNIkZcDVM0y_xff-c1zCi

Two Trains Running: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXZOBWNf_EwGXjngVAQKrvbC

Seven Guitars: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK

King Hedley II: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXaqsHCCMTcpz7qemeLe19xv

Gem of the Ocean: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbpLBU1gTGwfhRV207HTXPb

Radio Golf: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXbZDGZ3NZTVicN5q755bnrd


Some random thoughts on Radio Golf (12.03.2018)

Radio Golf is dedicated to Benjamin Mordecai, former managing director at Yale Rep, co-director of all ten of August Wilson’s plays. Like Wilson, Mordecai died at age 60, just a few month’s before Wilson’s passing.

The play has the smallest ensemble cast of any play in the cycle with five characters. Sterling has appeared before in Two Trains Running. Harmond Wilks is the grandson of Caesar Wilks, who we remember from Gem of the Ocean, and Old Joe Barlow is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also of Gem of the Ocean. Radio Golf is an intergenerational family play at the end of the Wilson Cycle.

Roosevelt Hicks is Harmond’s business partner and was his college roommate at Cornell. Roosevelt speaks in a loose Negro dialect most of the time (compare his language to Harmond’s more standard English), suggesting he does not come from an educated family background like Harmond obviously does. He places high value on superficial things, like golfing, and business cards, and falls prey to get rich schemes like being the minority partner in the radio station purchase and being the front man for Bernie Smith, a rich white business guy. He says that without his new business cards, people on the golf course will think he is the caddie. Roosevelt is an insecure man.

Harmond want to put his campaign office in the predominantly black Hill District, while his wife wants him to locate in the more affluent white section of Shadyside. Harmond explains, “You don’t understand. Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight (italics mine).” Harmond understands politics at its essence, while his wife is operating on the superficial transactional level.

Sterling went to high school with Harmond and his brother, Raymond. But Sterling has had a troubled life, in and out of jail and trouble. He seeks employment, yet does not have the required union certifications. His remark to Harmond and Roosevelt that they should call him back for work before the phone company cuts off his phone does not inspire confidence. 

In a conversation between Roosevelt and Harmond and the end of Scene 2, Roosevelt notices something and bolts to the door, saying “Hey! Hey! Get off my car!”  Could it be a cat? Could it have been the cat resurrected at the end of King Hedley II? Could it be the spirit of Aunt Ester?

Moving ahead to the end (and to keep this blog post at a reasonable length), once Harmond establishes his family connection to Old Joe Barlow and to the property at 1839 Wylie Ave. (which was illegally acquired by the property development company), he attempts to do the right thing by redrawing the plans to preserve Aunt Ester’s house intact. At the play’s end, Roosevelt turns on Harmond, and we don’t know what is about to happen to the house, whether it will be demolished or not. But Harmond has made the right and correct decision. He echoes Ma Rainey in his description of Roosevelt’s betrayal, “After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?” Roosevelt says twice he is not anybody’s whore, which indicates that he is in fact somebody’s whore.

Harmond paints warrior markings on his face, like Sterling did earlier, then exits the office. Harmond is redeemed and the spirit of Aunt Ester lives!

Here are my notes from the Spring session: https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/05/06/some-initial-thoughts-on-week-10-radiogolf/

Huntington Theatre Company production of Radio Golf, 2006.

New York Times review, Broadway, 2007.

Late entries.

Joe Mott, who Old Joe mentions in Scene 4 reminiscing about his WWII battle experiences, is also the name of the black bar owner/gambler in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. August Wilson maybe is establishing a connection to Eugene O’Neill through one of O’Neill’s characters.

Hail! Hail! The Gangs All Here! was popular among troops in WW1 and WW2 though it had earlier antecedents. More recently, it was featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slauterhouse-Five. I think the Vonnegut may have been the connection Wilson was making. There is a bit of irony here. Songs from other plays are steeped in blues and spirituals, yet here are two Cornell graduates singing this very Irish/Celtic show tune. 

Blue Skies, an Irving Berlin song from the musical Betsy (1926) was later made popular by Frank Sinatra, Doris Day, and Ella Fitzgerald. It was also one of the first songs featured in a talking movie, sung by Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer.

Sam Green, a grocer mentioned in the play, in real life was definitely someone Wilson would have wanted us to know about. Sam Green, enslaved in Maryland, was arrested and convicted in 1857 for having in his possession a copy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After much protest from the abolitionist community, Green was freed in 1862 under the condition that he leave Maryland. The family emigrated to Canada where young Sam Green Jr. had previously escaped to. After Emancipation, Green returned with his family to Baltimore and became involved with running the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University.