post-notes on Two Trains Running (4.26.2019)

OK. Just some random notes and thoughts after our group discussion to “close out” Two Trains Running.

Going through each character and his/her contribution(s) to the various plotlines was an interesting way to summarize the play and open up various lines of discussion. It was mentioned that outside his long monologue about “niggers and guns,” Holloway makes no mention of gun violence like some of the other characters. We spoke at some length about the possible causes of Hambone’s affliction and I think we agreed that the injustice he experienced may not have been sufficient cause for his obsessive fixation(s) in the play. “He gon’ give me my ham!” Upon Hambone’s death we learn that he had lots of cuts and scars on his body. That was connected to Risa’s cuts and self-mutilation, scarification rituals, etc., which led our discussion to the topic of anorexia. Sterling, it was noted, had a special connection to Hambone, and he also had a special connection, attraction to Risa. Risa was very sympathetic and caring with Hambone. The three, Risa, Hambone, and Sterling, formed a sort of mutual triad.

Wolf, the numbers runner, was pretty much a static character throughout. He has a special, though understated affection for Risa, always saying nice things to her and claiming to have a special knowledge of her among the menfolk. Equally, Wolf has a distaste for West and doesn’t want him handing his body when he dies. Memphis was connected in our discussion to Seth (in Joe Turner) and Caesar Wilkes (in Gem) as a self-made man. He was also described as often mean and cruel to both Hambone and to Risa and it was obvious he was hateful to his wife, though his own behavior towards her escaped his own awareness. The play directions say he has “impeccable logic,” and that may be Wilsonian tongue in cheek. Risa is referred to in the group as the Victorian heroine, long suffering, and angelic. She keeps the diner running and has no fear for her job, despite Memphis’s continuous complaints. She reminds me of Black Mary in Gem, enduring the constant flow of criticisms from Aunt Ester. And West, the undertaker, has a storied history, from petty crime and marginal living to upright and successful entrepreneurism. We postulated that his black gloves may be a cover for eczema or skin damage from embalming fluid. He pays “Mason” to guard his funeral parlor.

Now for some notes I took in the actual text.

Memphis is the father of four children. Still his wife left him. Memphis resents that Risa donates money to Prophet Samuel. A man named Zanelli runs the jukebox service. Sterling is “fresh” out of prison and that socialization is a big part of his personality. He is caught in a Catch-22 with regard to work and union membership in Pittsburgh. Holloway is a big advocate of Aunt Ester’s counseling services. He draws the link between Aunt Ester and Prophet Samuel. I scribbled in the margins, “Does Hambone represent blacks who demand reparations?” Memphis mentions a Mr. Stovall, also mentioned in The Piano Lesson. Early in Scene Two Memphis mentions “two trains running every day.” Holloway’s mention of “stacking niggers” reminds me of mass incarceration. It also brings to mind images of the middle passage, kidnapped Africans packed like sardines in the hull of slave ships. Memphis says “dead men don’t have birthdays” in reference to a Malcolm X celebration. Holloway points out the superiority of Aunt Ester to Malcolm X anyway. Sterling mentions the time he spent at Toner Institute. Memphis’s failure to understand the clause in his deed referencing eminent domain makes me question his level of literacy. Memphis’s monologue at the end of Act One is especially poignant and shows he is at least capable of deep feeling.

Hambone learns to say “United we stand,” but he never repeats “Malcolm Lives.” West mentions burying an elderly lady, Miss Sarah Degree, also mentioned in Seven Guitars and the person who provides home remedies. In real life, Sarah Degree was a lady in Wilson’s childhood who took neighborhood children to Sunday School and church. Wolf speaks of two lady friends he has in Atlanta and quotes, without attribution, Floyd Barton’s song, “That’s all right.” Risa says Prophet Samuel was “sent by God to help the colored people get justice.” Holloway believes in the supernatural. West tells Sterling to get a small cup instead of a ten-gallon bucket, advice that Wilson received from one of his mentors during his youth. Risa plays Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look on the juke box, dances with and kisses Sterling. Risa refuses to see Hambone in the casket, just as she refused to see Prophet Samuel, saying in both cases, “I don’t want to see him that way.”

notes on Two Trains Running (4.25.2019)

Looking for a different angle this reading.

I think i may find it before Friday morning! Some critics say Two Trains Running doesn’t capture the vitality of the 60’s the way, say, Fences captures the angst of the 50’s. I have to give that some thought. The play is set in 1969, after all the excitement of the 60’s, the greening of American, the civil rights activism, Woodstock, all that stuff has come and gone. Well, maybe not Woodstock. The Kennedy’s have been killed and there is no more hope for Camelot. King and Malcolm X have been killed and those dreams ended. I think by 1969 all the political fantasies are over and done with and people, a bit dazed, are just trying to find their way to some equilibrium, any steady state that will let them get on with their lives. I think this juncture is where Wilson has placed his 60’s play.

There is a passing reference to King, sandwiched in between long monologues about Malcolm X. Memphis says,

“They killed Martin. If they did that to him you can imagine what they do to me or you.”

Earlier he says of Malcolm X,

” Malcolm X is dead. Malcolm ain’t having no more birthdays. Dead men don’t have birthdays.”

And later he deconstructs the Freedom, Justice and Equality of the Nation of Islam by saying 1) freedom is heavy; 2) ain’t no justice; and 3) equality is a nonstarter because people are just not equal to one another. Then he adds a a crown to the Black is Beautiful movement by saying its followers sound as if they are trying to convince themselves their blackness is beauty.

Holloway has the solution. When asked why he didn’t become a Malcolm X follower in the early days of his preaching, Holloway responds that he didn’t need to as long as he knew the way to Aunt Ester’s.

That brings us to an important point in the play. Participation in the mass movements of the day is downplayed, and support for local leaders, like Prophet Samuel and Aunt Ester is highlighted. Risa has been paying tithes to Prophet Samuel’s church, not because she believes in some supernatural intervention, but because she believes Prophet Samuel helps people with legal issues on a day to day basis. Holloway recommends Aunt Ester because he can see a change she made in his relationship with his father. These are tangible benefits with certain payoff. Hambone wants his ham and he petitions for it daily with Mr Lutz. I think Memphis’ logic would say even Hambone has a better chance of achieving his objective than some others in the play.

In Scene Three, Sterling makes a reference to Toner Institute, a local orphanage where he grew up. Again, such a place really did exist. It provided a home/school environment to boys from broken or disruptive homes and remained in existence until 1977. In later years, enrollment shrunk along with county and state subsidies in a time of rising prices.

Then there is the ever-present issue of urban renewal breathing down the backs of not only the diner owner, Memphis, but all the folks for which the diner has become a type of second home.  In most places where it was applied, urban renewal became a sort of pipe dream whose goals were never achieved. Long standing neighborhoods were destroyed, families were decimated along with institutions like churches, community centers, and businesses.

This all became a part of the overall environmental malaise of the late 60’s, which, it might be argued, is accurately depicted in the Wilson play. The title, Two Trains Running, may suggest that there are some options available, both in terms of mobility, upward or downward, and in terms of simple navigation. Memphis has a dream of going back south to reclaim his farm, but once he gets his compensation his focus changes to getting a bigger restaurant in a better commercial part of town. By the way, reflecting back on last week’s discussion, there is an indication that Memphis is functionally illiterate when, at the end of Act One, he makes mention of a clause in the deed to his property referencing eminent domain that he doesn’t really understand. Similarly, the deed to his property down south also had a “hidden” clause that perhaps was only hidden to him because he could not read.

Stovall is mentioned and I wonder is it the same Stovall as in The Piano Lesson? Also, Sarah Degree is mentioned and she was mentioned previously in Seven Guitars as the provider of home remedies to Hedley.

Notes from Session #1:

Notes from Session #2:

Carole’s excellent background notes:

A very good review on the “aboutness”of the play:

OK. Let’s stop here and discuss.

notes on Fences (4.11.2019)

So much has been written on Fences. And small wonder. Five Tonys, five Drama Desk awards, the Pulitzer prize in its 1987 premier, then ten Tonys and four Drama Desk Awards in its 2010 revival. Its film adaptation earned four Oscar nominations and two Golden Globes nominations. A huge success by all measures and so many wonderful reviews, and academic articles.

We are not professional critics. We just like a good production, a good story, a good evening spent at the theater. Fences scores on all three.

It was my good fortune to catch the James Earl Jones – led performance on Broadway in late 1987. I missed the revival in 2010, but caught the film adaptation a couple of years ago.

OK, let’s take the plunge.

Our discussions of the five plays so far cause me to focus in the first instance on family relationships. Here we have the Troy-Bono relationship, the father-son relationships, the Troy-Rose marriage dynamic, the Troy-Gabriel relationship. These relationships all involve Troy, the flawed Greek god of the play. These relationships are all worthy of note.

Troy and Bono go back to the time they shared in prison. They work together on the garbage truck. They are best friends and they are both comfortable in expressing their affection for one another. When Bono sees Troy headed for trouble with his “side chick,” Bono calls him out on it and reminds him of his obligation to his wife. Troy accepts the warning advice in good spirit (but does nothing about it). Bono is a friend to Troy until the end, arranging the pall bearers for Troy’s funeral, even though they become somewhat distant after Troy’s transgression with Alberta and the birth of Raynell.

There are two father-son relationships, both complex and complicated. Troy’s oldest son, Lyons, comes around on payday to hit his father up for loans. Troy was in prison during Lyon’s upbringing and may feel a twinge of guilt about not being around. Lyons styles himself a musician, but he is not all that good at it, at least not good enough to make a living. So he bums money from his now-present father.

Troy’s youngest son, Cory, is a high schooler who wants to go to college on a football scholarship. Of course, Troy discourages his efforts because Troy thinks he got a raw deal in baseball, failing because of his age to make the transition fron the Negro League to the Majors. Troy blames race discrimination and wants to shield Cory from a similar disappointment. Cory tells his father things have changed (and they have) and he wants to be able to take advantage of new opportunities. Cory also wants his dad to buy a television for the family on credit. Cory wants to move into the modern world while Troy lives with excuses.

Troy and Rose. Troy is unfaithful to his wife. He comes up with a tightly woven explanation but it doesn’t carry water and it doesn’t pass the smell test. It stinks to high heaven. Rose is faithful to Troy, even after she realizes that he is not everything she had hoped he would be in a husband. She makes the best of a flawed situation.

Yet, many people sympathize with Troy in the end. “At least he stayed around and tried to do right,” folks say. “He wasn’t absent like Wilson’s own dad was,” they rationalize. “He did the best he could with limited means and a harsh external racist environment,” some might inveigh. We even transfer our sympathy to Denzel Washington at the Oscars ceremony as he gets passed over for Best Actor and for the film as Best Film because in our minds, Denzel has become Troy Maxson, the actor has become the character, and we see him there, flawed but somehow redeemable.

That, my friends is the power of great writing (and great acting). “It is in the nature of great acting, Shaw said, that we are not to see this woman as Ophelia, but Ophelia as this woman.”

OK. We’ll save the Troy-Gabriel relationship and all rest for our discussion.

Notes from Session #1:

Notes from Session #2:

Carole Horn’s notes are amazing!

some post-Seven Guitars thoughts (4.6.2019)

A couple of quick bookmarks to insert before moving on from Seven Guitars.

I haven’t seen it mentioned in the body of literature, but August Wilson often makes a point to applaud literacy, reading and writing, and to decry, if not condemn, illiteracy. This may seem an almost obvious position for a playwright to take, and it may appear that literacy is an automatic “state” to assume in an industrialized democracy like the United States. But a quick look at the statistics tells a different story and highlights the importance Wilson places on literacy in character and plot development.

In Fences, for example, Troy cannot read or write. Could that be the real reason why he wasn’t able to transfer to white league professional baseball? We don’t know and Wilson doesn’t tell us. In Seven Guitars, Floyd is illiterate and it is the cause of many of his woes. He can’t get his daily compensation because he couldn’t read to know to keep a certain letter. He failed to negotiate a deal for royalties on his first hit because he didn’t understand the process or the business itself of recording. He is a veteran of WW2, but he didn’t acquire any transferable skills from his army hitch because he couldn’t read, he couldn’t acquire information from texts. His misfortunes, it may be argued, stem more from illiteracy than from poverty, or racial discrimination, or any other cause.

We get the impression from The Piano Lesson that Boy Willie was functionally illiterate. He could farm, but there was nothing he could do, by his own admission, in the city (where literacy skills are required). Boy Willie thought it absurd that Maretha could only play what was written on the paper. In Ma Rainey, Levee was illiterate, though he could read and write music. In the end, he kills the only band member who could read and write, Toledo, acting out a rage he couldn’t contain from failing to get a side deal on some music he had written. I’ll have to go back and review Joe Turner and Gem but I am almost certain there are some references to literacy.

OK, that’s bookmark #1. Here is bookmark #2.

I think August Wilson was an archivist par excellence. He gave a lot of credit to libraries, and specifically to public libraries, but his talent was in creating and storing records, records of human life in each 10 year period of the 20th century. Seven Guitars is full of lists of things pertinent to life in the 1940’s. In The Piano Lesson the piano is itself an archive, a storage of family events across the years. Ma Rainey introduces us to “the record” and the recording process, a store of information that is transportable and reproducible. On and on.

These are two “properties” of Wilson’s writing that I hope to develop more fully in the days and weeks ahead.

notes for Seven Guitars (4.3.2019)

Seven Guitars always leaves me with the strangest internal conversation, even though I’ve read it several times and I know what is going to happen at each decision point, AND I know Seven Guitars, while considered by many as Wilsion’s Greek tragedy play, is an important prequel, so everything that happens must happen. It is the “predetermination” that gets to me, that things are predetermined so wrongly. I ask myself during the reading, for example, why doesn’t Vera listen to Louise and ditch Floyd? Why didn’t Floyd listen to Canewell and insist on royalties for his first recording? Why doesn’t Hedley take his TB self to the sanatarium? Why doesn’t Hedley shut his trap about all the Ethiopia/Haiti stuff? Why does Floyd resort to crime? Doesn’t he know crime does not pay? Why is Ruby? Why IS Ruby? To be fair, these are all the types of questions I ask myself when watching Eastenders, but I watch it everyday!

Before I get too far afield, please pay sspecial attention to the dedication, to the Tony Kushner forward, and to the Note From the Playwright. All three are quite magical and add to the play’s context.

Also, upfront, the play list for Seven Guitars is probably one of the fullest and most complete of them all. So much music is cited/referred to/alluded to in the play.

By way of introduction, Wilson says in an interview that the thought for the play began as a story about four men working in a turpentine factory in the South. All musicians, they had a desire to go to Chicago to make a record. Wilson admitted that he knew nothing about the making of turpentine. Then he says that three women showed up, all in his imagination, of course, and asked for space. The setting for the play migrated from the turpentine factory, to Chicago, to his mother’s back yard in Pittsburgh when the women arrived. He also said in an interview that the seven guitars are the seven characters in the play.

A few things stand out for me in the play. There are so many lists of things. It almost reminds me of Walt Whitman. Act 1 Scene 1 lists all the different types of beer. Scene 2 has a list of ingredients for dinner. Scene 3 lists different brands of cigarettes that people smoke. Scene 4 lists the actual recipe for cooking greens. Scene 5 lists the blow by blow account of the Joe Louis fight and the different types of roosters. And skipping some, Act 2 Scene 3 lists Floyd’s seven ways to go. There is ritual in list making which is perhaps why Whitman found it a useful tool. And list making speaks to the oral tradition of religion in an almost mystical way.

A few more things stand out. The funeral scenes at the beginning and end serve as bookends for the plot development in the middle, almost a series of flashbacks. Vera says twice about the angels in Scene 1 “They come down from the sky.” Only Vera, Canewell and Hedley saw the angels. Floyd was a WWII veteran and claimed a knowledge of guns and weapons although most black WWII veterans didn’t see any combat action. Vera makes a reference to a dress having two different kinds of blue, perhaps a metaphor. Canewell would have been a preacher but the devil’s call was to loud (Canewell and Ruby show up in a later play, as does Ruby’s son and Red Carter’s son). The dance scene after the fight reminds me of the Juba in Joe Turner and the table prison song scene in The Piano Lesson. Hedley killing Floyd with a machete is certainly reminiscent of his ritual killing of chickens in the yard, but it also reminds one of Levee’s knife murder of Toledo and Herald Loomis’s self-mutilation with a knife.

There will be more later after our Friday discussion.

Notes from Session #2:

Carloe’s notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

post-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.30.2019)

An interesting discussion Friday warrants this additional blog post.

There were a few comments on the relationship and relationship dynamics between Berniece and Boy Willie that really caught my attention, perspectives I had not considered previously. It was pointed out that Boy Willie and Berniece’s mother was pretty much a dysfunctional parent after the death of her husband and there are clues to this in the text. She spent all her time ploishing that piano, rubbing it until her hands bled, then rubbing that blood into the piano wood. What normal person does that?

“Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years. For seventeen years she rubbed on it till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in . . . mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it. Every day the God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it.”

OK. Not normal. It’s not a tremendous leap in logic, then, to hypothesize that the oldest child, Berniece, took on the “mother” role for a younger Boy Willie. And it emerges in the play. Whenever Boy Willie criticizes Berniece’s parenting skills, he speaks with an emotionalism that suggests he had personaly been on the other side of those bad parenting skills. When Berniece tells Maretha “If you was a boy I wouldn’t be going through this,” Boy Willie has a very strong negative reaction. And when Berniece tells Boy Willie, in front of Maretha, “You right at the bottom with the rest of us,” Boy Willie recoils with “If you believe that’s where you at you gonna act that way. If you act that way then that’s where you gonna be. It’s as simple as that.” And Boy Willie goes on and on for two pages, acting out something that is clearly from his boyhood when Berniece was his loco parenti.

The brother-sister relationship between Berniece and Boy Willie was/is “overlain” by the mother-son relationship forced by the emotional absence of the actual mother figure in the family and both of them resent each other because of it. But as was mentioned in our Friday discussion, while there are times when Boy Willie seems almost affectionate towards his sister, in speech patterns and in general feelings expressed, there is seldom an exchange in which Berniece shows some affection for Boy Willie, that is, until the end of the play.

postscript. Berniece’s three years of grieving over her husband’s death may be a learned behavior, mimicking her own mother’s prolonged grieving over the death of her father. If so, it is not a good omen for the future.

OK. I’m not going to beat this horse to death. Each person in the group brings a wealth of background experience to our discussion. It is beautiful and I am so grateful to be a part of these discussions with you all each week.

pre-class notes for The Piano Lesson (3.28.2019)

I enjoy slightly retelling the stories in these August Wilson plays. It somehow helps me understand them better. My favorite thing is renaming each play. For example, I renamed Gem of the Ocean “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” The rename for Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is “The Return of Deacon Herald Loomis,” though it could also named “Bynum Walker’s Fulfillment. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was easy, “It’s All About Levee,” though “August Wilson on Playwriting and Play Production” is running a tight second and may win the race overall. The renaming of this week’s play, The Piano Lesson, is a bit complex, but I think I have figured it out: “Sutter’s Ghost in the Archive.” Let me explain.

The repeated appearance of Sutter’s ghost and the whole yarn about the Ghost of the Yellow Dog are vital elements in the unfolding of the play’s various plots. Every time Boy Wille and Lymon try to move the piano, they hear the sounds of Sutter’s ghost. Berniece sees Sutter’s ghost at the top of teh stairwell, holding his head. Doaker sees the ghost but remains silent about it. Maretha sees the ghost upstairs and is traumatized. Avery fails at expelling the ghost from the house, Boy Willie has an actual physical altercation with the ghost and gets thrown down the stairs (better than the well, I’d say!), and ultimately, Berniece returns to playing the piano, calls on all the ancestors (a la Toledo’s African conceptualization) and succeeds in driving the ghost of Sutter out of the house.The Ghost of the Yellow Dog story is significant because it is a ghost that kills Sutter, resulting from the burning of a railroad car by several men (including Sutter) that contained Papa Boy Charles and four hoboes. Papa Boy Charles stole the piano from the Sutter house. Each of the men involved in the railroad car burning (and subsequent murders) dies a horrible death (a la Milton Green killing each of the men involved in the rape of Levee’s mother), and each death is in turn blamed on the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog.

Altogether, this represents Borgesian magical realism at its finest, one of Wilson’s top influences. I mentioned magical realism in an earlier post, a story of fantasy within a story of realism. Borges himself referred to it as “the contamination of reality by dream.” It serves as motive force for internally pushing the plot forward, but it also tells its own story.

It’s 5:55 and I need to get ready for a 6:55 departure to work. Tonight I’ll finish with the explanation of “The Archive.”

OK. The Archive. One normally thinks of archives in terms of written records, and normally, these days though it hasn’t always been, on paper. Let me change your thinking. The piano is a worthy museum piece, with the carvings and all, an artifact, but it wouldn’t normally be thought of as an archive. But this piano has carvings that represent several generations fo the Charles family, births, marriages, transactions, deaths, etc. Those representations qualify it to be an archive itself, the images mere surrogates of actual events in the lives of actual people. Doaker and Wining Boy tell Boy Charles, “Bernice is not going to sell that piano,” because they know she recognizes the power of the record, of the representation.

I wrote in an earlier set of notes, “The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. It’s the Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the archive of the family history through the generations.

“Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and a family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

Here is a link to the YouTube playlist:

Notes from Session #2:

Notes from Session #1:

Supplementary notes that Carole Horn and I collaborated on in the 2nd session: