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.

Background notes 03.08.2020

1. There was some mention after last Monday’s meeting of the famous Wilson/Brustein “debate.” It is worth listening to this conversation and NPR archived it for us here:
https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1109529and on YouTube: https://youtu.be/Dfc_u3Xdyf8 (saved to playlist)

2. This article may be more appropriately introduced prior to Fences, but it has great background material worth knowing up front: America’s Most Undefeated Playwright –
https://theundefeated.com/features/august-wilson-is-americas-most-undefeated-playwright/

3. Finally, I cannot “not” share this article with you. It is a discussion that we should not avoid.
https://forward.com/culture/356896/the-secret-jewish-history-of-fences-author-august-wilson/

I will save these on the blog for future consideration.

p.s. I remain intrigued by Wilson’s identification of C.K. Williams as his favorite poet and of Kurt Weil as one of his favorite composers. Would love to do some research and discuss.

A few notes on Gem of the Ocean – 03.05.2020

Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?

They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.

From Wikipedia:

“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.

The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”

In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.

The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.

Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.

Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.

Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.

Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.

One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Session #1 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #2 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)

Email #2

Hello all:

1. I am attaching a couple of articles/interviews for your reading in preparation for our first meeting Monday, March 2nd. The John Lahr piece from the New Yorker has become so “definitive” over time that excerpts of it are used as the foreword to one of the plays in the hardback edition. The interview with Derek Walcott contains gems and richness that makes it unique among Wilson interviews.

2. A couple of you have emailed me with questions about the Arena Stage production of Seven Guitars. I have held off on finalizing plans to attend, though we intend to see it. There is as of yet no plan to try to see it as a group, but that certainly is something we can discuss next Monday.

3. I thought we would use the first meeting to discuss the attached readings and set the tone of the study group. It is always interesting to know how and why folks come to choose this study group, what you hope to get out of it (learning objectives), and the always interesting backgrounds we all bring to the group that may contribute to our understanding of the plays (learning subjectives). Then, on the second meeting, Monday, March 9, we will take the plunge into the first play, Gem Of the Ocean.

4. It is a good idea now to begin making arrangements to acquire the first three or four plays. If you are lucky, you can find a few at local public libraries, but in past sessions, most end up purchasing the books online or at local bookstores.

5. I’ve been maintaining YouTube playlists for each play through the past sessions. I will make those links available weekly, in advance of our meeting, as well as links to blog posts I’ve been making on each play. But the main work is to actually read the play, engage with the text, and be prepared to discuss when we get together in the study group. In previous groups, we have started out with each participant bringing in a passage to read and discuss. Something else to talk about when we get together on the 2nd.

6. OK. Enjoy what remains of the weekend! Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions you may have.

Reading schedule for Spring, 2020

All: A proposed schedule. This will be the first session of not plunging into the first play in week one. But it means devoting a whole week to the important first play, instead of sharing that first meeting with getting to know one another, also an important part of the the study group. Of course, everything is subject to negotiations.   

Week 1:  March 2, 2020 – Introduction, discuss interview and selected readings

Week 2: March 9, 2020 – 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 3:  March 16, 2020 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984).  Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911 featured in a Romare Bearden painting, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 4:  March 23, 2020 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982).  Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the only 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 5:  March 30, 2020 – 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 6:  April 6, 2020 – 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 7:  April 13, 2020 – 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 8: April 20, 2020 – 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 9: April 27, 2020 – 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 10: May 4, 2020 – 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 11:  May 11, 2020 – Radio Golf (2005) and wrap up.   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.

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!

Who visits this blog?

I would love to know who the folks are who visit, how they are attached to or engaged with August Wilson plays, and how they found this blog.

Please leave a comment, or feel free to email me at rdmaxwell@protonmail.com.

Thank you for visiting!

Fresh reactions to Radio Golf at Everyman Theater in Baltimore – 11/3/2019

Let me begin by saying this is the second time I’ve seen Radio Golf on the stage. The first time was nearly fifteen years ago, also in Baltimore, playing the regional theaters pre-Broadway.

Also, I am reading a book in preparation for the Spring 2020 session to sharpen my ability to look at a play analytically. David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays. So that informs somewhat my review.

Finally, my GPS was on the blink and I missed the downtown exit and was five minutes late arriving at Everyman Theater, so I caught the first scene of the first act on a closed circuit screen, but got the rest of it on stage.

Altogether, it was a marvelous and amazing performance. Both Harmon (portrayed by Jamil Mangan) and Roosevelt (performed by Jason McIntosh) were compelling, convincing, and magnificent. In fact, by the end of the play I really disliked Roosevelt, emotionally, in a way I hadn’t from the mere reading and discussion of the play. He got to me. That must mean he really nailed his role. Charles Dumas as Elder Joe Barlow was delightful, personable, and charming and worked his way into everyone’s heart, including my own. Anton Floyd simply killed it as Sterling Johnson, the hard luck orphan and ex-convict from Two Trains Running, having become quite the wise man over the 30 years since his first appearance in the Cycle. I thought Mame Wilks was a bit weak, in fact, the weakest link in the ensemble, but I find myself questioning whether it was the acting, or perhaps Wilson wrote her role as not quite as compelling as, say, Risa, or Rose, or Berneatha, or many of Wilson’s other female character-types. When she says at the end, “I’m still standing here,” it rings a bit hollow and you wonder if their relationship will last or if, perhaps, she might run off with Roosevelt! At the same time, you wonder if Mame is right, and if Roosevelt is right, and if, perhaps, Harmon has taken this family thing too far. Then you remember Ceasar Wilks and Black Mary in Gem of the Ocean and you know that Harmon really is trying to do the right thing.

The stage setting was stunning and definitely added to the flow of the dramatic action. Bravo Zulu to Everyman Theater!

On substance, the staged production really accentuated the deterioration of the relationship between Harmon and Roosevelt. I could feel the tension between them growing, even while the “frat-boy” aspects of their college days managed to manifest itself in the plot development. I identified very strongly with Harmon, and I found myself almost despising Roosevelt for a number of reasons. And I also found myself anticipating action throughout, and I think that comes less from reading the play repeatedly and more from the actual acting and the practice of forwarding in the plat. The sound effects were also telling, especially the sound of the bulldozers at the end of the play.

Jitney @ArenaStage

Seeing Jitney @ Arena Stage week was an unforgettable experience. It was my first time seeing Jitney on the stage, after reading it at least a half dozen times for three sessions of the OLLI study group.

The stage/set was astounding, multidimensional, reflecting the passage of time through highlighting and darkening the skyline through the windows and on the background scene. The music opening each scene took the play to a new audio level, a nice blend of old blues and 70’s period jazz tunes. The ensemble cast had such a chemistry, with their well-rehearsed lines and with their spontaneous and improvised gestures between the lines. Finally August Wilson’s poetry wove it all together and made it into a total work of art. Might sneak back for a repeat!

I have to mention here an amazing thing the cast did at the end of Act 2 Scene 3. Booster comes into the station not knowing that his father is dead. When Doub tells him, Booster hits Doub in the face, then the folks in the station wrestle Booster down to the floor. In a bit of director’s license (I later discovered in conversation with the cast that it was Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s idea and they worked on it for nearly an hour in rehearsal), all the folks in the station did a laying of the hands on Booster. It was a very powerful and a very spiritual gesture, a transference and a healing, something Toledo in Ma Rainey might have called an African conceptualization. While the play directions say “the lights fade to black,” in actuality the lights were trained on Booster and the hands of the station guys spread about Booster on the floor, in a way that only their hands and Booster were illuminated. Then the lights stayed there for a few moments before fading to black. Ah, I wish i could have taken a photograph!

August Wilson Festival – Designers Panel: Building the World of August Wilson

(Note: Wrote this for my poetry group. More details to follow for August Wilson aficionados).

Morning coffee. Trader Joe’s Ethiopian. Got something called Lifeboost on order. Report to follow . . .

Last night my wife and I attended the first of several events marking 70 years of operation of Arena Stage in Washington, DC. Long story short, Arena Stage, a venue for plays, readings, performing arts, and most recently, really interesting civic discussions, came into existence at a time in the city’s history when there were two performing arts venues. One allowed blacks to perform on stage but they couldn’t attend performances and sit in the audience. The other allowed blacks to attend and sit in the audience but they couldn’t perform on the stage. Won’t go into names since both venues still exist, but it was a real mess. Such was the design of American-styled apartheid. Some civic-minded folks from both sides got together and Arena Stage was born, allowing both performance and attendance by all segments of society.

And there is a second tie in for me. To commemorate 70 years, Arena Stage is doing what they call a Giants series, featuring the works of playwrights whose work has been performed most often there. And at the top of the list is my favorite playwright, a former poet of note, whose series of plays I have been “teaching” in the ModPo sense and mode for the past two years, though face-to-face and not online, the bard from Pittsburgh, August Wilson.

Last night’s lecture/discussion focused on stage and set design and featured an expert in actually building the set, and expert in composing music to accompany the plays, and an expert in costume design (who just happens to be the widow of August Wilson and the executor of his estate). Amazing discussion about these pieces of a dramatic production that sort of sit in the background while we focus on the play’s performance, and yet have a far-reaching effect on developing the whole work of art. 

Thursday there will be a discussion of food and cooking in the ten-play series that covers each decade in the 20th century, aptly called the American Century Cycle.

By this time, you may be rolling your eyes. Relax, it is just coffee talk!