Week 10 – Radio Golf – some initial thoughts
Very first impression: my wife and I saw this on stage on Baltimore in 2006. It was still “fresh off the press,” being performed across the country, not yet ready for prime time on Broadway. Reading it now, at the end of the Century Cycle, I realize that I missed a lot of the plot action when I saw it performed in 2006. It seemed at the time to have no context, no unifying structure. But this time, it all makes sense.
Harmon Wilks, grandson to Caesar Wilks 100 years before in Gem of the Ocean.
Old Joe Barlow, son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary from Gem of the Ocean. (Recall Black Mary and Caesar Wilks were half siblings)
Sterling, older and wiser but still Sterling, from Two Trains Running.
Mame Wilks, wife of Harmon.
Roosevelt Hicks, college buddies with Harmon at Cornell.
1839 Wylie Street, home of Aunt Ester, willed to Black Mary, left to Old Joe Barlow, her son with Citizen barlow, purchased by Harmon Wilks for delinquent taxes, sold to Bedford Hills Redevelopment run by Roosevelt Hicks and Harmon Wilks.
There is a lot to be said about the reappearance of the Barlow/Wilks family from #9 and the first decade of the cycle, Gem of the Ocean. I saw Caesar Wilks as a type of “godfather” figure and that was borne out in his and his son’s paying of the taxes on Aunt Ester’s house for all those years. We saw the chemistry between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary. Happy to see that worked out. When Mame says “I tied myself so close to you that there is no me. I don’t know if i can carry this any further” I immediately thought about Rose in Fences, who mentions a similar submergence of the wife’s personality into that of the husband’s. I personally think Mame and Harmon will make it, but the path immediately ahead will be rocky.
It appears that Roosevelt gets his way in tearing down Aunt Ester’s house. But the story may not end there. I suspect the Roosevelt/Harmon relationship, business-wise and socially, will not survive this dramatic breech of trust.
The play treads all so gingerly on the subject of gentrification, which is bound to accompany redevelopment of the Hill district due to its close proximity to the center of Pittsburgh.
Radio Golf. What’s in a name? Roosevelt Hicks has a minority interest in a new urban radio station, WBTZ, in partnership with Bernie Smith, a white businessman Harmon does not trust. Hicks is the “blackface’ that enables purchase of a radio station at a deep discount with an FCC Minority Tax Certificate. Hicks is the front man, in charge of day-to-day operations, even though he has no radio experience. And because he loves golf, he produces a radio program where he offers golf tips. It’s also a symbolic representation of an attempt, in sharp departure to the other nine plays in the cycle, to portray the black middle class: Harmon the real estate developer/attorney running for mayor, Roosevelt (his humble origins are betrayed by his first name) the banker/real estate developer, and Mame, the loving wife/government bureaucrat. It’s the Cosby/Huxtable family all over again except we never see the children. But they are there.
From the Urban Dictionary:
Huxtable: A reference to an “upscale” or “Upper Middle Class” black person or family. NOT derogatory when used by white people, but can be derogatory if used by blacks, about blacks. Derived from the Huxtables on the Cosby Show. Also used to define “poser” black families, trying to act “white”
On the subject of golf, Roosevelt’s monologue in Act 1 Scene 1 where he reflects on his first experience hitting a golf ball was both stirring and moving. Poetic, in fact. But the same monologue also betrays Roosevelt’s deep-seated sense of insecurity, if not inferiority with regard to race.
And who is this play’s Wilson Warrior? Which character shows the greatest transformation? Which one “finds his song?” Harmon Wilks has my vote. While Sterling and Old Joe have the best lines in the play, the most poetic monologues, Wilks goes the greatest distance in his discovery of his roots and his changing outlook to reflect that discovery. Radio Golf extends the Wilsonian vision to the black middle class and gives them as a class their own separate hero. I think that is a good thing.
Finally, this play is a huge advertisement for genealogy. AncestryDNA should not only be thrilled, they should be tripping over themselves to underwrite local productions of the #AmericanCenturyCycle.
Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean
Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, represents the first decade in the Century Cycle. Itis also the play in the cycle that gives us the full portrayal of Aunt Ester, who is more of a myth in earlier plays (2 Trains, King Hedley), a spirit presence that never actually reaches the stage but lurks in the background.
Gem of the Ocean, we learn in Act 2, is an imaginary boat, a document folded in the shape of a boat, Aunt Ester’s Bill of Sale (Sail) from Guilford County, NC. But the document that becomes a model of a boat serves as a prop during the staged journey to the City of Bones.
But what was that voyage? Was it a seance? Was it an exorcism? Or was it just a dramatic ritual? It seemed that Citizen Barlow believed something out of the ordinary was happening. But it also seemed like Eli, Solly, Black Mary, and Aunt Ester had all done this thing before, had practiced every aspect and had it down cold. I think it was a type of ritualistic exorcism. But it works for Mr. Citizen, a recent arrivee from Alabama with a heavy burden on his soul.
Garrett Brown’s obituary is the saddest thing I have heard in an August Wilson play. But I’m so happy Wilson included its text in the play:
BLACK MARY (Reads): “Garret Brown of Louisville, Kentucky departed this life on September 30, 1904, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at midday, in the midst of a life of usefulness and in the fullness of his powers. He was born of slave parents June the 29th 1862, in Charleston, South Carolina. At an early period in his life, interested parties hurried the mother and three children northward, without the protection of a husband and father, to begin a long siege of poverty. Mr. Brown leaves to mourn his unfinished life, a wife and three children, and a host of family and friends.”
Solly Two Kings is another interesting character. He changed his name from Uncle Alfred to Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon from the Bible) after he escaped from slavery in Alabama and fled to Canada, but he missed his family, so he returned as worked as a “dragman” in the Underground Railroad. He now collects dog feces, called “pure,” and sells it to tanners for money.
Feces – Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feces . Dog feces were used in the tanning process of leather during the Victorian era. Collected dog feces, known as “pure”, “puer”, or “pewer”, were mixed with water to form a substance known as “bate.” Enzymes in the dog feces helped to relax the fibrous structure of the hide before the final stages of tanning.
Caesar Wilks, the community constable, has been through his own transformation, having been a bit of a thug in his younger days. Through illegal means, he raises enough money to purchase a small commercial property, but not before he gets selected by the crime bosses (politicians) uptown to run their operation and maintain order on the Hill. He let’s it all go to his head under the guise of “respectability politics.”
Then there is the dynamic relationship between Aunt Ester and Black Mary, Wilks’ sister seemingly by a different mother. Wilks’ father was a rascal too. And we will see his grandson, along with Citizen’s son, in the next and final play, Radio Golf.
p.s. 1839 Wylie Street is the residence of Aunt Ester. 1839 was the year of the Amistad mutiny. And William Cullen Bryant’s poem, Thanatopsis, was cited in Act 2 Scene 2 and at the very end of the play, although his later poem, The Death of Slavery also foretold the era of this play and of the entire century cycle. Bryant was a noted 19th century newspaper editor, poet, and abolitionist.
First play named for a character.
First true tragedy. But was it really? King is sacrificed, the blood spills on the buried cat that belonged to Aunt Ester, and the curtain falls with the sound of a meow. The cat has one more life? Has Aunt Ester been resurrected perhaps? And does that signal a redemption of sorts?
First play with continuation of characters from previous play (Seven Guitars):
1. Canewell becomes Stool Pigeon
2. Red Carter’s son: Mister
3. Ruby continues
4. King Hedley II is son of Ruby and Hedley (and Leroy)
5. Aunt Ester, still unseen, dies
6. Louise raises Ruby’s son King in absentia.
A few things caught my interest in King Hedley II. First of all the Greek Chorus that Wilson has Stool Pigeon provide in the opening of the play. From Wikipedia:
Greek choruses sometimes had a leader known as the coryphaeus. He sometimes came first to introduce the chorus, and sometimes spoke for them if they were taking part in the action. The entrances and exits of the coryphaeus and his chorus served the same way curtains do in a modern theatre.
So Stool Pigeon, who was Canewell in Seven Guitars, now doubles as Seer, Spirit Guide, Supporter of Aunt Ester (like Holloway in Two Trains) and coryphaeus in Wilson’s attempt to connect to Greek classical drama (my spin). Canewell did say in Seven Guitars, “If I could put the music down I would have been a preacher. Many times I felt God was calling. But the devil was calling too, and it seem like he called louder. God speak in a whisper and the devil shout.”
Additionally, Stool Pigeon gets his Bible quotations wrong everytime…unless he represents the promotion a new synthesis of religion/mythology, a blending of Christian concepts with local African American spiritualism and all combined with African ideas of philosophy and religious belief, which puts it in line with previous plays in the series that touted African concepts (Turnbo in Jitney, Toledo in Ma Rainey, Bynum in Joe Turner, ultimately Berniece in Piano Lesson, Holloway in 7 Guitars).
Tonya has the longest single speaking role (end of Scene 2). It’s a very memorable speech made even more famous by a then relatively unknown Viola Davis, for which she won the Tony.
King signals early on that he is the one “annointed” to make a sacrifice. He asks Mister, and again, asks Stool Pigeon, “Can you see my halo?”
The conversations with King (Act 2, Scene 2) and with Elmore (Act 2, Scene 4) where they describe the choices they made in the taking of human life, both sub-climaxes in the play are troublesome, to say the least. The casual brandishing of weapons, even including Ruby with the palm-sized derringer, is a bit troubling. And all the petty premeditated criminal acts, selling stolen refrigerators, robbing the jewelry store, all signal a community in the final stages of decay . . .
Interesting point raised in class. What if Stool Pigeon really is the Greek Chorus? And what if he is speaking to a specific audience or saying things that no one else could say and preserve their theatric credibility. Taking it a step further, what if Ruby represents the Greek Siren, luring unsuspecting sailors to shipwreck on a rocky course? Could August Wilson be using these classical “motifs” subconsciously to establish his chops and links to the classical and neoclassical tradition? Wouldn’t that be something?
The death of Aunt Ester is an additional climax in the play, as is the accidental death of King at the play’s end. The play has overlapping and intersecting climaxes, in fact.
Too cool not to include: August Wilson’s Poem for my grandfather
And the transcription (HT to Jeannie McClem)
This is a poem I wrote for my grandfather.
Since I never knew my grandfather, I am speaking
in a generational sense, a generational grandfather.
This is your grandfather, my grandfather,
all of us’s grandfather.
His chest stripped open
to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.
who spread his seed
over the nine counties
in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind,
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton
planted in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season
welcoming its architects
and ennobling them
with gifts of blood.
Week 7 – Seven Guitars (some notes)
References to seven: The seventh play written in the cycle. Seven characters. Seven non-existent guitars. Seven years of bad luck. Red Carter used to have seven women. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Floyd’s seven ways to go. Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedly’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). and finally, From Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” the seven characteristics of his mother worthy of art.
Found poetry from Notes From the Playwright:
I have tried to extract
some measure of truth
from their lives as they struggle
to remain whole in the face
of so many things that threaten
to pull them asunder.
I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
the contents of her pantry,
the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
her thoughtful repose
and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.
Hence, Seven Guitars.
Hedley is the seer and spirit guy/guide, like Holloway, Doaker, Bynum (especially), Bono, Toledo, and Becker. Root tea drinker (also alcoholic, it appears). Jamaican, maybe, but could be Haitian. Speaks with an accent, a patois. Recalls Toussaint and Marcus Garvey. Ethiopia, rasta talk. In fact, much of his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 5 appears to be lifted from Marcus Garvey speeches. Wants to buy a plantation, be a big man (in all the plays, the spirit guy/person is always in contention to be the Warrior).
Floyd reminded me a bit of Hambone (tell him to give me my money!), but also of Bynum and of Gabe. He also reminded me of Troy Maxsom and possibly of Levee, trying to make it as a musician but seemingly doomed at every corner. Only WWII veteran in the bunch. Floyd is the band leader and the guitarist (recall Boy Willie offered to get Mareatha a guitar in place of the piano). Buys the marker for his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. I think Floyd is the Wilson Warrior here. But perhaps he shares it with Hedley.
Louise fits in the character mould of other strong stable women characters (Risa, Berniece, Bertha, Rose, and Ma Rainey). Although Vera does not heed Louise’s advice (about her Henry) immediately, in the end fate changes things and she does.
Canewell’s riff on roosters at end of Act 1. Naturally, he is the harmonica player in the band, having paid so much attention to roosters crowing. Lives with “some old gal.”
Catalog lists (Whitmanian) : roosters (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi); types of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall); brands of beer (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, Yellow Label); Guns (Smith and Wesson, 38, snub nose 32 (no mention of 45, military issue).
Hedley slashed Floyd’s throat with a machete (like Loomis and Risa self slashing and Levee killing Toledo with a knife). Dance scene celebrating Joe Louis victory: Juba (in Joe Turner); Prison song (in Piano Lesson).
Joe Lewis radio scene ages the play and provides multimedia appeal (Act 1, Scene 5). And what about the cabbage song (sexual innuendo) scene right after the funeral that opens Act 1?
Card playing: bid whist, pinocle, pitty pat.
Some notes. Week 6 – Two Trains Running
1. Title from a blues song by McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Still A Fool. Worth the listening. Railroads and trains played an essential role in America’s westward expansion, and in the migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrialized North.
Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running
Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way
Well, now, one run at midnight and the other one,
Running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day
Oh Lord. sure ‘nough they is
2. The Non-stop personal narratives in Two Trains Running don’t really fit the normal pattern for play construction we have discussed. Even in previous Wilson plays there seems to be more linear structure. Here characters pop in and out, tell their stories in an almost isolated way. Is Wilson changing the format? Is this a move signifying an embrace of modernism or a return to neoclassicism? Or even a foretaste of postmodernism?
3. Plays, like poetry, are autobiographic, ethnographic, and meta-poetic. Two Trains Running shows Wilson’s development as a playwright, and draws on his backgraound as a short-order cook in Pittsburgh as a young man. Also shows his exposure to such 60’s luminaries as Malcolm X and his black nationalism, Martin Luther King, Jr and his nonviolence, and Pittsburgh’s Prophet Samuel (a composite of Washington’s Daddy Grace, New York’s Father Divine, and Chicago’s Elijah Muhammad). Ethnographic in that plays portray the setting, the scene, the immediate environment of the play, in this case, Memphis’s restaurant, in the late 60’s, urban renewal in cities, a key element of the play’s plot and the principal core around which revolve the various narratives of the characters, all restaurant diners. Finally, plays are meta-poetic in that they say something about plays themselves, the play’s structure, how the action is organized around the plots (or several plots, in this case). How the play begins, how it proceeds and how it ends are all tell-tale signs of the play’s meta-poetic nature.
4. Holloway = Toledo = Bono = Doaker = Bynum. Similarities in these characters as archetypes of human behavior. Older men, survivors, who sort of keep the narrative(s) on track.
5. Risa = Rose = Berniece = Ma Rainey = Bertha. Strong women figures in the plays so far who relate to male characters in various ways, but always a central, stabilizing factor. Risa in Two Trains Running is always kind to Hambone, for example, and give Sterling the time of day when no one else does. She manages the restaurant and keeps it “running’ as the central location in action. Her self-mutilation is not something that the other Wilson women have done in overt ways, but it represents a self-sacrifice, physicalized, that they all have performed. (Let’s not over simplify things, however.)
6. Hambone = Gabriel = Sylvester. Male characters with a physical handicap who are central to the story as it unwinds (He gonna give me my ham…I want my ham!)
7. And who is the Wilson Warrior? Sterling would be my pick, Stering who comes from humble and horrible origins, abandoned, orphaned, incarcerated, fired from his job, and excluded from economic development in industrial Pittsburgh by a stupic catch-22. Yet he fantasizes about the love of his life, externalizes that fantasy on Risa, and finally finds redemption in commiting a crime to pay homage to Hambone.
Aunt Ester finally appears (but not quite, though we know she is there). There is this triangular thing, a choice between Aunt Ester’s spiritual path, Malcolm X’s black nationalism, and Prophet Samuel’s here and now take on things.
West, the undertaker, who knows all about how the city runs, presents a type of developmental redemption moving from a life of petty criminal activity to a respectable business operator. But Holloway thinks West still had dirt on his hands, notwithstanding the black gloves he wears. West is without love in his life since his wife died.
Wolf makes a good living running the numbers in the black community for the downtown mob. But unhappy because of his loneliness.
Memphis: owns the restaurant that Risa runs. Was chased out of the South when he tried to run a farm he bought. Wants to return to claim his property, but also wants a good value for his restaurant from the redevelopment commission so he can open a bigger restaurant in another part of town.
postscript. 4/17/2018, after seeing the play performed at Arena Stage.
Much to be said about August Wilson’s personal experience with the 60’s and how that may have informed his crafting of the play. His time as a short order cook, for example, and his short fling with the Nation of Islam, his failed marriage, even the poetry he submitted to Harpers and had published in the Negro Digest are all testament to his direct experience with the 60’s, how it shaped him, and how it may have influenced his thinking in writing the play.
August Wilson called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” his favorite play, but he referred to The Piano Lesson as his best play. I haven’t come across any explanations but my own observation is that this play contains a richer variety of symbols and rituals than the other plays we have studied so far, though each was unique in its display of ritualistic behavior.
The Berniece/Boy Willie interface is reminiscent of the Jacob/Esau birthright conflict as well as the King Solomon cutting the baby in half suggestion. The four men at the table drinking and singing old prison songs until they work themselves into a near frenzy reminds me of a type of communal seance where distant spirits inhabit and emerge from the interplay between the participants. The piano combines the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant mythologies (we’ll spend more time on this later in this discussion. Avery’s failed blessing of the house is a type of exorcism, again that ultimately fails. Berniece is the high priestess who finally emerges to make a sacrifice to appease the family ancestors (gods). All this richness!
I am calling the the prison work song scene the first climax of the play because of all the action and discussion leading up to it and the falling action/discussion after it. After the song was completed, all four men opened up and spoke freely together, so it was also an “equalizing” event, similar to the Eucharist with bread and wine (note: drinking had occurred, but it was whisky, not communion wine. Anyway, you get the point.). Very moving scene. The prison work song, I propose, not only identified their common experience with incarceration in the South, but, much deeper, identified a spiritual basis or background they shared connecting them to their African roots and origin. The “sacrament” was ended with Whining Boy playing on the piano (the altar, the shrine). Berniece’s arrival changes the mood completely. She will have a separate cataclysmic event.
This is the second Wilson play based on a painting. The first one was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Both were based on or inspired by paintings by Romare Bearden. So already there is an organic relationship between the two plays.
Who is the Wilson Warrior in this play? Is it Berniece, determined to hold on to the family keepsake (a shrine, altar and a surrogate archive)? Or is it Boy Willie, who’d prefer to sell the piano and use the money to buy the family plantation land down south (capitalism and wealth building)? I contend they are both Wilson Warriors per the Riley Temple definitions, characters who
- “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. And in so doing they must have the strength and the courage – the faith – to revisit the past in all its several guises and heaviness, to set down the burdens of that past, and become free. The faith is needed to know that the outcome will be as God intends, despite the difficulties attendant to the journey.
- “These men (and Berniece Charles) are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”
- those who fight – sometimes foolishly as Levee has just done, and who should and will pay dearly for such a tragic mistake.
- “like the others: Solly “Two Kings” in Gem, who freed slaves and who turned to helping abused factory workers; Herald Loomis; Boy Willie of Piano Lesson who has to fight off ghosts of the past to help his sister unlock herself….Troy Maxson, of Fences, who battles death and the compulsion to save his son from racial humiliation…”
- “Each one had who they were right within their reach – their song was in their throats – they had to be guided to the soul’s destination to sing it.”
- “He (Boy Willie) is, after all, one of Wilson’s warriors….(his) mistakes have been bad, some not so smart – even stupid. But he’s paid for them, he is struggling to walk upright and is determined to do so.”
- [He] is no victim. He is a fully redeemed soul. He knows who he is and how he got to where he is. He knows his history; he has called on his ancestors; he knows on whose shoulders he stands; and he is comfortable and free. He remembers his past, and he engages in it – like the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as God directs, remember who delivered them.
Berniece is on a parallel development track. She is pursued by men and told she can’t be whole without a husband. She is pursued by fears, of ghosts, of what happened to her mother and father and husband. but she overcomes those fears when she plays the piano and calls out to her ancestors (reminiscent of Toledo’s African conceptualization in Ma Rainey) for help after her primary suitor Avery’s Christian exorcism attempt failed. Berniece is the High Priestess/Warrior in the myth story but she has developed a fear of performing her function as High Priestess. Only when she succeeds in overcoming her fear is she able to quell the Sutter’s ghost issue.
The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the 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. 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 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.
I wonder if the back and forth between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano was a sort of distraction, albeit a necessary one, to get to the real plot and character development in the play, the family united in purpose at the play’s end? In the end, the play highlights the family unit, resilient and purposeful.
7. Genealogy and provenance of the piano.
1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.
2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.
3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged them for the piano.
4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.
5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her sold slaves.
6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.
7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.
8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.
9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Bernice later joined him after her husband was killed.
Week 4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (notes)
- Largest cast of any Wilson play so far. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper.
- Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Romare Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
- Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles.
Themes that recur:
- Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil
- Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense and practice of agency
- The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen. A play on words.
- Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). WD Fard. (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
- Bynum’s (Bind them) spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes, self-realizes, self-actualizes, and self-transcends (to use Maslow’s framework).
5. Play Structure
- Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
- Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
- Climax #1: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
- Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
- Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
- Climax #2/Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.
6. Explaining the end of the play.
It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I proposed that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment. Let me set the scene.
In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task. During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,” and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that
“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”
OK. Hold on to that thought . . .
Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a minstrel/African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,
“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”
Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.
OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia. Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. As Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”
Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”
This is the completion the Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:
(Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,
having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.)
At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lives a life of meaning.
So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.
There is a lot to unpack in all these plays and Fences is no exception.
Late with this week’s blog post. I guess it took some time to process the play, the text I read twice, and the film adaptation we watched on TV. I want to begin by highlighting an August Wilson quote from Samuel Freedman’s foreword to my edition of Fences that I call “found poetry”:
"I found myself trying to figure out the intent of these lives around me. Trying to uncover the nobility and the dignity I might not have seen. Part of the reason I wrote Fences was to illuminate that generation, which shielded its children from all the indignities they went through.
I have to confess that until our group discussion laid it out on the table with multiple inputs, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of the use of the play’s title “Fences” as a metaphor. That is what I’d like to address in this week’s post. But first, let’s recapitulate the pre-class notes:
- Market forces that influenced the play: advisors recommended a play with a nuclear family, something “more accessible.”
- Wilson’s insistence that the film adaptation have a black director was not well received by the entertainment industry.
- Who is the central protagonist in Fences? Is it Troy Maxsom, a “big man” who “fills all the empty spaces” in the lives of everybody around him? Or is it Rose, the constant, steadying influence, the glue that holds everything together and nudges the men around her into true manhood? Or maybe Cory, the future, the promise, the unflawed character?
- The name of the play is Fences, but there are only occasional mentions of fences, or even of a single fence. Is the fence something central or merely incidental to the play? A metaphor?
- What about Bono? He gets better as the play progresses, better at dominoes, better at being a husband to Lucille, better at being a friend to Troy and Rose. He progresses through the timeline of the play. His character develops.
- This week we introduce Freytag’s Pyramid. A useful way to unpack and track the development of the play’s plot.
- What is the play’s introduction? Does the Troy-Bono dialogue (with Rose entering part way through the conversation) at the beginning of Act 1 effectively set the scene for the entire play?
- Rising action: Cory’s football hopes counterposed with Troy’s laments about his failed baseball career. Troy’s efforts to get a promotion to driver at work. Troy talks about past successful struggles with Death.
- Climax: Troy’s announcement that Alberta is pregnant, followed by a heated discussion with Rose and Cory’s entrance and defense of Rose in what he perceives to be his father’s physical attack. Strike 2.
- The Falling Action: Gabe gets arrested and institutionalized. Alberta dies in childbirth. We never see Alberta, but she is always lurking behind the scenes. Troy comes to grips with his new responsibility.
- Resolution: Rose adopts Alberta’s daughter, Raynell. Cory leaves home and joins the Marines. Troy dies. Lyons goes to jail but returns for the funeral. Cory also returns home for Troy’s funeral. Bono organizes the pall bearers.
But back to the Fences metaphor. Bono says early in Act 2, “Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” There is only one fence being built in the play, but the play has many fences, hence the plurality of the title. Troy and Bono met in prison, where they were “fenced” in, so to speak, in a hyper-controlled environment with rigid boundaries. That controlled space is also the place that gave Troy the discipline to learn the game of baseball, a sport with an infield for base running and an outfield generally enclosed and contained by a fence. Batting the ball “over the fence” is considered a score, a home run.
Troy considers his own marriage a type of prison to which he has been sentenced, a prison bounded by a fence, but at the end of an 18-year sentence, he wants freedom from “the same place’ where he has been standing still. He says towards the end of Act 2 Scent 1, “Then I saw that girl . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand, after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. [. . . .] I stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought. . . well, goddamn it . . . go on for it.”
On the other hand, and extending the metaphor, “fencing” is the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise. The person who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to resell them is known as a “fence.” Troy, using baseball imagery, refers in a conversation with Rose to his adultery with Alberta as “stealing second base.” Troy himself, in this sense, is the “fence” who purchased stolen property (Alberta’s affection and attention) and resells it as his own image of himself.
We can debate about whether Troy was a sympathetic or a despicable character. Professor Shannon points out in her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Troy “reverses a stereotype found in portrayals of the black family: the conspicuously absent father,” but that he is also an “amalgam of blues personalities,” i.e., a railroad man in his infidelity, a bluesman who is depressed and finally, “womanless,” and a trickster (you pick the poison). You gotta read Professor Shannon’s book.
Last but not least, Riley Temple, in his book, Queen Ester’s Children Redeemed, included Troy Maxson in a reference to the Wilson Warriors, characters who “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. . . . These men and women are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.” Temple includes in that list of warriors, from plays we have already completed, Boomer from Jitney and Levee from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another book you gotta read!
Well, I’ll stop here because time is passing, the weekend is approaching, and play #4, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, awaits my discover.
Time flies and already I am half way through my first reading of Week 3’s Fences (I am finding I need to read through these plays at least two times to really “get” it). But before getting too far away, I want to put down on paper some reflections on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
I mentioned towards the end of the session a proposal that the star of the play is not Ma Rainey. I believe the star is Levee, even though his end at the play’s conclusion is not a pleasant nor a pleasing one. Levee is the modernist, he represents the avant-garde, the next wave in musical composition, while Ma represents the old, entrenched way, the “old jug band music” to which Levee repeatedly refers.
But Levee has his own issues. He was emotionally traumatized as a child, forced to watch the gang-rape of his mother, then physically traumatized when he tried to stop the rape with a knife and was slashed with the knife across his chest. He was further traumatized when his father, seeking to exact revenge against the rapists (and successful in killing four of them), was caught, hung and burned in the woods. Wilson describes Levee in the scene-setter as flamboyant and buffoonish, as playing the wrong notes frequently, and as often confusing his skill with his talent.
Still, he is the star of the play, the archetype for Louis Armstrong, who as a young man played trumpet in Ma Rainey’s band. See Louis Armstrong, the First Great American Modernist here: Was Louis Armstrong the First Great American Modernist?. My question is, was Wilson gently leading us to this conclusion?
We also took note of Levee’s obsession with shoes, getting into arguments twice in the play when band members “stepped” on his shoes, the final act resulting in an enraged Levee committing the knifing murder of the band leader, Toledo. We discussed in class the possible symbolism of Levee’s fixation on his shoes, although the class did not all agree that shoes may have symbolized mobility, transportation, moving out of a bad situation and moving towards a good or better one. I personally thought the shoe symbolism concept was one with merit, and I found myself on YouTube listening to Robert Johnson’s original “Walkin’ Blues” and more recent covers of the Johnson masterpiece by Eric Clapton and Jerry Garcia (Grateful Dead) (videos below).
Levee has yet another thematic connection to Robert Johnson. It is said that Robert Johnson “sold” his soul to the devil in exchange for his music talent. Levee mentions in two separate conversations his willingness to “sell” his soul to Satan in conjunction with his overall rejection of Christianity and more traditional beliefs. We saw that “skepticism” expressed by Becker in Jitney, and we’ll see it again with Troy in Fences. Maybe this is another conclusion Wilson himself is leading us to – skepticism as a humanist element of modern thought.
OK. As promised, the Walkin’ Blues videos:
Robert Johnson original
Eric Clapton cover
Grateful Dead (Jerry Garcia) cover