Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom



updated syllabus – August Wilson Century Cycle – 1/8/2018

August Wilson’s Century Cycle – Study Group #685 Link

Syllabus – Spring 2018

Course Description

The study group will read and discuss one August Wilson play each week for ten weeks, completing the Century Cycle of ten plays. Each group member will be require to read the week’s assigned play at home, select a passage they find significant, then be prepared to read the passage and discuss why that passage is significant to them. After class, each student will post to a blog a few paragraphs about the play. The goal of the course will not be to exhaustively discuss each play. Instead, each member (including the group leader) will select a brief passage to present to the class, followed by a brief, collaborative close read and discussion by the group.

Instructional Methods

The course uses collaborative group discussion and close reading for a passage selected by each group member. Group members will post their reflections to a blog and these reflections will be peer-reviewed by all other group members.

Recommended Texts

The only required text for the course is the text for each play. Many are available online for educational purposes only and a link will be posted, along with other articles and related resources at the Google Group here:!forum/august-wilson-century-cycle-study-group .

As soon as you know you want to join the study group email me at with your email address so I can invite you to the Google Group.

The following Alan Nadel books (available at local public and university libraries) are collections of critical essays about the Century Series (read them for ideas that will emerge in our discussions, but don’t let them take time away from reading the actual plays. Reading the actual play is the thing! ):

Nadel, Alan. May All Your Fences Have Gates. University of Iowa Press, 1994 (covers the first five plays).

Nadel, Alan. August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth-Century Cycle. University of Iowa Press, 2010. (covers the second five plays).

Course Requirements

Class participation. Each group member will be expected to present his/her passage each week for discussion. Each group member will post his weekly reflections after the discussion to a blog or online forum, either the Google Group or whatever location we decide upon.

Synopses of the plays (These all come from the PBS American masters website here:

Week 1:  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 2:  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)

Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and religion.

Week 3:  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 4:  Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)

Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.

Week 5:  The Piano Lesson (1986)

Synopsis: Named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant relatives.

Week 6:  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 7: 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 8:  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 9: 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 10:  Radio Golf (2005)

Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor. History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.


Assignments. Each week, each group member will reflect on the group discussion and produce a short (can be very short!) composition and post to a forum or a blog (yet to be determined).

Final assignment: Collaborative peer-review and discussion of each student’s aggregated blog (or forum) posts.

Materials: Group leader will provide links to background information online, and where available, links to the actual text of each play. Where not available, students will need to check the play out from the library or actually purchase the play from a book store or from Amazon. Students should have access to an internet-enabled computer.

Journey to the 20th Century

I am repurposing this blog.

Henceforward, I’ll be keeping notes here as I prepare for my August Wilson Century Series study group which begins in March, 2018.

As the study group leader, I don’t plan to do long boring lectures. Besides, what do I know?  I anticipate something more akin to a long and winding conversation. So the goal will be to keep the conversation going. What do I know about conversations? Well, I have been having them with all kinds of people for a long time. Even did a paper once on conversation theory and posted it to a blog here.  Turns out it was a short paper, but at least I have something to start with.

And I have three ideas from the MOOC world I hope to apply. From ModPo, I want to utilize the idea of the collaborative close read. A play is not poetry, but then again, perhaps it is. Our particular writer certainly considered himself a poet BEFORE he turned to drama. I have come across some extremely poetic passages in plays. Now, most studies of close reading paired with conversation theory apply to education of children, but that’s ok, we are going to try it with adults.

The next two ideas come from a MOOC course I took, Rhizo15. They are (1) learning subjectives (versus “objectives”) and, related, (2) the idea of the community as the curriculum. The learning objective of the course is simple: to plow through ten plays in ten weeks, reading and discussing each. But the learning subjectives may and will vary from person to person. One person may be planning to write a play and is looking for some ideas and inspiration. Someone else may be lonely and looking for company.  If we spend a bit of time discussing what each person wants out of the course, I think we will come up with a much better list than what I could come up with by myself. Similarly, each person brings his/her background/expertise/talents/networks to the study group community. I think it will be fascinating to see what those resources are and how they overlap and intersect.

OK. Here is a link to the Goggle Group where we will all deposit some of our thoughts each week.

August 7

Seven days is enough, perhaps.

One of my favorite ModPo poems is Charles Bernstein’s In a Restless World Like This Is. Go to Coursera right now and sign up! Modern and Contemporary American Poetry. You won’t regret it.

I am going to spend the rest of the month on vacation and writing poems on postcards!

And here is the link to the Bernstein poem. Enjoy!

August 6

When I was an undergraduate in Tallahassee, I spent a spring break or two visiting New Orleans. To some extent, I fell in love with the place, the city, the lifestyle of the Big Easy. Perhaps a piece of me is still there, all the events of Hurricane Katrina notwithstanding.

When I read this Patricia Smith poem, Prologue – And Then She Owns You, so many images flood back in striking detail. Here’s a link, try it for yourself:

August 5

Not exactly poetry, but definitely poetic. Two pieces of noteworthy prose by artists, Harlem Renaissance painter and thinker, Aaron Douglas, and American Renaissance painter and writer, Kenyon Cox. Enjoy.

Aaron Douglas

“…Our problem is to conceive, develop, establish an art era. Not white art painting black…let’s bare our arms and plunge them deep through laughter, through pain, through sorrow, through hope, through disappointment, into the very depths of the souls of our people and drag forth material crude, rough, neglected. Then let’s sing it, dance it, write it, paint it. Let’s do the impossible. Let’s create something transcendentally material, mystically objective. Earthy. Spiritually earthy. Dynamic.”

Kenyon Cox

“The Classic Spirit is the disinterested search for perfection; it is the love of clearness and reasonableness and self-control; it is, above all, the love of permanence and of continuity. It asks of a work of art, not that it shall be novel or effective, but that it shall be fine and noble. It seeks not merely to express individuality or emotion but to express disciplined emotion and individuality restrained by law. It strives for the essential rather than the accidental, the eternal rather than the momentary. And it loves to steep itself in tradition. It would have each new work connect itself in the mind of him who sees it with all the noble and lovely works of the past, bringing them to his memory and making their beauty and charm part of the beauty and charm of the work before him. It does not deny originality and individuality – they are as welcome as inevitable. It does not consider tradition as immutable or set rigid bounds to invention. But it desires that each new presentation of truth and beauty shall show us the old truth and the old beauty, seen only from a different angle and colored by a different medium. It wishes to add link by link to the chain of tradition, but it does not wish to break the chain.“