Some review pieces for our wrap-up meeting

Aunt Ester’s Children: A Century on Stage – April 2000 (also in various editions of King Hedley II)
https://groups.google.com/d/msg/august-wilson-century-cycle-study-group/BfzpRww31CQ/qcz8DiD8CQAJ

The Light in August Wilson – November 2005
https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/
https://groups.google.com/d/msg/august-wilson-century-cycle-study-group/9qdEf5FlUkc/AlAW9c78AgAJ

How August Wilson Brought a Century of Black American Culture to the Stage – April 2001
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone
https://groups.google.com/d/msg/august-wilson-century-cycle-study-group/pLkN5cLG700/D1ILIX0fCQAJ

My weekly notes are posted here

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More found poetry – From the scene-setter, The Play, at the start of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

It is August in Pittsburgh, 1911.

The sun falls out of heaven like a stone.
The fires of the steel mill rage with a combined
sense of industry and progress. Barges loaded
with coal and iron ore trudge up the river to the mill towns

that dot the Monongahela and return with fresh, hard,
gleaming steel. The city flexes its muscles. Men throw
countless bridges across rivers, lay roads and carve
tunnels through the hills sprouting with houses.

From the deep and the near South the sons
and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander
into the city. Isolated, cut off from memory, having forgotten
the names of the gods and only guessing at their faces,

they arrive dazed and stunned, their hearts kicking
in their chests with a song worth singing. They arrive
carrying Bibles and guitars, their pockets lined
with dust and fresh hope, marked men and women

seeking to scrape from the narrow, crooked cobbles and
the fiery blasts of the coke furnace a way of bludgeoning
and shaping the malleable parts of themselves
into a new identity as free men of definite and sincere worth.

Foreigners in a strange land, they carry as part and parcel
of their baggage a long line of separation and dispersement
which informs their sensibilities and marks their conduct
as they search for ways to reconnect, to reassemble,

to give clear and luminous meaning to the song
which is both a wail and a whelp of joy.

A beginning rhizomatic schematic of the August Wilson American Century Cycle

Screen Shot 2018-05-06 at 11.57.24 AM

The decades of the 20th century covered by each play are listed clockwise, beginning top and center with Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904. The blue lines with arrows indicate the order in which the plays were written, beginning with Jitney. Still working on the meaning & frequency of lines that cross.

Characteristics of the rhizome related to August Wilson’s plays (hypothetical).

  1. Connections. The connections between plays/decades is just as important as the plays/decades themselves.

2. Heterogeneity. Any play can be connected to any other play or any series of plays.

3. Multiplicity. There is no original order for the plays, no prior unity.

4. Assignifying rupture. Connections between plays fail, rupture and remake themselves in various combinations.

5. Cartography and decalcomania. Discussions of themes can be entered via any play, mapped to any other play, and can conclude at any play.

It’s been a while since I’ve posted at #clmooc, but I haven’t forgotten you (or it). My work has taken me out of the classroom, but my volunteer activities have all been involved in various settings of adult education.

Most recently, I led a study group reading and discussing the plays of August Wilson that comprise his #AmericanCenturyCycle. Fiddling around, I came up with a rhizomatic approach to the plays, one for each decade in the 20th century.

Wilson’s plays all depict life in the black community (mostly in Pittsburgh), decade by decade. But here is the question. Can one deconstruct and reconstruct the order of a community’s history (through its surrogates, the plays) to find new meaning? In effect, is there a rhizomatic approach to history itself which we normally think of in linear terms? And what does this portend for teaching (and learning)?

Just beginning to arrange thoughts. Would love to hear ideas from the community.

some initial thoughts on Week 10 – #RadioGolf

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.

Characters

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.

postscript.

Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, represents the first decade in the Century Cycle. It is 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  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.

There are many songs in the play, but these two stand out:

Finally, doesn’t this underwater sculpture remind you of the City of Bones? It is not intended to depict the Middle Passage, but its intended message speaks to us still.

Vicissitudes

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.

 

Week 8 – King Hedley II

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.

Speaking of Ruby, here’s a you-tube version of a song she sang twice in the play. “Red Sails in the Sunset”

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 of 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, and 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 because it was spoken by a then relatively unknown Viola Davis, a role for which she won the Tony for best actor.

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. Here is a performance by a younger and relatively unknown Viola Davis:

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.

Poem for my 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.

Bynum Cutler.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.

Bynum Cutler,
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.