Notes on King Hedley II (11.11.2018)

A lot of stuff happens in this 8th play in the August Wilson American Century Cycle, King Hedley II. Lots of events. But none of it sticks with me more, however, than the death of Aunt Ester, the Hill and Cycle matriarch. We may get around to making a list, but let’s begin with Aunt Ester’s death, a sort of central event around which everything else rotates.

First, let’s be clear. We know Aunt Ester isn’t over 300 years old as stated. We know by this point in our reading that Aunt Esther represents a series of black women, in an unbroken chain, all of whom have provided advice, wisdom, and practical knowledge to folks who sought her assistance, over the years. The year of her birth, 1619, aligns with the first recording of Africans from Angola landing by ship in Jamestown. Some say they arrived as indentured servants, a legal term describing the physical characteristics of a type of contract, duplicated on either end of a piece of paper, then indented and cut into two pieces with a specific pattern for future authentication. Some say they arrived as slaves. I guess it makes a difference to those who for whom it makes a difference, but on the Hill, and in the world that August Wilson has created, it was the birth year of Aunt Ester. What’s most important here is the year not of Aunt Ester’s birth, but of her death, 1985, because it represents, for some reason or reasons we can discuss later, the end of a chain, the end of a continuous personality, present up to this time, in the community. That bodes ill for the Hill and the community.

We get the first signal in the Stool Pigeon soliloquy in Wilson’s Prologue, and we immediately know something is off, out of kilter, because no previous play has had such a prologue. Stool Pigeon says, “Aunt Ester knows. But the path to her house is all grown  over with weeds, you can’t hardly find the door no more.” Then, early, in Scene 1, Stool Pigeon makes the mournful announcement, “Lock your doors! Close your windows! Turn your lamp down low! We in trouble now. Aunt Ester died! She died! She died! She died!”

King, in Scene 2, after asking Stool Pigeon if he can see King’s halo, points to a gold key ring that Aunt Ester gave him when he used to keep her grass cut. Note: a key ring, not a key. King’s obsession with people seeing his halo (he asks three times throughout the play, to Mister, to Stool Pigeon and to Elmore) might suggest King’s awareness at some level of consciousness that he has been sanctified or chosen for a mission.

On the night of Aunt Ester’s passing, a strong wind blew through the neighborhood and all the lights went out for a few moments. Some of the neighbors mourn for three days (modern religion, Catholicism) but some mourn until she is buried (African traditional faith). Stool Pigeon, aka Canewell  in Seven Guitars, now the neighborhood historian, mystic and archivist, has a variety of rationalizations regarding events surrounding Aunt Ester’s passing, as do Mister (Red Carter’s son) and King (Hedley’s son).Aunt Ester’s cat dies and Stool Pigeon buries her in the yard near the garden where King is trying to grow flowers. Stool Pigeon decides to get a goat or a fatted calf to pour its blood on the cat’s grave, remarking that Aunt Ester can come back if the cat has any of its nine lives left.

Fast forward to the end of the play. Let’s unpack the action. Elmore, Mister and King are gambling with dice. King accuses Elmore of cheating and kicks Elmore (who killed his true father, Leroy, years ago, though he just learned that from Elmore). Elmore tried to get up, but by this time, King has a machete to Elmore’s throat. King is unable to kill Elmore, and sticks the machete into the ground. Elmore draws a gun on King and Ruby runs into the house. Elmore lowers the gun and fires it into the ground (just like King stuck the machete into the ground). Hearing the gunfire and having last seen Elmore pointing the gun at King, Ruby calls out Elmore’s name. Ruby enters the yard firing the Derringer she got from Mister earlier thinking she is firing at Elmore. The bullet hits King in the neck, instantly killing him. King’s blood flows onto the ground near the grave of Aunt Ester’s buried cat. Stool Pigeon delivers his final monologue, and as the lights go down, the meow of a cat is heard. King’s spilled blood, already annointed, has revived the cat, by extension, which means there is hope for the resurrection and continuation of Aunt Ester.

More later.

postscript. Notes from last session’s King Hedley II.

King Hedley II’s playlist is pretty sparse. But noteworthy.

Carole Horn’s notes on Seven Guitars (11.05.2018)

A few Seven Guitars observations: “That’s All Right, Mama”—Floyd Barton’s ostensible song—was originally recorded by Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup in 1946 in Chicago; it’s Floyd “School Boy” Barton who records it apparently in 1947, a year before the play is set. Crudup stopped recording in the 1950s because of disputes over royalties—said he realized he was making everybody rich but he was poor—and he went back to Mississippi and started selling bootleg instead; Floyd, as well as his fellow musicians, are preoccupied about being poor when everyone they work for is getting rich.

Sara Degree, mentioned in Act I, was a Catholic woman revered in the Hill district who evangelized and took care of black children; and Doc Goldblum, mentioned as a possible source of help for Hedley’s TB, lived across the street from the Kittel/ Wilson home, Ervin Dyer and Monica Hayes, mention in a 2003 Post Gazette A&E article.

Buddy Bolden, the cornetist Hedley was obsessed about, is credited with creating the Big Four, a syncopated bass drum pattern, the second half of which was called the Hambone. Called the father of Jazz, he apparently combined ragtime and the blues, adding brass under the influence of Gospel, to create the new music form. Like Hedley, he became crazy—his alcoholic psychosis evolved into schizophrenia when he was in his 30s, and he spent the rest of his life in the Louisiana State Insane Asylum. (Note: That is the “official” story. Seems awfully young (30) to suffer from alcoholic psychosis. At any rate, Bolden spent the rest of his life, in effect, incarcerated. End note.)

The legendary Sonny Boy Williamson—the original—was also killed in June 1948, the year in which Seven Guitars is set, in a street robbery—one of his first songs and a jazz standard was Good Morning, Schoolgirl. Should we also think of him when we think of Floyd? Williamson played blues harmonica, of course, like Canewell. Sonny Boy Williamson II also played it, for years, with Robert Johnson for King Biscuit radio. The name of his “One Way Out” album recorded in the early ‘50s makes me think of Floyd’s “one way” speech before he commits the robbery.

Floyd is an interesting character, a man who commits a robbery to get the money to do what he wants when he’s incarcerated and cheated by the legal system and the racism that entangled him in it in the first place; a man, like Malcolm X, killed by another black man who could best be described in Floyd’s case as a crazed visionary, in a cutting more fatal than those experienced by Risa in Two Trains, or by Loomis.

Levee’s cutting of Toledo was equally fatal, I think, but we have no evidence suggesting Toledo was carried off to Heaven by a band of angels afterward, as Vera and Canewell suggest here. Are we to assume Wilson’s idea of justice is quite relative, then—that maybe it’s not such a crime to take what you may be owed by the society denying you?

The critics talk about the frustration of expectations post-WWII of blacks in America expressed in this particular play, and the broader message here may also have to do with outliers in societies taking down their own promising leaders, because when people cannot successfully throw off oppression, they turn their anger on one another instead. I did not much like this play—I think the premises seem confused, except that everything bad that happens ultimately results from oppression.

If Floyd is a free agent choosing his desperate move, why, after he’s killed by the trickster figure Hedley is that Deus Ex Machina waiting in the sky to haul him off to his reward? Or is the sky populated, like those in the classics or in more primitive cultures, by many gods occupied by their own squabbles, and are humans just their pawns? Money, again, is of course the root of all evil—when ancestors and tradition are ignored, dollars and cents rule.

Tony Kushner talks a lot about all the sevens in the play, from guitars to characters, to Floyd’s options, to Red Carter’s women, to Hedley’s “I offer the flesh of my flesh, my seven generations.” He suggests the reference may be to the mark of Cain (suggested also by Canewell’s name—and cane is chopped with machetes, one of which certainly does mark Floyd). But I found an additional way to look at the quote: seven generations, roughly 210 years, subtracted from 1948, becomes 1738. That was the year the first free African American community in the United States—Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose—was established just north of St. Augustine in Florida. Now considered one of the most important sites on Florida’s black heritage trail, Fort Mose was actually excavated in 1986 and designated a US Historic Landmark in 1994. Seven Guitars opened in 1995, was presumably being written and edited the prior year. Coincidence or intention, this juxtaposition of African-American freedom, and the oppression that followed?

Sent from my iPhone

 

Notes on Seven Guitars (11.05.2018)

Once you read the play (or see it on the stage, and Seven Guitars is one I have not seen performed except in clips on YouTube) you realize: there are no seven guitars, so it must be symbolism of some type. There are seven principal characters, each one bringing in his or her own universe of issues and feelings and modes of expression. We are going to get to that. But first let’s look at some other “sevens” in the play.

Red Carter, who passes out cheap cigars to celebrate the birth of his son, says he had seven women at one point, one for each day of the week. Floyd Barton, in a stirring monologue, describes the seven options available to him (Act 2, Scene 3). A character mentions seven years of bad luck. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Billy Conn is knocked out in round eight after earlier surviving a count of seven There is a contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men are killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedley’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). And finally, from Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” his mother’s seven characteristics that are worthy of art:

I am not a historian.
I happen to think that the content
of my mother’s life –
(1) her myths,
(2) her superstitions,
(3) her prayers,
(4) the contents of her pantry,
(5) the song that escaped
from her sometimes parched lips,
(6) her thoughtful repose
(7) and pregnant laughter –
are all worthy of art.

Hence, Seven Guitars.

While on the subject, numerology and listings of things figure prominently in Seven Guitars. Five brands of beer are mentioned (Iron city, Duquense, Black Label, Red Label, and Yellow Label) and five brands of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Lucky Strike, Pall Mall, and Camel). Canewell describes three types of roosters, maybe four: the Alabama rooster, the Georgia rooster, the Mississippi rooster, and the pre-Emancipation rooster.

OK. Back to the seven characters.

1. Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton, the principal character in this tragedy, is a talented musician who makes a series of ill-fated decisions, in life and in love, and meets an end that no one saw coming at the hands of Hedley. Floyd reminds me of Levee (wanted to make new music, preferring a gun to a knife in a fight) and Troy Maxsom (tragically flawed and professionally unfulfilled) and in some ways, Boy Willie Charles (high hopes for financial success but with behaviors that often drag him down).

2. Hedley is the seer in this tragedy, the oracle, the mystic with peculiar non-urban ways, like Bynum earlier, and somewhat like Toledo evoking memories of ancestors, like Holloway understanding and applying history to the present, and perhaps somewhat like Berniece at the end of her journey when she calls on the ancestors.

3. Louise is the boardinghouse manager and landlady. She maintains order and decorum in the house, and dispenses sound motherly advice to Vera and to her niece from the south, Ruby, advice that is not always followed.

4. Canewell plays harmonica in Floyd’s band, and harmonizes relationships between other characters to keep conversations on an even keel, so to speak. Canewell is old school, preferring a knife to a pistol in a fight. In a late conflict with Floyd, Canewell gives in and backs away from the precipice. Canewell sees the angels at Floyd’s funeral and reappears in a later play with a descriptive name.

5. Red Carter is the drummer in Floyd’s band. He is the first one to take a piece of sweet potato pie in the opening scene and he appears late in Scene 4, stylishly dressed.  He fancies himself a ladies man. He is a modernist and a realist.

6. Vera, ignoring her better judgement and the advise of Louise, allows herself to be charmed by Floyd and his dreams of financial and professional success. In the opening, Vera also sees the angels carrying Floyd to heaven. Vera has a dress with two shades of blue. Before the end, Vera accepts Floyd’s invitation to accompany him to Chicago, but she lets him know she has an unexpiring return trip ticket back to Pittsburgh.

7. Ruby arrived unannounced from Birmingham, pregnant and  fleeing a love triangle that resulted in one death and one imprisonment. She is pretty and sexy with her charming Southern ways and her youthfulness, attracting all the men in turn. Ultimately she has sex with Hedley, a man 40 years her senior, and allows him to believe he is the father of her unborn child. Both reappear in a later play.

Finally, just a short note on the significance of Floyd’s appointment to record in Chicago. It is on June tenth (not June 10th) at 10 o’clock in the morning. Sounds and looks like Juneteenth, the celebration commemorating the end of slavery in Texas in 1865. Meanwhile, his manager has absconded with his money and is in big trouble for selling fake insurance. Of course, Floyd never makes it to Chicago.

p.s. There are natural and organic connections between this play, Seven Guitars, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. That’s grist for another mill as my father would say.

A few words on Buddy Bolden, referenced often in Seven Guitars. Called alternately the “Father” and the “King of Jazz,” Bolden is credited with the creation of the Big Four, “a key rhythmic innovation on the marching band beat, which gave embryonic jazz much more room for individual improvisation.” He was committed to a medical facility in New Orleans at age 30 with “acute alcoholic psychosis.” It does seem 30 is a very young age for such a malady, and it may be suggested that it was a misdiagnosis. He spent the remainder of his life hospitalized, and in effect, incarcerated. One group member suggested that perhaps Bolden suffered from Hemochromatosis, a condition where too much iron builds up in the blood, resulting in symptoms very similar to those resulting from excessive alcohol consumption over a long period of time.

From the New Orleans Official Guide:

First of the great New Orleans jazz figures was Buddy Bolden, a barber who blew his horn to glory. He had two loves, music and women; in both he won money, local fame and jewels. Friends remember how, as he marched along, one grinning girl held his coat, another his hat, and during his moments of rest, a third took his horn. Let Buddy smile too long at any one of them, and the other two tried to tear her eyes out.

Buddy made up one song after another; when he wasn’t playing his horn, his rich voice was stirring the girls, “giving ’em the crawls.” His playing had one feature that later jazz authorities recognized as indispensable — “the trance,” an ability to sink himself in the music until nothing mattered but himself and the cornet, in fervent communion.

This 2001 review by John Lahr keeps on popping up: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/04/16/been-here-and-gone

Here are the notes from Session 1: https://raymonddmaxwell.com/2018/04/16/pre-class-notes-for-seven-guitars/

Here is the playlist: