Early thoughts on The Cycle study group that starts next week, 9/24/2018

As I begin reading the first play, Jitney, it all seems so familiar, as if I have actually seen the play. but I haven’t seen Jitney on the stage. What I am seeing are images my mind created when I read it the first time (actually I read it twice) in preparation for last semester’s study group. Amazing thought, for me, at least.

Full Disclosures

I have to start with a full disclosure. I have no background, professionally or academically, in drama, playwriting, or even the arts. I studied engineering, economics, international relations, and library and information science, in that order. But I always loved plays, and have probably seen more August Wilson (and more Eugene O’Neill) plays performed on stage than the average bear. I do write poetry as Wilson did for years before he became a playwright, and I have had a few pieces published by small-time presses, as well as self-publishing a small collection of my own stuff (I gave away more copies than I sold, so I still claim the title “amateur,” doing it purely for the love of it).

That said, while last semester’s reading was a discovery for me and for many of the group members, this semester’s reading will be more about themes and analysis, plot and character development, and taking a deeper plunge into the soul of August Wilson through his words. Not that a lot of that did not happen last time; it did, but this time it will be more purposeful, more intentional.


The Community is the Curriculum. This concept comes from a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course), Rhizo15. Each person brings to the class and the course his or her reading of the play and ideas about it. But he/she also brings a wealth of information to the class about former professions and life experiences. Collectively and in the aggregate, that “syllabus” of information “informs” the discussion and thus becomes the unwritten curriculum for the course. Those are my words; get more background (and for future reference) on it at this link: https://davecormier.com/edblog/2008/06/03/rhizomatic-education-community-as-curriculum/

We will continue with the close-read method borrowed from the Coursera MOOC, ModPo (Modern and Contemporary American Poetry), followed by discussion. That is, each group member will select in advance a passage for discussion, develop some ideas about that passage, and present findings to the class. In the first week, we will combine that presentation with a brief intro/bio that will include the members learning ‘subjectives,’ another Rhizo15 term, i.e., what you hope to get out of the course and what you bring to the course out of your own background. It may start off a little clunky, but will get better as we know each other better. Here is more detail on close reading.

Chatham House Rules. Which is to say, what we discuss in class stays in class, or, to put a fine point on it, “When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

The N-word comes up as well as other, how shall we say, indelicate phrases. If it comes up in a passage you choose, you should feel free to speak the text as it appears, but use “air quotes” if that makes you feel more comfortable about using “off-color” language.

There may be some glitches with versioning, i.e., different editions of the play may have different page numbers. As much as possible, let’s stick to the Act and Scene convention when describing our selected passages. Just makes it easier.

OK. That may be more than enough for one sitting. I look forward to meeting you all next Monday!

Jitney opens September 24th!

Syllabus for August Wilson Study Group

Week 1 – Introduction to the American Century Cycle and the first play, Jitney

https://www.memphisflyer.com/memphis/jitney-is-august-wilsons-underappreciated-masterpiece/Content?oid=12932362. Accessed August 24, 2018

TheaterTalk (Tony-award winning cast): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zfe8tRYKzdQ. Accessed August 24, 2018

NYTimes review of Jitney – Ben Brantley
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/19/theater/jitney-review-august-wilson.html?rref=collection%2Fbyline%2Fben-brantley&action=click&contentCollection=undefined&region=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=239&pgtype=collection. Accessed August 24, 2018

Short clip from Jitney: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=5&v=YUQ_6gXJnG0. Accessed August 24, 2018

History of the 70’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1970-1979-45445. Accessed August 24, 2018

Background pieces on August Wilson
http://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/august-wilson-the-ground-on-which-i-stand-scenes-and-synposes-of-august-wilsons-10-play-cycle/3701/ . Accessed August 24, 2018

http://old.seattletimes.com/html/obituaries/2002536239_august03.html. Accessed August 24, 2018

Bill Moyers interview on You Tube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WgjnNaMweBw. Accessed August 24, 2018

A You Tube playlist of excerpts from all the plays: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXast5sdFxGHzmb3wRMWVTMP Accessed August 24, 2018

The Light in August Wilson – Suzi-Lori Parks interview https://www.americantheatre.org/2005/11/01/the-light-in-august-wilson-a-career-a-century-a-lifetime/. Accessed August 24, 2018

Minnesota Public Radio interview: https://www.mprnews.org/listen?name=/minnesota/news/features/2016/12/23/augustwilson_archives_ek_20161223_64.mp3. Accessed August 24, 2018

Here is the link to the whole website from Minnesota Public Radio: 
https://www.mprnews.org/story/2016/12/23/archives-august-wilson-fences-film-lou-bellamy. Accessed August 24, 2018

Recommended Books:

Elkins, Marilyn (ed). August Wilson: A Casebook. From the series “Casebooks of Modern Dramatists.” Garland Publishers, Inc. 1994.

Nadal, Alan (ed). May All Your Fences Have Gates: Essays on the Drama of August Wilson. University of Iowa Press. 1994.

*Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Howard University Press. 1995

Bryer, Jackson and Hartig, Mary C. (eds). Conversations with August Wilson. University Press of Mississippi. 2006.

Nadal, Alan (ed). August Wilson: Completing the Twentieth- Century Cycle. University of Iowa Press. 2010.

*Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Cascade Books. 2017.

* My Favorites

The second journey begins on September 24, 2018

I will be posting new content for the second running of the August Wilson American Century Cycle in the next coming weeks in preparation for a September 24 start date.

Meanwhile, I am adding content material to the last year posts as a sort of resource going forward, primarily reviews, current events, in some cases, videos of performances. I also want to add conceptual material in a more structured way, but not too structured, stuff I’ve come across like genre theory, more analysis of drama (a la Freytag), more thinking about Deleuze and Guattari and the rhizome, but not too much. We want to keep the looseness, the fun, the spontaneity of learning.

Hope you can join us!

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)

The Light in August Wilson – November 2005

How August Wilson Brought a Century of Black American Culture to the Stage – April 2001

My weekly notes are posted here

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.

Here is a link to the playscript: http://mypage.siu.edu/leitner/pdfs/radiogolf.pdf

This study guide has good background material for all of Wilson’s works.



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 last week 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 last week. 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.


Here is the NYTimes review of the 2007 Broadway production of Radio Golf.

Events of the 1990’s


Playwright August Wilson wins a Pulitzer Prize for the play, The Piano Lesson.
Sharon Pratt Kelly becomes the first African-American woman to lead a major city in the United States when she is elected mayor of Washington D.C.


Ron Kirk is elected mayor of Dallas. Kirk is the first African-American to hold such a position.


Ron Brown, Commerce Secretary, was killed in a plane crash in Eastern Europe.
The first African-American to win a Pulitzer Price for Music is George Walker. Walker receives the award for the composition “Lilies for Soprano or Tenor and Orchestra.”
When Tiger Woods wins the Masters Tournament in Augusta, Ga., he becomes the first African-American and youngest golfer to win the title.


Harvey Johnson, Jr. is the first African-American mayor of Jackson, Miss.
The Million Woman March is held in Philadelphia.
Lee Patrick Brown is elected mayor of Houston—the first African-American to hold such a position.
Wynton Marsalis’ jazz composition “Blood on the Fields” wins a Pulitzer Prize in Music. It is the first jazz composition to receive the honor.