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.

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
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.


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.

Events of the 1900’s

In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was constitutional through the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Immediately local and state laws were created and in some cases, enhanced to prohibit African-Americans from participating fully in American society. However, almost immediately, African-Americans began working to prove their worth in American society. The timeline below highlights some of the contributions as well as some tribulations faced by African-Americans between 1900 and 1909.

An estimated two-thirds of landowners in the Mississippi Delta are African-American farmers. Many had purchased land following the Civil War.

Since the end of the Civil War, an estimated 30,000 African-American men and women have been trained as teachers. The work of these educators assists the African-American population throughout the United States learn to read and write.


George H. White, the last African-American elected to Congress, leaves office.
Bert Williams and George Walker become the first African-American recording artists. They recorded with Victor Talking Machine Company.
Booker T. Washington becomes the first African-American to eat the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House for a meeting. At the end of the meeting, Roosevelt invited Washington to stay for dinner.
Washington publishes his autobiography, Up From Slavery.


W.E.B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folks. The collection of essays explored issues concerning racial equality and denounced Washington’s beliefs.
Maggie Lena Walker establishes the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va.


Mary McLeod Bethune establishes Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fl.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller becomes the nation’s first African-American psychiatrist. Fuller trained at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich.


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:

Events of the mid-1980’s


W. Wilson Goode becomes the first African-American mayor of Philadelphia.
The Cosby Show makes its debut on NBC. It will become the most successful series featuring an African-American cast in television history.


Philadelphia mayor W. Wilson Goode orders Philadelphia law enforcement agents to bomb the headquarters of MOVE. The bombing leaves 250 people homeless and 11 dead.
Gwendolyn Brooks becomes the first African-American to be named the U.S. Poet Laureate.


Martin Luther King, Jr.’s national holiday is celebrated across the United States.
Six crew members die when the Challenger space shuttle explodes after it launches from the Kennedy Space Center. One of the crew members is African-American astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair.
The Oprah Winfrey show becomes a nationally syndicated talk show.
Producer and director Spike Lee debuts his feature film, She’s Gotta Have It.
Mike Tyson becomes the youngest heavyweight champion in the world when he defeats Trevor Berbick.


Rita Dove wins the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
Reginald Lewis becomes the first African-American CEO of a billion dollar corporation when he orchestrates the buyout of Beatrice Foods.
Dr. Benjamin Carson, a neurosurgeon leads a team of seventy surgeons at John Hopkins University Hospital in a 22-hour operation separating Siamese twins. · ·
Dr. Johnetta B. Cole becomes the first African-American woman to preside over Spelman College.
Aretha Franklin becomes the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Novelist and essayist James Baldwin dies from stomach cancer.