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:

Carole Horn’s notes on Two Trains Running (with notes, links and annotations)

This play contains several important Aunt Ester references, and says she is 349 years old in 1969–which means she was born around 1619 or 1620. It was in 1619 that the first 20 Africans were brought from Angola to Virginia and sold to the governor—they were possibly given the status of indentured servants, but in a sense that year marks the beginning of African history in North America (Note: Groups are gearing up for the quadricentennial celebrations next year, in 2019). The number of the house where she lived, 1839 Wylie Avenue, was, of course, the year of the slave mutiny on the ship Amistad. Was Aunt Esther’s name also a tip of the hat to the Aunt Esther character in the 1972-1977 sitcom Sanford and Son, a feisty advisor and supporter of young Lamont, the series’ protagonist?

Christopher Rawson did a 2009 piece in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette which points out how much Aunt Esther sounds like “ancestor,” and notes that it wasn’t till late in the play series that Wilson said he came to realize that she was the central character in his Cycle, which was why he then highlighted her in Gem of the Ocean. 1621 Wylie is where the play is set, but that is also the number of the house on Bedford where Daisy Wilson died.

The character Hambone, whose name is another name for the Juba dance we saw in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (and it also suggests he is one of the black leftovers Toledo describes in Ma Rainey) began protesting 10 years earlier, around 1959, the ham he did not get from Lutz for painting his fence— about the time of the first lunch Woolworth counter sit-in in Greensboro NC on 2/1/60 according to Rawson. He thinks Wilson was referencing the sit-ins with Hambone’s demand for his ham. And I think Wilson’s ironic joke seems to be that it’s Memphis who is always attempting to refuse Hambone service at his restaurant “counter”—and demanding that Hambone leave. (Note: Coincidentally, immediately (1 month later) following the start of the Greensboro sit-ins, there were similar sit-ins in Memphis TN).

The events surrounding actual time when the play is set include Martin Luther King’s assassination in April 1968 and also include the conviction of James Earl Ray for that murder in 1969 and the killing of Illinois Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969.  (No mention of Woodstock, moonlanding, Stonewall riots or Mohammed Ali’s conviction for draft evasion, all the same year.)

MLK is referenced as is Martin and Malcolm X is emphasized — and Memphis’ long speeches give us another way of looking at the Freedom Now and Black is Beautiful movements. Memphis actually sounds to me like a 1960s Clarence Thomas or Ben Carter prototype—“You born free—it’s up to you to maintain it,” black individualist who neither credits the value of group movements nor sees the use of them. He’s no fool—he doesn’t think anyone will ever give anything voluntarily to black people. He had the experience of losing the land he bought from Stovall, his mule and almost his life before coming to Pittsburgh. Interestingly, Muddy Waters lived on the Stovall Plantation when Alan Lomax first recorded an album of his music there —I don’t know if it had the song with the two trains line in it.

But Memphis also believes—and in the end proves—it is possible to get some justice, even if it’s only monetary compensation for the negative effects of gentrification. Memphis makes me think of Troy Maxson, and of Becker, but a less embittered, more accomplished version of them — is that because of the passage of a generation of time?

Patchneck Red, mentioned in Two Trains, apparently was a real gambler/hustler in Pittsburgh—also mentioned by Wining Boy in Act II Scene 5 of The Piano Lesson. Sterling’s name suggests he’s genuine, the real thing, and his plight as an ex-con looking for work certainly rings true. But he wins at the numbers thanks to Risa and kills no one over the reduced payment, which suggests his future (per Aunt Esther’s endorsement) with her may be optimistic. (Note: Sterling reappears in a later play, Radio Golf). (Note: West mentions burying Miss Sarah Degree, the name of a woman in Wilson’s childhood who gathered all the neighborhood children together to take them to Sunday school at the nearby Catholic Church).

The two trains running metaphor in the play’s name has now accumulated several meanings—the crash referenced in Ma Rainey by Toledo, maybe in this play suggesting old and newer black value systems which are colliding); and the crossing of the Southern and the Yazoo Delta — the mystical crossroads in Piano Lesson—certainly present at Aunt Esther’s home in this play; and Memphis’ “two trains running” comment in this play. As to Esther’s reward for her wisdom: how do the twenties thrown in the river get to her? Is this an oblique reference to pennies in a wishing well, or the payment of homage (two pennies) to cross the river to see to one’s ancestors (which we will see in Gem of the Ocean)?

Much of the plot is taken up with the great event of the week, Prophet Samuel’s funeral. In the Bible, Samuel had been the prophet responsible for keeping King Saul close to God. When Saul, less spiritual than Samuel, turned away from God, Samuel followed God’s instruction to anoint David the next king—when Samuel died, both kings and the nation of Israel were immensely saddened. Since the conflict between Christian beliefs and ancestral ones, and its potential reconciliation is a central theme in Wilson’s plays, I think his choice of Prophet Samuel—also a judge and moral leader Biblically—must be meaningful. Can Christian generosity like Risa’s survive Mammon, the god of material things who compensates loss of community, hearth and home with checks for $35,000?

Risa’s leg cutting suggests African scarification rituals, rites of passage, as well as self-cutting (already happening in the 1970s) as a way to release psychic pain. We see a similar self-cutting by Herald Loomis in Joe Turner and by Levee in Ma Rainey. More often scars that would in traditional African cultures suggest fertility and health (pathogen resistance) would be on exposed skin of breasts or abdomen, but since those areas are not exposed in Two Trains, the legs—the 5 and 7 scars—with the 1 set of genitals between — Risa’s winning number — may suggest that she successfully combines ancestral and Christian strengths and will be very lucky for Sterling, even if Memphis tends to treat her like a scullery maid, crassly ordering her around and implying she’s dumb.

This play is jam-packed with with numbers—it is framed by the cost of restaurant meals on the menu at the onset, and concludes with $35,000 check and a ham. Running through it are numbers racket numbers, the borrowing of dollars and paying of wages, numbers of years, Aunt Esther’s $20 payments and numbers of women with whom Wolf carries on. Is Wilson using all these images of daily commerce to suggest that’s what the 60s had become—God dead (Prophet Samuel’s burial) and money is what people worship. Is there irony in the fact that MLK and Malcolm X get are mentioned but Samuel is wept over? Hard to say.

Notes on Two Trains Running (10.29.2018)

Nothing is wasted or superfluous in August Wilson’s plays. So I think we have to assume meaning behind the fact that the only song that plays on the jukebox in Memphis’ diner is Aretha Franklin’s Take a Look, from her Aretha Sings the Blues Album.

Even though the title of the tune is only revealed late in the play, we know throughout that the jukebox is broken and only plays one song, we just don’t know what that song is. I almost assume it is Muddy Waters Still the Same, since embedded in the lyrics is one source of the play’s title, Two Trains Running. But beyond the title and one mention by Memphis, “Two Trains Running” seldom shows up in the text.

I am thinking the difference between the two blues songs may hold a clue for us. The Muddy Waters tune is downbeat, even for the blues. Two trains, neither one going in the direction of the destination he desires. Reminds me a bit of that Doaker passage in Act 1 of The Piano Lesson (but let’s not go there right now…). Allen Toussaint’s Take A Look, on the other hand, whose lyrics are covered by many top vocalists (including Aretha Franklin) and sampled by even more rappers, presents a more even handed look at reality, and perhaps even cautious optimism about choices for the future, which I think is a theme of Wilson’s play:

“Take A Look”

Take a look in the mirror, look at yourself
But don’t you look too close
‘Cause you just might see
The person that you hate the mostLord, what’s happenin’ to this human race?
I can’t even see one friendly face
Brothers fight brothers and sisters wink their eyes
While silver tongues bear fruits of poison liesJust take a look at your children born innocent
Every boy and every girl
Denyin’ themselves a real chance
To build a better world

Dear Lord, dear Lord, what’s happenin’ to your precious dream?
It’s washin’ away on a bloody bloody stream
Take a look at your children before it’s too late
And tell them nobody wins when the prize is hate.

But back to the play.

A couple of things I’d like to highlight. One, this play has more mentions of the N-word than any other of Wilson’s plays, 82 mentions by one count. And more lengthy discussions, especially by Holloway, that include multiple repetitions of the N-Word, i.e., “stacking niggers,” “niggers” mentioned with “guns,” etc. I don’t think this is by accident. I think Wilson is trying to make a point. That point is that despite and because of the repeated mentioning of the N-word, this play is not about race or racism. It is about urban renewal and the resulting “spatial deconcentration” of the black business and urban business community. It is about incarceration and the resulting impact on the community. It is about the interplay between church-based hope and solutions (Prophet Samuel) and spiritual-based outcomes (Aunt Ester) and social movement projections (King, Malcolm X, their deaths and the rallies to promote change that ensued in their wakes). It is about relationships. It is about having jobs and doing work (in the case of Wolf, on the margins of legality) to achieve reasonable economic and social goals. It is even about mentoring. But it is not ABOUT race and racism, as such. I think this was a clear message from Wilson through the characters in this play. This Philadelphia review goes into greater depth about the aboutness of the play.

Let’s also look at the continuity of character across Holloway, Bynum (Joe Turner), Doaker (The Piano Lesson) and Toledo (Ma Rainey), the older guy-type, sage, voice of common sense and experience, and the survivor. Holloway has carefully made his choice for Aunt Ester over Malcolm X and Prophet Samuel, although he knows the history of each and how they came into prominence.  Holloway also professes special insight into Hambone’s behavior, giving him more credit than most for his seemingly erratic ways. Perhaps there is another continuity of character across Memphis, Seth (Joe Turner), and Becker (Jitney), that is, the entrepreneur who operates on the economy’s margin, making tough decisions to keep the employment machine running. As someone in the group said, “we keep on running across the same cast of characters.” Well, almost, but not quite.

My notes from the last session go more into plot and character development.

More later.

Some links:

Glossary of terms: https://twotrainsrunning.weebly.com/glossery-of-terms-and-references.html

Mid-term Pop Quiz

1. Match the play setting with the play:

recording studio and band room       _________________________________________

living room, kitchen, parlor                _________________________________________

back porch and kitchen                       _________________________________________

boarding house and yard                    __________________________________________

taxi station                                              _________________________________________

 

2. Fill in the blank with the name of an associated female character:

Jitney:                                                         _________________________________________

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:                _________________________________________

Fences:                                                      _________________________________________

The Piano Lesson:                                   _________________________________________

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:                    _________________________________________

 

3. Name the Wilsonian hero/ heroine of each play:

Jitney:                                                         _________________________________________

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom:                    _________________________________________

Fences:                                                        _________________________________________

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone:                _________________________________________

The Piano Lesson:                                    _________________________________________

 

Notes on The Piano Lesson (10.19.2018)

Opening today’s notes with a short video on Romare Bearden, whose collage, The Piano Lesson, provided inspiration for this Wilson play.

So, what is “The Piano Lesson?” It’s a question I ask myself. Is it what it appears on the surface, the not-unsubstantial question of preserving an artifact which is also an archive and a family heirloom, versus using the proceeds of the sale of said artifact to buy the farm where generations worked during slavery and Reconstruction. Which one has more practical and economic value? Which one has more spiritual and perhaps cultural value? Or is it a false dichotomy, an irony created to force us to take a closer look at the story?

  • Mass incarceration had by 1936 become a rite of passage for African American men. The thing that united all four male characters in the story is the time they spent incarcerated at Parchman Farm, thanks to that 13th Amendment cut-out.
  • The crossroads where the Southern (vertical, North-South from Washington, DC to New Orleans) meets the Yazoo Delta (aka, the Yellow Dog, horizontal across Mississippi) is a recurrent theme in oral folklore, music and literature. The God of The Crossroads, is known as Papa Legba in West Africa, Elegua in Cuba and Brazil. he is a trickster who will speak to you at the crossroads (decision-making moment) and allow you to sell your soul for quick fame and riches.
  • August Wilson includes the lyrics to three whole blues/gospel songs in the play. Think he’s trying to tell us something? Berta, Berta. I’m a Ramblin Gamblin Man. I Want You to Help Me.
  • Boy Willis has a unique rhythm to his speech in a couple of places. Almost like a mantra, a recipe he has memorized (sounds curiously like the Skip James epigraph):

In Act 1, Scene 1: “Sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved. Walk in there. Tip my hat. Lay my money down on the table. Get my deed and walk out. This time I bet to keep all the cotton. Hire me some men to work it for me. Gin my cotton. Get my seed. And I’ll see you again next year.”

Then in Act 1 Scene 2: “I sell them watermelons. Get Berniece to sell that piano. Put them two parts with the part I done saved.”

  • Avery, now a preacher, seeks Berniece’s hand in marriage. He has his eye on the piano for his future church and congregation, and his eye on Berniece as a future deaconess. By his stated estimation, Berniece has no value except as a wife. Berniece rejects that estimation. Avery fails in his attempt to bless the house and rid it of Sutter’s ghost.
  • Speaking of which, who/what is Sutter’s ghost attached to? Is it the piano? I laid out the “provenance” of the piano in a previous post:
  • Genealogy and provenance of the piano.

1. The first owner of the piano was Joel Norlander of Georgia.

2. Robert Sutter, grandfather of Jim Sutter. wanted to buy the piano for his wife Ophelia as an anniversary present, but didn’t have the money. He offered Norlander his choice of two of his “niggers” (slaves) in exchange for the piano.

3. Norlander chose two slaves, Berniece (Doaker’s grandmother) and Willie Boy (Doaker’s father), and exchanged the for the piano.

4. Willie Boy (Doaker’s grandfather) became an expert carpenter and woodworker.

5. At length, Ophelia began to miss Berniece and Willie Boy and decided she wanted them back. Norlander refused, and Ophelia became very sick. The Sutters instructed Willie Boy to carve images of Berniece and Willie boy into the wood panels of the piano. The carvings satisfied Ophelia’s longing for her long lost sold slaves.

6. Several years later, on the 4th of July when the Sutter house was empty, Doaker’s brother, Boy Charles (father of Berniece and Boy Willie), who never stopped talking about the piano, took Doaker and Wining Boy to the Sutter house and stole the piano. They carried the piano to the adjoining county with Mama Ola’s people.

7. When the Sutters returned home, they assumed the theft was done by Boy Charles, so the Sutter men went out and set Boy Charles’ house on fire.

8. Boy Charles had left and taken the Yellow Dog train in a storage boxcar with four hobos. The Sutters arranged with law enforcement to stop the train, figuring Boy Charles was inside the boxcar, and set the box car on fire, killing Boy Charles and the other four.

9. Doaker moved to Pittsburgh and carried the piano with him. Berniece later joined him after her husband was killed.

Conclusion. But there is more to discuss. I wrote in a previous posting the following:

The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the myth story. The Holy Grail because it carried the “blood” of Berniece’s mother who so laboriously kept it sparkling and polished and it represents the “secret” of what happened to the family unit in slavery. The Ark of the Covenant because it represents the “chest” that contains the  archive of the family history through the generations. Finally, what is the Lesson? I propose the lesson is that heritage and family history of struggle and overcoming trump everything else. Money can’t buy it, not can it be traded for money. But you have to honor it, preserve it, celebrate it, and add to it with the achievements of each generation. Without the last piece, the life affirming and life-sustaining temple of our familiar becomes just a tomb of memories, a curious artifact of the past.

Here is the YouTube playlist:

Glossary of play