A beginning rhizomatic schematic of the August Wilson American Century Cycle

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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.

https://www.goodmantheatre.org/Documents/Study%20Guides/0607%20Season/RADIO%20GOLF%20Student%20Guide.pdf

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 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.

postscript.

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

 
Events of the 1990’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1990-1999-45447

1990

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.

1995

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

1996

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.

1997

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.

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
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1980-1989-45446

1984

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.

1985

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.

1986

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.

1987

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.

week 7 – Seven Guitars

Week 7 – Seven Guitars (some notes)

References to seven: The seventh play written in the cycle. Seven characters. Seven non-existent guitars. Seven years of bad luck. Red Carter used to have seven women. Six angels at the cemetery carry Floyd’s spirit away (7). Floyd’s seven ways to go. Red Carter counts seven birds sitting on a fence. Contest between Floyd’s six strings and Hedley’s one (7). Six men killed after George Butler died (7). Seven characters we never see who figure prominently (Pearl Brown, Leroy, Elmore, Hedly’s dad, Louise’s ex, Mr. T. L. Hall, Ruby’s unborn baby). and finally, From Wilson’s “Note from the Playwright,” the seven characteristics of his mother worthy of art.

Found poetry from Notes From the Playwright:

I have tried to extract
some measure of truth
from their lives as they struggle
to remain whole in the face
of so many things that threaten
to pull them asunder.

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

Hence, Seven Guitars.

Hedley is the seer and spirit guy/guide, like Holloway, Doaker, Bynum (especially), Bono, Toledo, and Becker.  Root tea drinker (also alcoholic, it appears). Jamaican, maybe, but could be Haitian. Speaks with an accent, a patois. Recalls Toussaint and Marcus Garvey. Ethiopia, rasta talk. In fact, much of his soliloquy in Act 2 Scene 5 appears to be lifted from Marcus Garvey speeches. Wants to buy a plantation, be a big man (in all the plays, the spirit guy/person is always in contention to be the Warrior).

Floyd reminded me a bit of Hambone (tell him to give me my money!), but also of Bynum and of Gabe. He also reminded me of Troy Maxsom and possibly of Levee, trying to make it as a musician but seemingly doomed at every corner. Only WWII veteran in the bunch (possibly only military veteran in the Cycle). Floyd is the band leader and the guitarist (recall Boy Willie offered to get Mareatha a guitar in place of the piano). Buys the marker for his mother’s grave on Mother’s Day. I think Floyd is the Wilson Warrior here. But perhaps he shares it with Hedley.

Louise fits in the character mould of other strong stable women characters (Risa, Berniece, Bertha, Rose, and Ma Rainey). Although Vera does not heed Louise’s advice (about her Henry) immediately, in the end fate changes things and she does.

Canewell’s riff on roosters at end of Act 1. Naturally, he is the harmonica player in the band, having paid so much attention to roosters crowing. Lives with “some old gal.”

Catalog lists (Whitmanian) : roosters (Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi); types of cigarettes (Old Gold, Chesterfield, Pall Mall); brands of beer (Iron City, Duquesne, Black Label, Red Label, Yellow Label); Guns (Smith and Wesson, 38, snub nose 32 (no mention of 45, military issue).

Miscellaneous:

Hedley slashed Floyd’s throat with a machete (like Loomis and Risa self-slashing and Levee killing Toledo with a knife). Dance scene celebrating Joe Louis victory: Juba (in Joe Turner); Prison song (in Piano Lesson). Joe Lewis radio scene locates the play in time and provides multimedia appeal (Act 1, Scene 5). And what about the cabbage song (sexual innuendo) scene right after the funeral that opens Act 1? Card playing: whist, pinocle, pitty pat.

Song list: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL0Lvs-e_eIXYQzNGKFRhdwbLYZ1mz6hLK

Events of the late 1940’s
https://www.thoughtco.com/african-american-history-timeline-1940-1949-45441

In 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which desegregated war production plants and also established the Fair Employment Practices Committee. This act set the stage for a decade filled with African-American firsts in the U.S. Armed Services.

1948

President Harry Truman issues Executive Order 9981, desegregating the armed forces.
Alice Coachman becomes the first African-American woman to win an Olympic Gold medal when she wins the high jump competition.
The law banning interracial marriages in California is banned by its state supreme court.
The first African-American variety show, Sugar Hill Times is aired on CBS. Performer Timmie Rogers leads the variety show’s cast.
E. Franklin Frazier becomes the first African-American president of the American Sociological Association.

https://www.thoughtco.com/zoot-suit-history-4147678
The apostles of Zoot, you might say, were early 1940’s jazz musicians like Cab Calloway who played in front of white and black audiences and were emulated in their dress by youths of all races, though not necessarily their elders. (Before and during World War II, jazz was the dominant cultural musical idiom in the U.S., much like hip-hop still is today, albeit in vastly mutated form.)