Too cool not to include: August Wilson’s Poem for my grandfather

And the transcription (HT to Jeannie McClem)

This is a poem I wrote for my grandfather.
Since I never knew my grandfather, I am speaking
in a generational sense, a generational grandfather.
This is your grandfather, my grandfather,
all of us’s grandfather.

Poem for my grandfather

His chest stripped open
to reveal a raven,
huge with sharp talons,
a song stuck in his throat
and beneath the feathers,
beneath the shudder and rage,
the pages of a book closed
and the raven took flight.

Bynum Cutler.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.

Bynum Cutler,
who spread his seed
over the nine counties
in North Carolina,
seed carried in the wind,
by the wind in the sails of ships
and planted among the cane break,
among Georgia pine,
among boles of cotton
planted in the fertile fields of women
who snapped open like fresh berries,
like cities in full season
welcoming its architects
and ennobling them
with gifts of blood.

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Some takeaway notes from “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone”

Week 4 – Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (notes)

  • Largest cast of any Wilson play so far. 12 counting the ever-present Joe Turner, 15 with appearance of Miss Mabel, plus the unseen Eugene, plus Jack Carper.
  • Said to be Wilson’s favorite play in the cycle. Based on Romare Bearden painting, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket.
  • Herald Loomis is the Wilson Warrior, but Bynum and Bertha play significant supporting roles.

Themes that recur:

  • Blood as a means of cleansing, baptism, lifting the veil
  • Finding one’s song is finding one’s voice, discovering a sense and practice of agency
  • The relationship between Bynum’s Shiny Man, called One Who Goes before and Shows the Way, a sort of First Man, and Loomis’s first name, Herald, i.e., a messenger, a sign that something is about to happen. A play on words.
  • Selig, the white “trader.” Buys and sells pots (sustenance, basic necessity) and finds lost people (only because he carried them away in the first place). WD Fard. (Martha started at the Holly house and was carried away by Selig. That is why Loomis said he could smell her there and knew she wasn’t dead)
  • Bynum’s (Bind them) spirituality helps people, but still doesn’t give him his song completely, until he witnesses the return of the Shiny Man who self-baptizes, self-realizes, self-actualizes, and self-transcends (to use Maslow’s framework).

5. Play Structure

  • Exposition: Scene 1: the boardinghouse; Bynum’s spirituality; Seth’s superiority complex; Selig, the trader
  • Rising action: Arrival of Herald Loomis, Seth’s distrust.
  • Climax #1: End of Scene 1. The Juba dance scene, Loomis’s disapproval and the performance of his own “act” within and via the old slave and minstrel celebration, aided by Bynum.
  • Falling action: Seth’s growing distrust and decision to evict Loomis; the Mollie/Mattie/Jeremy love triangle.
  • Resolution: Loomis fails to romance Mattie; future prospects for Reuben and Zonia; Loomis departs the House (but we feel him watching from a distance)
  • Climax #2/Denouement: Martha Loomis returns to the House and reunites with Zonia; Loomis self-baptizes and self delivers; Bynum sees Shiny Man (in Loomis) and finds his agency at last.

6. Explaining the end of the play.

It can be argued that the end of the play is a bit whacked, poorly constructed, or just plain flawed. I propose that taking such a position would be both inaccurate and incorrect. Of course, we would love to see Martha and Herald reunited and marching off into the sunset with their darling little girl, Zonia. But I contend that the play was never intended to be about Martha and Herald, but about Herald (the Wilson Warrior) and his development and, take a deep breath, about Bynum and his final fulfillment.  Let me set the scene.

In Act 1 scene 1, Bynum told Selig, the trader and People Finder, about a man he was looking for, a Shiny Man he met on a road who once shared with him the Secret of Life. Bynum said the man asked for his hands, then rubbed Bynum’s hands between his own hands that had blood on them and said the blood was a way of cleaning himself. Soon the road changed, the surroundings changed and “everything look[ed] like it was twice as big as it was.” The cleaning with blood was clearly also a type of enlightenment, a baptism of sorts, preparing Bynum for a future task.  During the same experience, Bynum saw his father, who told him he would show him how to “find my song,”  and explained that the Shiny Man Bynum had earlier seen was “the One Who Goes Before and Shows the Way and that

“Said there was lots of shiny men and if I ever saw one again before I died then I would know that my song had been accepted and worked its full power and I could lay down and die a happy man. A man who done left his mark on life.”

OK. Hold on to that thought . . .

Skipping forward to the end of Act 1 scene 4, the House folks have come together on a Sunday evening after dinner to do a Juba, a minstrel/African cultural celebration that involves dancing, singing, and invoking the Holy Spirit. Everybody is there and participating except Herald. When Herald arrives, he goes off the deep edge, questioning the existence of God and the Holy Ghost. He goes off into a bit of a other worldly experience, “dancing and speaking in tongues.” he then says,

“You all don’t know nothing about me. You don’t know what I done seen. Herald Loomis done seen some things he ain’t got words to tell you.”

       Bynum comes to his aid, walks him through his exposition of the vision he has seen, learns about his vision, and walks him back from the edge, so to speak, and back to this world and sanity. We won’t go into the details of that vision here, but suffice it to say that elements of the vision are significant, the bones rising and walking on the water, the bones sinking all together all at once and forming a tidal wave that washes the bones, now clothed with flesh, black flesh, ashore, but still inanimate. Then a wind enters the bodies and brings them to life, and Herald Loomis is one of those bodies come to life, except at that point, unlike all the others, Loomis cannot stand up, or as he says it “My legs won’t stand up.” At that point, I think Bynum knew spiritually and at some level that he had found, at least potentially, his shiny man. But that more development would be required.

OK, moving forward to the end of Act 2 scene 5 (the stuff in the middle is not insignificant, but we can come back to it later if we have to), Martha returns to the House, Loomis returns, and Martha thanks Bynum for reuniting her with her daughter Zonia.  Loomis takes offense at that and accuses Bynum of “binding” him to the road, to a life of wandering around and dissatisfaction. Bynum denies it, and at this point, Loomis draws his knife, followed by a type of call and response that tells us with finality there is not going to be a future with Martha and Loomis together. Their apartness has developed them into different people than they were before when they were together. AS Herald says, “Joe Turner’s come and gone.”

Then at the height of the exchange, Loomis draws the knife across his chest, drawing blood, then rubs that blood over his face, replicating, in some ways, the same blood cleaning and self-baptism that Bynum experienced in Act 1 with the original shiny man. Similarly, Loomis comes to a new awareness as a result of the blood baptism. Finally, he is standing and he proclaims “I am standing! My legs stood up! I’m standing now.”

This is the completion that Loomis sought. He bids Martha farewell, and Mattie rushes out to be at his side. The stage directions Wilson inserts here are pure poetry:

Having found his song,
the song of self-sufficiency,
fully resurrected, cleansed and given breath,
free from any encumbrance
other than the workings of his own heart
and the bonds of the flesh,

having accepted the responsibility
for his presence in the world,
he is free to soar above the environs
that weighed and pushed his spirit
into terrifying contractions.

       At this point, Bynum realizes fully that Loomis is his shiny man, that his song has been accepted, and that he has lived a life of meaning.

So, Loomis is complete. He has Mattie at his side for his next journey. And Bynum can peacefully rest. Q.E.D.

Some takeaway notes from “Fences”

There is a lot to unpack in all these plays and Fences is no exception.

Late with this week’s blog post. I guess it took some time to process the play, the text I read twice, and the film adaptation we watched on TV. I want to begin by highlighting an August Wilson quote from Samuel Freedman’s foreword to my edition of Fences that I call “found poetry”:

"I found myself trying to figure out 
the intent of these lives around me.
Trying to uncover the nobility
and the dignity I might not have seen.
Part of the reason I wrote Fences
was to illuminate that generation,
which shielded its children from all 
the indignities they went through.

I have to confess that until our group discussion laid it out on the table with multiple inputs, I hadn’t really plumbed the depths of the use of the play’s title “Fences” as a metaphor. That is what I’d like to address in this week’s post. But first, let’s recapitulate the pre-class notes:

  1. Market forces that influenced the play: advisors recommended a play with a nuclear family, something “more accessible” than the previous plays.
  2. Wilson’s insistence that the film adaptation have a black director was not well received by the entertainment industry.
  3. Who is the central protagonist in Fences? Is it Troy Maxsom, a “big man” who “fills all the empty spaces” in the lives of everybody around him?  Or is it Rose, the constant, steadying influence, the glue that holds everything together and nudges the men around her into true manhood? Or maybe Cory, the future, the promise, the unflawed character?
  4. The name of the play is Fences, but there are only occasional mentions of fences, or even of a single fence. Is the fence something central or merely incidental to the play? A metaphor?
  5. What about Bono? He gets better as the play progresses, better at dominoes, better at being a husband to Lucille, better at being a friend to Troy and Rose. He progresses through the timeline of the play. His character develops.
  6. This week we introduce Freytag’s Pyramid. A useful way to unpack and track the development of the play’s plot.
  7. What is the play’s introduction? Does the Troy-Bono dialogue (with Rose entering part way through the conversation) at the beginning of Act 1 effectively set the scene for the entire play?
  8. Rising action: Cory’s football hopes counterposed with Troy’s laments about his failed baseball career. Troy’s efforts to get a promotion to driver at work. Troy talks about past successful struggles with Death.
  9. Climax: Troy’s announcement that Alberta is pregnant, followed by a heated discussion with Rose and Cory’s entrance and defense of Rose in what he perceives to be his father’s physical attack. Strike 2.
  10. The Falling Action: Gabe gets arrested and institutionalized. Alberta dies in childbirth. We never see Alberta, but she is always lurking behind the scenes. Troy comes to grips with his new responsibility.
  11. Resolution: Rose adopts Alberta’s daughter, Raynell. Cory leaves home and joins the Marines. Troy dies. Lyons goes to jail but returns for the funeral. Cory also returns home for Troy’s funeral. Bono organizes the pall bearers.

But back to the Fences metaphor. Bono says early in Act 2, “Some people build fences to keep people out . . . and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to you all. She loves you.” There is only one fence being built in the play, but the play has many fences, hence the plurality of the title. Troy and Bono met in prison, where they were “fenced” in, so to speak, in a hyper-controlled environment with rigid boundaries. That controlled space is also the place that gave Troy the discipline to learn the game of baseball, a sport with an infield for base running and an outfield generally enclosed and contained by a fence. Batting the ball “over the fence” is considered a score, a home run.

Troy considers his own marriage a type of prison to which he has been sentenced, a prison bounded by a fence, but at the end of an 18-year sentence, he wants freedom from “the same place’ where he has been standing still. He says towards the end of Act 2 Scent 1, “Then I saw that girl . . . she firmed up my backbone. And I got to thinking that if I tried . . . I just might be able to steal second. Do you understand, after eighteen years I wanted to steal second. [. . . .] I  stood on first base for eighteen years and I thought. . . well, goddamn it . . . go on for it.

On the other hand, and extending the metaphor, “fencing” is the crime of buying and reselling stolen merchandise. The person who knowingly buys stolen goods in order to resell them is known as a “fence.” Troy, using baseball imagery, refers in a conversation with Rose to his adultery with Alberta as “stealing second base.” Troy himself, in this sense, is the “fence” who purchased stolen property (Alberta’s affection and attention) and resells it as his own image of himself.

We can debate about whether Troy was a sympathetic or a despicable character. Professor Shannon points out in her book, The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson, that Troy “reverses a stereotype found in portrayals of the black family: the conspicuously absent father,” but that he is also an “amalgam of blues personalities,” i.e., a railroad man in his infidelity, a bluesman who is depressed and finally, “womanless,” and a trickster (you pick the poison). You gotta read Professor Shannon’s book.

Last but not least, Riley Temple, in his book, Queen Ester’s Children Redeemed, included Troy Maxson in a reference to the Wilson Warriors, characters who “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. . . . These men and women are warriors in fact, and not merely in spirit (but certainly in that as well), and have that Warrior courage. They make mistakes. Bad mistakes. They pay the price for them. Yet, they are not victims. They are fighters.”  Temple includes in that list of warriors, from plays we have already completed, Boomer from Jitney and Levee from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Another book you gotta read!

Well, I’ll stop here because time is passing, the weekend is approaching, and play #4, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, awaits my discover.

Week One of the August Wilson Century Series – Jitney

First, and before I misplace it, here is a link to the episode of Theater Talk that featured the Tony-award winning cast of Jitney in 2017:

This one is also good:

It was interesting the way we focused our discussion on relationships, the peripheral relationship between Turnbo and Rena, the complex and layered relationship between Becker and Booster, and the evolving, dynamic, almost dance-like relationship between Rena and Youngblood. Relationships are such an essential, human thing, always transforming, always reflecting the environment that surrounds them, for good or ill.

We could have easily spent the whole class period on Becker and Booster’s father-son relationship, Becker’s deep disappointment in the mistakes that his son made and the consequences of those mistakes, the hopes that Becker placed in Boomer, and the energy he attempted to transfer to the future where Boomer might have more and better opportunities than he had. But I also think that at some level, Boomer’s “acting up” and the decisions he took that incarcerated him were a rejection of the pressure he felt from his father, and a not so subtle decision that he was going to live his own life, not the one Becker tried to transfer over to him. At the play’s end, Boomer starts toward the door to leave the jitney office, but the phone rings, and after a negligible hesitation, Boomer goes over and answers the phone, “Car service” as the light fades to black. I think that motion and action symbolize that there is hope for Boomer and there is hope for the jitney operation.

There is of course a lot to be said about Youngblood and Rena. One thing we didn’t discuss today was the tenderness of emotion Becker displayed in his conversation with Rena and Youngblood. Becker says towards the end of Act 2 Scene 1,

When you look around you’ll see that all you got is each other. There ain’t much more. Even when it look like there is…you come one day to find out there ain’t much more worth having.

Here we see that despite the gruff Becker displayed towards his own son, he never stopped developing as a father, never gave up on his own emotional development, and we are left wondering if one day he might have overcome his great disappointment and been able to show a similar level of affection for Boomer that he clearly has for Youngblood.  Alas, Becker’s potential for development is arrested on the factory floor so we will never know. As Vonnegut would say, “so it goes.”

We will see more of this relationship dynamic in Ma Rainey next week.

Characters

Jim Becker, the well-respected manager of the jitney station. In his 60s.
Doub, a driver, cautious and slow going, a Korean War veteran
Fielding, a driver, an alcoholic, formerly a tailor who clothed Billy Eckstine and Count Basie.
Turnbo, a driver, notorious for being a gossip
YoungBlood (Darnell Williams), a driver. Recently returned from Vietnam, working several jobs to provide for his family. In his late 20s.
Rena, YoungBlood’s girlfriend and the mother of his young son, Jesse.
Shealy, a flamboyent bookie who uses the jitney station as the basis of his operations.
Philmore, a local Hotel doorman and a frequent jitney passenger.
Booster (Clarence Becker), Becker’s son, who has just completed a 20-year prison sentence for murder. In his early 40s.