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:

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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

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.