(new edits August 10, 2018)
(new edits August 14, 2018)
(new edits August 16, 2018)
(new edits August 21, 2018)
(new edits August 25, 2018)
(new edits September 6, 2018)
Since the MSM is going so crazy about this Q thing, I’ve decided to add my $.02 worth.
We started following the Q drops back in December 2017. We, being me and a few members of my poetry group. Two things immediately caught my attention: the historic Q community and the historical precedents of this Great Awakening.
Q, it is believed, is someone (or a group) high up in military intelligence, a Trump supporter(s) with access to the highest security clearance available. Q provides “drops” of information to the public on one of the interweb chans message boards, then transfers those drops to the regular internet. These drops consist of photos, links, and cryptic messages in almost verse format. Then Q anons, anonymous members of the Q community, translate and explain the contents of these drops, and “autists” and “bakers” do additional research to connect the dots between and across previous drops and other information sources. Today, August 4, 2018, we are up to 1815 drops. You can find them all listed at https://qanon.pub/ and explanations and commentary at the reddit message boards The Great Awakening and https://www.reddit.com/r/greatawakening/
But back to the two things that caught my attention. Many years ago I read a book by a non-violent protestor/activist/theologian, The Nonviolent Coming of God, by James Douglass. When I first heard about this new Q I went and pulled the book down from my bookshelf because I remembered something he had written about the Q community of Galilean Jews who were followers of Jesus towards the end of his ministry in the first century. These followers maintained an oral tradition of the teachings of Jesus before his death and these teachings, really just sayings, ultimately made their way into the Gospel of Mark. See the 1996 article, The Search for a No Frills Jesus.
But more importantly, and significantly, Douglass explains that this early band of followers had very specific ideas about the judgement that was about to befall their generation of fellow Jews, especially those who rejected Jesus. In fact, the Q Gospel focuses on the coming judgement of the tribes of Israel, the invitation to the way of peace, and the repentance demanded of the Jewish nation. The judgement came. The Jewish-Roman War of 70 CE resulted in Jewish defeat and the destruction of Jerusalem.
So, the Great Awakening. Current Q followers, researchers, adherents claim to be a part of a Great Awakening of political consciousness as a result of their digesting of Q “crumbs.” It is certainly the case that people are having conversations on-line and in message boards that raise their awareness, and many are producing content on blogs, social media posts, and youtube videos. But it is not the first Great Awakening. Just try typing “Great Awakening” in your favorite search engine and see what you get. Duck Duck Go. BlogSearchEngine.com.
The First Great Awakening was a series of religious revivals in churches in Britain and the American colonies in the 1730’s and the 1740’s. Churches of all denominations had become boring and sterile places and worshippers sought a closer, more personal, and more energetic relationship with the Divine. A handful of British preachers, including George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, and Jonathan Edwards began developing and preaching a new theology inside existing churches based on individual salvation and personal morality, but that required a “new birth” that each person experienced directly and personally. A similar upheaval occurred in British churches and was called the Evangelical Revival. See the Wikipedia article on the First Great Awakening. Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the Great Awakening strengthened Baptist and Methodist denominations and left in its wake such institutions of higher learning as Brown, Rutgers, Dartmouth, Columbia, and Penn. Read more of the Colleges of the Great Awakening.
The Second Great Awakening, from 1790 to the 1850’s, converted new believers versus the “preaching to the choir” of converting existing believers of the First Great Awakening. The missionary outreach went out to all demographic groups, free men and women and slaves. Camp meetings led by “circuit riding” preachers caused huge increases in membership of protestant denomination churches, especially Methodists and Baptists. Although barely a footnote in most historical accounts, the Second Great Awakening, especially in Virginia and the Carolinas, most certainly gave rise to the slave preachers and slave congregations that produced leaders of the great pre-Civil War slave revolts, Gabriel Prosser, Denmark Vessey, and Nat Turner. The top beneficiaries of the Second Great Awakening were Baptist and Methodist churches, and temperance, abolition and women’s rights movements. I don’t know why the Second Great Awakening ended though the time period suggests something related to the advent of the Civil War. Here is a good article on Religious Transformation and the Second Great Awakening.
What some scholars refer to as the richest period in American Literature and is considered by tradition as the literary American Renaissance can be connected in many ways to the Second Great Awakening.
The Third Great Awakening (#3) (1850-1890) and the Fourth Great Awakening (#4) (1960’s and 1970’s) are both somewhat fuzzy in definition. #3 witnessed the end of slavery and the prohibition movement, the growth of churches and church-related learning institutions, new religious movements including Christian Science, Jehovah Witnesses, Salvation Army, and the Ahmaddiyah missions to the U.S. to propagate Islam among the emancipated blacks (area for greater research). A similar revival occurred during an overlapping period in Korea 1884-1910, including the use of many techniques of the 2nd Great Awakening, camp meetings, circuit riders. #4 was either during the post WW2 period of the late 40’s and early fifties or during the late 60’s, depending on who you read, and its stars were Martin L. King, Billy Graham, and Pope Paul VI.
[Sections to add: #3 and the transcendentalists; #3 and the introduction of Ahmadiyyah Islam; #3 and its effects on American proto-modern poetry, i.e. Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Paul L. Dunbar, E.A. Poe.]
The present Great Awakening, while primarily political in nature, has some elements of previous religious great awakenings. Politics have become boring and stale for everyday people. People have lost a personal touch with their political leaders. The mainstream media has become a propaganda instrument for their subjects, the people and movements they write about (and are paid by). And people, readers no longer pay them any mind, opening the path for an alternative information source.
I have seen mentions on QAnon-related message boards about these aspects of the historic Q community and previous great awakenings. But these mentions get pretty much dismissed by the message board bosses and moderators as irrelevant postings. I predict that, over time, the QAnons will begin to accept this history as their own and see their place in the broad sweep of movements of people and their interaction with information. Just as the 2nd Great Awakening was marked by circuit riding preachers and camp meetings, the present great awakening (and I do believe we are in the midst of some sort of awakening) is marked by message board posts and youtube video producers.
Finally, Martin Geddes’ article is pretty good if your mind is open.
And another good Martin Geddes article.
Great article in American Thinker: Trump Haters Meet the Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
There will be more to say here and I will probably be making edits. So stay tuned!
I still don’t get the trip codes thing and how it relates to Googlebooks. All things in time.
Robert Patrick Lewis: What If #Q, #QAnon, and #TheGreatAwakening are Real?
What might be some long-term effects of the Q phenomenon? (09/06/2018) The future of Q
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.
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 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. 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.
Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean
Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, represents the first decade in the Century Cycle. Itis 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 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feces . 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 seemingly 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.
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.
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.
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 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, 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 by a then relatively unknown Viola Davis, for which she won the Tony.
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.
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.
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.
Savage, mule trainer, singer,
shaper of wood and iron.
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.
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 –
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. 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).
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 ages the play 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: bid whist, pinocle, pitty pat.
Some notes. Week 6 – Two Trains Running
1. Title from a blues song by McKinley Morganfield, aka Muddy Waters. Still A Fool. Worth the listening. Railroads and trains played an essential role in America’s westward expansion, and in the migration of blacks from the rural south to the industrialized North.
Well, now, there’s two, there’s two trains running
Well, they ain’t never, no, going my way
Well, now, one run at midnight and the other one,
Running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day,
It’s running just ‘fore day
Oh Lord. sure ‘nough they is
2. The Non-stop personal narratives in Two Trains Running don’t really fit the normal pattern for play construction we have discussed. Even in previous Wilson plays there seems to be more linear structure. Here characters pop in and out, tell their stories in an almost isolated way. Is Wilson changing the format? Is this a move signifying an embrace of modernism or a return to neoclassicism? Or even a foretaste of postmodernism?
3. Plays, like poetry, are autobiographic, ethnographic, and meta-poetic. Two Trains Running shows Wilson’s development as a playwright, and draws on his backgraound as a short-order cook in Pittsburgh as a young man. Also shows his exposure to such 60’s luminaries as Malcolm X and his black nationalism, Martin Luther King, Jr and his nonviolence, and Pittsburgh’s Prophet Samuel (a composite of Washington’s Daddy Grace, New York’s Father Divine, and Chicago’s Elijah Muhammad). Ethnographic in that plays portray the setting, the scene, the immediate environment of the play, in this case, Memphis’s restaurant, in the late 60’s, urban renewal in cities, a key element of the play’s plot and the principal core around which revolve the various narratives of the characters, all restaurant diners. Finally, plays are meta-poetic in that they say something about plays themselves, the play’s structure, how the action is organized around the plots (or several plots, in this case). How the play begins, how it proceeds and how it ends are all tell-tale signs of the play’s meta-poetic nature.
4. Holloway = Toledo = Bono = Doaker = Bynum. Similarities in these characters as archetypes of human behavior. Older men, survivors, who sort of keep the narrative(s) on track.
5. Risa = Rose = Berniece = Ma Rainey = Bertha. Strong women figures in the plays so far who relate to male characters in various ways, but always a central, stabilizing factor. Risa in Two Trains Running is always kind to Hambone, for example, and give Sterling the time of day when no one else does. She manages the restaurant and keeps it “running’ as the central location in action. Her self-mutilation is not something that the other Wilson women have done in overt ways, but it represents a self-sacrifice, physicalized, that they all have performed. (Let’s not over simplify things, however.)
6. Hambone = Gabriel = Sylvester. Male characters with a physical handicap who are central to the story as it unwinds (He gonna give me my ham…I want my ham!)
7. And who is the Wilson Warrior? Sterling would be my pick, Stering who comes from humble and horrible origins, abandoned, orphaned, incarcerated, fired from his job, and excluded from economic development in industrial Pittsburgh by a stupic catch-22. Yet he fantasizes about the love of his life, externalizes that fantasy on Risa, and finally finds redemption in commiting a crime to pay homage to Hambone.
Aunt Ester finally appears (but not quite, though we know she is there). There is this triangular thing, a choice between Aunt Ester’s spiritual path, Malcolm X’s black nationalism, and Prophet Samuel’s here and now take on things.
West, the undertaker, who knows all about how the city runs, presents a type of developmental redemption moving from a life of petty criminal activity to a respectable business operator. But Holloway thinks West still had dirt on his hands, notwithstanding the black gloves he wears. West is without love in his life since his wife died.
Wolf makes a good living running the numbers in the black community for the downtown mob. But unhappy because of his loneliness.
Memphis: owns the restaurant that Risa runs. Was chased out of the South when he tried to run a farm he bought. Wants to return to claim his property, but also wants a good value for his restaurant from the redevelopment commission so he can open a bigger restaurant in another part of town.
postscript. 4/17/2018, after seeing the play performed at Arena Stage.
Much to be said about August Wilson’s personal experience with the 60’s and how that may have informed his crafting of the play. His time as a short order cook, for example, and his short fling with the Nation of Islam, his failed marriage, even the poetry he submitted to Harpers and had published in the Negro Digest are all testament to his direct experience with the 60’s, how it shaped him, and how it may have influenced his thinking in writing the play.
August Wilson called “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” his favorite play, but he referred to The Piano Lesson as his best play. I haven’t come across any explanations but my own observation is that this play contains a richer variety of symbols and rituals than the other plays we have studied so far, though each was unique in its display of ritualistic behavior.
The Berniece/Boy Willie interface is reminiscent of the Jacob/Esau birthright conflict as well as the King Solomon cutting the baby in half suggestion. The four men at the table drinking and singing old prison songs until they work themselves into a near frenzy reminds me of a type of communal seance where distant spirits inhabit and emerge from the interplay between the participants. The piano combines the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant mythologies (we’ll spend more time on this later in this discussion. Avery’s failed blessing of the house is a type of exorcism, again that ultimately fails. Berniece is the high priestess who finally emerges to make a sacrifice to appease the family ancestors (gods). All this richness!
I am calling the the prison work song scene the first climax of the play because of all the action and discussion leading up to it and the falling action/discussion after it. After the song was completed, all four men opened up and spoke freely together, so it was also an “equalizing” event, similar to the Eucharist with bread and wine (note: drinking had occurred, but it was whisky, not communion wine. Anyway, you get the point.). Very moving scene. The prison work song, I propose, not only identified their common experience with incarceration in the South, but, much deeper, identified a spiritual basis or background they shared connecting them to their African roots and origin. The “sacrament” was ended with Whining Boy playing on the piano (the altar, the shrine). Berniece’s arrival changes the mood completely. She will have a separate cataclysmic event.
This is the second Wilson play based on a painting. The first one was Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Both were based on or inspired by paintings by Romare Bearden. So already there is an organic relationship between the two plays.
Who is the Wilson Warrior in this play? Is it Berniece, determined to hold on to the family keepsake (a shrine, altar and a surrogate archive)? Or is it Boy Willie, who’d prefer to sell the piano and use the money to buy the family plantation land down south (capitalism and wealth building)? I contend they are both Wilson Warriors per the Riley Temple definitions, characters who
- “take a journey – a pilgrimage of redemption to find and to reconstitute who they might have been, and what they have become. And in so doing they must have the strength and the courage – the faith – to revisit the past in all its several guises and heaviness, to set down the burdens of that past, and become free. The faith is needed to know that the outcome will be as God intends, despite the difficulties attendant to the journey.
- “These men (and Berniece Charles) 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.”
- those who fight – sometimes foolishly as Levee has just done, and who should and will pay dearly for such a tragic mistake.
- “like the others: Solly “Two Kings” in Gem, who freed slaves and who turned to helping abused factory workers; Herald Loomis; Boy Willie of Piano Lesson who has to fight off ghosts of the past to help his sister unlock herself….Troy Maxson, of Fences, who battles death and the compulsion to save his son from racial humiliation…”
- “Each one had who they were right within their reach – their song was in their throats – they had to be guided to the soul’s destination to sing it.”
- “He (Boy Willie) is, after all, one of Wilson’s warriors….(his) mistakes have been bad, some not so smart – even stupid. But he’s paid for them, he is struggling to walk upright and is determined to do so.”
- [He] is no victim. He is a fully redeemed soul. He knows who he is and how he got to where he is. He knows his history; he has called on his ancestors; he knows on whose shoulders he stands; and he is comfortable and free. He remembers his past, and he engages in it – like the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, who, as God directs, remember who delivered them.
Berniece is on a parallel development track. She is pursued by men and told she can’t be whole without a husband. She is pursued by fears, of ghosts, of what happened to her mother and father and husband. but she overcomes those fears when she plays the piano and calls out to her ancestors (reminiscent of Toledo’s African conceptualization in Ma Rainey) for help after her primary suitor Avery’s Christian exorcism attempt failed. Berniece is the High Priestess/Warrior in the myth story but she has developed a fear of performing her function as High Priestess. Only when she succeeds in overcoming her fear is she able to quell the Sutter’s ghost issue.
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.
I wonder if the back and forth between Berniece and Boy Willie over the piano was a sort of distraction, albeit a necessary one, to get to the real plot and character development in the play, the family united in purpose at the play’s end? In the end, the play highlights the family unit, resilient and purposeful.
7. 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 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 them 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 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. Bernice later joined him after her husband was killed.
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 proposed 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 the 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 lives 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.