The three Bearden collages that inspired Wilson to write three plays out of ten in the cycle provide such a strong and powerful visual image of the central plots of the plays that one may wonder what came first, the collage or the play representing or represented by the collage. Let me assure you: the collages predate the plays by several decades.
This collage, entitled Miss Bertha and Mister Seth, was the inspiration for Fences. It illustrates the scene when Troy comes home with Alberta’s baby.
Wilson dramaturg and scholar Joan Herrington writes without qualification that “of the 4B’s, the painter Romare Bearden has had the most direct impact on Wilson’s work.” Herrington continued,
Wilson studied Bearden, appreciating his ability to capture the energy of an entire community in a single work of art. Following this lead, Wilson’s plays do not reveal struggle within what has become the common context for contemporary drama in which the temporary problem of the individual is addressed and most often solved. Rather, Wilson and Bearden depict struggles in an African-American context - i.e., struggles that are on-going and that reflect problems facing a community rather than an individual. Bearden’s imagery encouraged Wilson to incorporate into his work elements that define traditional African performance forms. These include birth and death, existence influenced by past and future generations.”
OK. So back to Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
The setting of the stage and the principle characters come directly from the Bearden collage, Mill Hand’s Lunch Bucket, with was also the original name of the play. The play title was changed to reflect the words of a W.C. Handy song and, unrelatedly, perhaps, a Tennessee practice of kidnapping black men after arresting them and finding them guilty on minor and spurious charges and forcing them to work in captivity for seven years. It was normal to expect person to be changed after so long a period of forced servitude. And it was normal for the person to be a bit lost and bewildered upon his release. In the case of Herald Loomis both behaviors were evident.
Before we go too far afield, here is the W.C. Handy blues piece:
So let’s do some decoding of the blues song because that’s what August Wilson would have wanted us to do - decode the message in the song.
The original song is about the flooding of Oil Creek in Pennsylvania in 1892. This event would surely have been known about in Pittsburgh where the boarding house served as the setting of the play. Heavy rainfall was the source of the flooding but when a nearby dam collapsed upstream, a “wall of water” swept the towns of Titusville and Oil City, destroying the towns, all the livestock, crops, everything. Tankers located on the bank of the creek, holding flammable benzene, were ignited, adding fire damage to the flood damage. 54 residents in Oil City and 72 residents in Titusville lost their lives as a result of the flood and flames. The song describes a Joe Turner, an almost Santa Claus-like figure, who provided the people food and firewood after the flood and fire wiped everything out. Joe Turner, it turned out, was a charitable figure who saved the day for the communities affected.
So what does the flood and the Santa Clause type guy have to do with the guy in Tennessee who captured men and forced them to work for free on his farm for seven years?
It’s all a trick, a play on words, and a part of the cosmology of the Blues. You take a horrible situation, forced servitude, and you overlay that, as a collagist would, with an equally bad situation, fire and flooding, that has a magical (Borgesian) Santa Claus solution. Then you make a song about it. And somehow you find the strength, energy and enthusiasm from the story to go out and fight your battles another day.
OK, let’s take a close look at the collage. Wilson saw this collage painting in an exhibit catalog a friend showed him from a Bearden exhibit, “The Prevalence of Ritual.” Thumb through my blog post here for a visual: https://bit.ly/2VDXN3I
Seth is descending the steps to the left. He must be headed out to work as his lunch pail is just below his disproportionately large right hand. Seth is the owner of the boarding house. Bynum the old conjure man stands in front of the table. He also has a disproportionately large right hand. Or is that his wife, Bertha? The gender of the figure is not clear, so we don’t know for sure. A man sits at the table wearing a long black coat. He looks dejected. It must be Herald Loomis, always in a funk. A picture of Seth’s mother is on the wall. Or is it a window to outside? Or is it a mirror reflecting an image in the foreground that we can’t see? We don’t know for sure. Further to the right there is what appears to be a group photograph or painting on the wall, maybe a family scene. Through a window we see an oil rig, a factory of some type emitting smoke (maybe a steel making plant), and what appears to be a train underneath. There is a baby or a large fetus in the left foreground. A woman sits at the opposite side of the table, drinking a beverage from a cup. And there is a wooden chair in the lower right foreground that looks like it may be some instrument of torture.
By the way, there is a different collage in the same series with the title, “Miss Bertha and Mister Seth.” And Mister Seth in the collage is holding a baby close to his shoulder. You guessed it. Sounds like a scene from Fences! The character names, it appears, are even borrowed from Bearden. That August Wilson is a real trickster! But we cannot use this as a segue to Fences. Not yet.
There is an organic link between Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and Fences. Joe Turner, thematically, is about the false promises of emancipation and freedom. But it is also about personal redemption. The presence of Bynum, the old conjure man, and his vision of his Shiny Man who gave him his song, as well as the vision of Herald Loomis, of the bones rising up from the sea, putting on flesh, and coming to life when a strong wind blows ties the play organically to Gem of the Ocean and the journey to the City of Bones. It also brings to mind the Egyptian creation myth of Bennu, a bird who sings a song across the endless expanse of water that enables and gives rise to all the rest of creation.
I am reminded here of a Bynum monologue that is my favorite of all the monologues of all the plays in the cycle. It is from Act 2, Scene 2.
“I didn’t know what I was searching for. The only thing I knew was something was keeping me dissatisfied. Something wasn’t making my heart smooth and easy. Then one day my daddy gave me a song. That song had weight to it that was hard to handle. That song was hard to carry. I fought against it. Didn’t want to accept that song. I tried to give my daddy back his song. But I found it wasn’t his song. It was my song. It had come from deep inside me. I looked back in memory and gathered up pieces and snatches of things to make that song. I was making it up out of myself. And that song helped me on the road. Made it smooth to where my footsteps didn’t bite back at me. All the time that song getting bigger and bigger. It got so I used all of myself up in the making of that song. Then I was the song in search of itself.”
- Bynum, from Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Wilson calls Joe Turner’s Come and Gone his favorite play. One writer/scholar describes Joe Turner as Wilson’s most Beardenesque play of the cycle. But the play he wrote just before Joe Turner, Fences, is widely considered Wilson’s best play, even by Wilson himself. Fences is also based on a Bearden collage, as is Joe Turner. One day in the future, critics, fans and scholars will refer to “the Bearden Period” of Wilson’s plays.
One more theme in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is family separation and family reunification. The boarding house serves the function of reuniting families that were or had been separated, either by external factors, or by the vicissitudes of time. But as old Bynum says in the play, “You can’t bind what don’t cling.”
OK, Fences. Troy Maxsom, our illustrious anti-hero, learns baseball in prison after killing a man in a robbery gone bad. He becomes a big star in the Negro Baseball league. But by the time the Major League integrates and admits black players, Troy is in his 40’s and considered to be past his prime. In his bitterness about lost opportunities, he attempts to pass on to his son a lesson about the false promise of sports.
Meanwhile, Troy takes on a side chick, Alberta, who, seeking refuge from his disappointments, he impregnates. Troy has some issues.
But Troy’s greatest obstacle to individual progress, in my opinion (and I think it is an opinion that Wilson shared and led me to by following the bread crumbs), is his functional illiteracy. Try cannot read or write. Nor does he appear to be doing anything about it. He makes mistakes in judgement and in decisions affecting his family and his work because of it. It is the thing I dislike the most about the Troy character.
Troy and Rose act out the universal theme of Beauty and the Beast. Pretty girl gets involved with boy who is in some way disfigured. She sticks with him in the faith that, deep inside and in the end, he is really a handsome prince. She makes all sorts of accommodations to get it to work out. Except, in a clever twist of the ancient theme that only an August Wilson influenced by a Jorge Luis Borges could create, Troy doesn’t become a handsome prince in the end. He just becomes an older Troy, who, coincidentally, is named for an ancient city in Turkey where a different type of trickery takes place. Again, this reversal of the Beauty and the Beast theme is what we get when we cross the Blues with Borgesian magical realism. Wilson is not the original Trickster, but he does manage to keep us in our seats until the final curtain call and the end of the story.
Speaking of the end of the story, Wilson doesn’t let us see Troy’s actual death. We only see the anticipation of the funeral and how it serves as a focal point for family re-unification. Fences has two unseen deaths in it, and more than one death is something uncommon for Wilson’s plays. Troy dies, and also, unseen, his girlfriend on the side, Alberta, who we never actually meet or hear from in the final, published version of the play, dies in childbirth.
But there is one more trick in the plot. This one never makes it to the public stage. In the play’s first draft, Troy gets into an argument with his son Cory, tempers flare, Cory grabs a baseball bat (poetic perhaps), and swings it at his father’s head. Troy, in his surprise, catches the bat, pulls out a pistol, points it at Cory, and cocks back the hammer. Cory leaves the family home that day and doesn’t return until his father’s funeral, we are led to conclude.
But that particular part of the play doesn’t survive rehearsals. Why not? What happens?
About the same time, but in real life, Marvin Gaye, of Motown fame, gets into an argument with his father, Rev. Gaye, about his unholy lifestyle in the entertainment world. Rev. Gaye pulls out a gun and fires it, fatally wounding his son, who dies instantly. True story.
Wilson and his production crew promptly decide the gun thing is too violent and too reminiscent of the death of popular singer Marvin Gaye. They re-write the play, omitting that particular dramatization, before the stage production. It never sees the light of day.
One final piece on Fences if you will indulge me. Inspired by Troy’s story in Fences, I wrote a poem which I titled, “Troy’s Slow Descent into Hell: An Elegy.” May I share it with you?
Troy’s Slow Descent into Hell: An Elegy
In the denouement our classic warrior
(Such is the tragedy that was his life)
Like an unfinished Job, loses all
That was once near and dear to him.
The cherished love of his wife is broken
When she acts on her maternal instinct
And decides to not refuse to care for
The child that is the result of his infidelity.
He loses the respect of his son,
So long assumed, compelled by fear,
Never inspired by true or false affection.
His best friend doesn’t come around
Any more, not even for a Friday drink
That once satisfied a parched thirst.
Finally, abandoned by his own sense
Of taste (Yes! A multiple metaphor!),
He is left to swing aimlessly at all
Those fast balls on life’s outside corners.
The last play we cover in the Bearden period is The Piano Lesson.
On the surface, The Piano Lesson asks that we choose between (1) preserving a stolen family heirloom that informs family identity and preserves family history and heritage, and (2) exchanging the artifact for cold hard cash to purchase farmland the ancestors worked in order to generate real wealth for the family. It is a flawed paradox that presents a false dilemma, and we know it, but we stay in our seats just to see how it all works out. For those of you who haven’t seen or read the play I will not spoil it for you.
I wrote in the session notes,
“The piano is the Holy Grail and the Ark of the Covenant in the origin 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. It is 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 a 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.
Structurally, the play contains an ample amount of Borgesian magical realism: ghosts and spirits, seances and exorcisms, but in subtle places and amounts so as not to offend religions audiences.
The Piano Lesson was the first August Wilson play adapted for film, for television, no less. Hallmark. One astute observer recorded that on the night that the Hallmark movie aired on television, more people were exposed to August Wilson than all the audiences of all the plays previously performed in all the theaters worldwide. Let’s add that more black people got access to August Wilson that night than ever before. Samuel L Jackson plans to produce and direct a Broadway revival of The Piano Lesson late this year (2021), and a film adaptation using the same cast in 2022. Let us add, the Good Lord and COVID willing.
NaPoWriMo required a poem about a piece of art. How about The Piano Lesson?
The black mirror invites my inspection –
A scaled representation of the whole.
The wooden metronome in its foreground
Reminds one of rhythm and time’s passage,
The pendulum’s swing until the winding
Dies. The young girl, black like the mirror, plays
As her mother directs. The mother’s face,
More blue than black, leans in attentively.
A non-flowering plant rests in a vase.
A paintbrush seems out of place. It could be
A missing conductor’s baton. The sun
Bursts through the window as a slight breeze blows
The curtains askew. A ceiling lamp and
A table lamp compete to light the room.