The Three Months of August
By Chris Joseph Stancato
The Three Months of August is based on the perspectives of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ and my personal consequences of a cycle that entailed: separation, divorce, and death. In this matter, Wilson’s ten plays paralleled the pivotal periods of a difficult situation yet provided me with solace to abscond from my problems. It was not my intention, nor was it my goal to read and review each play. However, after reading Jitney and then viewing the documentary entitled, The Ground on Which I Stand about the great playwright’s life, I made a decision to step in the path of the griot.
I reviewed all of August Wilson’s plays in a chronological order, but I read the first three in this order: Jitney, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and Two Trains Running, before I decided to take on a 10 week project of placing Wilson’s timeline in order of decades. To my delight, and with great diligence, this ambitious review has awarded me the laurels of learning about the social period of African-Americans and America’s relation to African-Americans. I read all of the plays in this review in their dramatic style. I did not witness the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ as a live performance, I did, however, relate to Wilson’s poetic power in his written plays. The multi-layered relation to the characters, for me, a man born in 1971 but influenced by three generations from 1930 to 1980, allowed me to feel closer to Fences in the course of Radio Golf.
In October of 2005 I went to visit my father in my hometown of N. Belle Vernon, a borough located 30 miles south of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. An article was published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on the 3rd about Pittsburgh’s native son, August Wilson, who died from liver cancer on the 2nd of the same month. Two weeks later after visiting my father from Miami, he died. After the funeral, I left N. Belle Vernon and I would not return until 10 years later. Upon my return, I searched for those memories of my father, my family, and my neighborhood. As I recalled my social timeline being reared in a time and place that are now removed. I was cognizant of Wilson’s poetry from the porch, his storytelling, and documentation of such.
I too experienced these conversations between family, neighbors, friends, and at times, passers-by.
In the throes of personal traffic, a time that spanned a 10 week period over the summer of 2015, I calculated that I occupied what little time I allotted to Wilson’s ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ During the paperwork of pollution that are divorce documents and the allowance of loneliness in the labor thereafter; the length of three months and the weight of 10 years, I found one friend: August Wilson.
This social timeline of African-Americans in the Twentieth Century is truly an American anthem. As Ma Rainey said in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, “Life’s way of talking, you don’t sing to feel better, you sing ‘cause that’s the way of understanding life.” For this matter, I feel compelled to respect Wilson’s conviction to convey these timeless stories. To underscore these plays as just theatre would be unfair in my opinion. These 10 plays are a cornerstone of curriculum for education and dialogue. The influence of music, specifically blues, and the movement of dance and song, are social factors that are instrumental in his plays. Furthermore, Wilson’s comprehensive social subjects of race, discrimination, and power are relevant in society today. I present my perspectives of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle’ from Gem of the Ocean to Radio Golf throughout the social timeline of my summer. Therefore, The Three Months of August.
Gem of the Ocean (I)
Established in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Gem of the Ocean is the first of 10 plays from August Wilson’s ‘Pittsburgh’s Cycle.’ This play embodies the experience of African-Americans in two ways: The obvious truth about the Proclamation Emancipation that freedom was only noted on paper. Secondly, the African spirituality, used to free the souls of Black people enslaved by the tolerated slavery in the South and relevant in the North.
“August Wilson brings a woman who is 300 years old on stage…and what he asks for…the sense of you to believe in something metaphysical as real.” Harry J. Elam Ph.D. said about Gem in the Ocean. “Aunt Ester, whose name sounds like Ancestor, is as old as the African-American presence in the United States.”
Aunt Ester, 285 years old, is the spiritual healer for those who seek an independent identity and soul washing. Citizen Barlow has arrived at her house for spiritual help. Solly Two Kings, who is Aunt Ester’s suitor and a former Underground Railroad conductor, has the self determination to do right. Caesar Wilks is the local constable who blames Lincoln because his people, “Was better off in slavery.”
As Aunt Ester, Solly, and Black Mary who is Aunt Ester’s protégé and Caesar’s brother, prepare Citizen Barlow for the ‘City of Bones’ to wash his soul. Solly and Eli, Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper who worked the Underground Railroad with Solly, share a drink before Citizen Barlow goes to the ‘City of Bones.’ These four characters surround Barlow and chain him symbolically to the boat with singing as an apparatus.
The story moves to a contentious moment when Solly is accused by Caesar of burning down the mill where the men had stopped to work in protest. Selig, a travelling peddler and visitor of Aunt Ester, assist Solly in an attempt to escape from the reigns of Caesar.
There are several character conclusions in Gem of the Ocean: Death, liberation, abandonment, and that freedom is an inherent right, a human right. August Wilson’s storytelling in Gem of the Ocean reminds us that in the forethought of freedom, the soul of African-Americans would never be confined by anyone or anything.
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (II)
Established in 1911, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone is the second play in the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ This is the story about Herald Loomis, who is endures enslavement of the past from Joe Turners chain gang and the separation of his marriage to the spiritual confinement that he carries with him. Joe Turner, an actual person who operated this chain gang in Tennessee, “Would lure (black) men, scoop down on them, and haul them off to his plantation,” as Wilson said. August Wilson described this event to write the play as a “Metaphor of two hundred years of slavery.”
Herald Loomis arrives at Seth and Bertha Holly’s boarding house with his daughter, Zonia. He is looking for his wife for whom he hasn’t seen for the last seven years of his imprisonment. “Herald Loomis, who has lost his song…As African-Americans have a sense of loss, because we don’t have a clear connection to our past and our history,” said Laurence Fishburne who performed in the play.
The play is about relationships in many forms. In the boarding house you have a root worker, a conjure man, named Bynum, who is powerful in the pivotal role of helping Herald Loomis reclaim his liberation. Bynum Walker is also there to encourage Jeremy, a gifted guitar player to perform in local bar. He is asked from Matte Campbell, resident, to help her find a man.
Seth Holly, the owner of the boarding house is a skilled man who has his reservations about Loomis and a societal section of blacks who reside in Pittsburgh. His wife, Bertha, balances not only the boardinghouse with cooking and cleaning, but Seth’s emotions.
Jeremy and Molly engage in a companionship of independence. Jeremy refused to be bound by the White man’s effort to take money from him and the other Black men who were doing road work. His refusal to go back to a decent paying job upsets Seth who explains that the money is still good even though the deduction was wrong. Molly, a young self-reliant woman, agrees with Seth, and tells Jeremy to go back to the job. Jeremy offers his skill as a guitar player to travel “everywhere and do everything,” with Molly. She agrees, but she won’t travel to the South.
Rutherford Selig, a peddler of goods is also a provider of personal information for finding people while selling pots and pans. Selig knows Seth well because he brings him materials to make the pots and pans that he sells. Selig is also important in locating Herald’s wife, Martha.
A spiritual friendship is built by way of Rueben Scott, a young kid who lives next to the boardinghouse, and Zonia Loomis. Rueben admits to Zonia of seeing Miss Mable, Seth’s deceased mom in the coop. After a discussion about the spirit as a “haunt” and “angle” they talk about their own lives. Reuben forges the idea of being with Zonia when they grow-up, she agrees.
In the kitchen, after a delicious fried chicken dinner prepared by Bertha, everyone who is at the table, except Herald, joins in the Juba. Also knows as the hambone, the Juba is a liberating combination of movement and song. Wilson’s words are so descriptive during the scene, that as everyone is exhibiting their emotions, and you as the reader regard their liberation, Harold Loomis interrupts the engagement. Everything about Loomis’ life arrives at an aggressive apex for which he begins to release his pain. Bynum connects Loomis to this moment of liberation from the past.
The characters in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone thrive in the boardinghouse for they are a representation of society at large. And for this reason, they are not bound spiritually, by Joe Turner or injustice, for they each have a song to sing.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (III)
Established in 1927, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is the third play in the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ This installment takes place in a Chicago recording studio. August Wilson’s natural nexus to blues music is at its peak in this play. The migration of Black people, blues music and performers from the Deep South during the 1920s to the Midwest, like Chicago and St. Louis; and in the North, like the Pittsburgh, began to change the geography. As exquisitely explained in The Play at the beginning of the book, Chicago in the 1920s was a rough city with the very rich and the very poor; gangsters, roughhouses, and dandies. The synopsis of The Play is to sew the music, in particular, the blues from the South to East St. Louis. Wilson’s play is a confluence of men, music, a strong woman, motives, and most importantly, at the forefront of the play, the subject matter of race. It is Black America dealing with the obvious and indirect manner of blatant discrimination. It is Black America dealing with their individual battles about promises from White America that is purposely procrastinated.
“In that play (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom) he literally wrote the characters as instruments,” said Harry J. Elam Ph.D.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is remarkable because Wilson places you in the studio, a small world, a challenging world. Challenges in a capsule of characters: Sturdyvant (Mel) and Irvin who is Ma Rainey’s manager, are the two White men in control of the process, to a certain extent. Cutler, the leader of the band of the Black performers, plays the guitar and trombone. Cutler balances the recordings and the emotions, the best he can. Toledo, the piano player, is the only one in the band who knows how to read, and explanations of what is right and wrong is more predicated because of his knowledge. Levee plays the trumpet and is the youngest in the band. He is also a stubborn young man with little faith in the justice of Black people’s outcome. Levee is tainted by a past that entailed his mother being raped by White men.
Ma Rainey about the blues: “Life’s way of talking, you don’t sing to feel better—you sing ‘cause that’s the way of understanding life.”
Ma Rainey, the stout blues singer is the star, and she knows it. She also aware that her voice and songs are what is making everyone money. For that fact, she is relentless with Irvin and Cutler about the convenience and creative process. Ma Rainey is pivotal, in subtle dialogue with Cutler, because she understands the relation she has with Irvin is not personal, it’s only about the power she can wield, and she does wield it to secure that no injustice will come her way.
The dialogue and action in the play has many serious overtones, sometimes light, and, at times, humorous. The tumultuous conclusion includes an irreverence and reverence to God that leaves the recording studio, once with music, mute.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom play by August Wilson is a historical recording, a timeless recording. Wilson places you in the studio with the bluesy songs and conditions of what is right and wrong. “Blues is the best literature that we have, Blacks, have created since we’ve been here,” August Wilson said. The blues, the spiritual songs, rooted meanings of stories that are shared, much like August Wilson’s narrative to tell a story. The world is small, just like the studio, yet complete with the reality of the cruel actions converging on people because of their color.
The Piano Lesson (IV)
Established in 1936, The Piano Lesson is August Wilson’s fourth play in the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ In the parenthesis of the piano, this ornate historical instrument that by design delivers a story about remembering the past, relationships tested by greed and need, we learn, as Avery said to Bernice, “Everybody got stones in their passway. You got to step over them or walk around them.”
Boy Willie arrived in Pittsburgh with his friend Lymon, for one thing: to reclaim a piano from Bernice, his sister, and sell it to complete his payment on a piece of land. This land is owned by a man named Sutter, who was a slave owner. Looking for an opportunity, he disregards the history that emboldens the piano.
Doaker Charles, the owner of the house, lives with his niece Bernice and her daughter, Maretha, the only person playing on this piano. Bernice’s intention for Maretha is to become a teacher who has a musical background. But Boy Willie is persistent about taking the piano. “You can’t sell you soul for money,” Bernice tells him. Boy Willie doesn’t see what the point is of Bernice keeping the item that will give him land down south.
The Piano Lesson, an aesthetic sentient apparatus, entails a story connected to the family’s bloodline. Doaker Charles tells the history in the parlor with Wining Boy (Doaker’s older brother, a former piano player who is a shell of his old self), Boy Willie, and Lymon: The family was owned by a man named Robert Sutter, and the piano was a gift for his wife in exchange for slaves. She missed her slaves and could not get them back. Therefore, Doaker’s grandfather, a man known for his wood work, was told to carve the absent slaves as a way to cure loneliness from Sutter’s wife. Hid did the job and then more when he engraved the family’s history on the piano. This infuriated Sutter, but made his wife happy. Doaker and Wining Boy’s brother, Boy Charles, who is the father of Bernice and Boy Willie, wanted the piano back because it represented their family.
Doaker and Wining Boy took the piano from Sutter’s home. Sutter went to look for Boy Charles and found him on a train called the Yellow Dog with four hobos in a boxcar. Sutter and his men couldn’t find the piano and burned the boxcar. As Doaker explains, those men involved all died, thus the “Ghost of the Yellow Dog.”
The bloodline from her father to the piano is the reason Bernice keeps the piano. Boy Willie knows the history and is still set in his plan. When the attempt to take the piano is made, an apparition of Sutter appears. The conclusion is an ensemble of spiritual and metaphysical energy passing through the house with a prayer from Avery, Boy Willie fighting the past, and Bernice embracing it while playing the piano with the plurality of family in song.
“The Piano Lesson tells the story of a 125 year old piano, and that storytelling links African-American history with the slave experience,” said Dr. Sandra Shannon.
August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson pounds the roots of this family, key by key. On display in the parlor of Doaker’s house is their genealogy inscribed on the piano. This is a sacred storyline, a family portrait illustrated by August Wilson, the storyteller, the poet, who shares the struggle of this African-American family dealing with their faults and fears.
Seven Guitars (V)
Established in 1948, Seven Guitars is August Wilson’s fifth play in the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ The play begins with the funeral of Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton. Vera, who had a relationship with Floyd states to Canewell, Red Carter, Hedley, and Louise that she saw six angels in black at the funeral take Floyd to heaven. Louise, in disagreement, states that those weren’t angels, but funeral workers. A retrospection of Floyd’s life before his death begins in a backyard of an apartment in Pittsburgh.
Floyd Barton is a blues guitarist who made a hit record and then went to jail. He has now returned to see Vera and take her to Chicago because the record company sent him a letter with interest. His guitar is in the pawn shop, but his desire to make good is now free.
August Wilson writes in A Note from the Playwright from Seven Guitars, “Despite my interest in history, I have always been more concerned with culture… I happen to think that the content of my mother’s life…are all worthy of art.”
These ‘contents’ are part of the composition of Seven Guitars:
Myths—There is Floyd Barton portraying himself as someone new, and offering a better life in his attempt to reclaim lost time.
Superstition—There is a superstitious phrase in which a person can break their bad luck by turning seven times in a clockwise circle. As Floyd Barton starts over he faces each person in his opportunity to do better, but the irony is that Floyd is the same man.
Prayers—Hedley’s nobility and spiritual demands are found in the hand of God and the womb of Ruby; Vera’s yearning for the vacancy in her soul when Floyd left her for another woman on his trip to Chicago.
Contents of a Pantry—Songs of joy and pain, playing cards, and listening to the Joe Louis fight on the radio are just a few subjects that fill Seven Guitars.
Smell of a Kitchen—Red’s call to the past of life’s simplicities begins with the basic ingredients to make a meal. In conversation he reaches out the past for a more practical life.
A Song that Escaped—While Floyd will never reach his milestone, the rooster makes music. According to Red, “The rooster didn’t crow during slavery…he didn’t start crowing again till after the Emancipation Proclamation.”
Thoughtful repose and pregnant laughter—Seven Guitars commences with a peaceful pinnacle in which the dialogue of the seven characters moves with death, humor, history, morality, discrimination, honesty, and to a level of grounded beliefs.
The three women in Seven Guitars play a significant role: Louise is the mother figure in ways of offering honest advice while being sympathetic. Vera is the figure dealing with the good and the bad side of relationships. Ruby is the young pregnant woman without a man in her life. Their contribution among the seven friends is pivotal.
The analogies provided by August Wilson and his pathos of the play are real and convincing: From the strength of women inspired by his mother, one man’s fight against everyone in his reach to change, to the discrimination and spirituality felt by these seven African-Americans.
Established in 1957, Fences is August Wilson’s sixth play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ Fences to embrace family; Fences to enclose family; an anthology of acts and scenes: Leading, Loving, Loathing, and Losing. These are the Fences of an African-American family in the 1950s analogous to contemporary life with its serious social subject matters.
This play begins with a conversation between two men on a Friday evening after working their shifts as garbage men. In Troy Maxon’s backyard he shares a drink with his long-time friend, Jim Bono. This is a “ritual of talk and drink,” Wilson describes in Act One, Scene One, that draws the weeks’ worth of work and personal dialogue.
Troy Maxon: A man of regrets, strict as a father, bitter against the color barrier of baseball that passed up his potential as a professional player. He is a pipe dreamer of sort, whose present strength is reared in the days gone by as someone who should have been recognized as a great ball player. He served time in the state penitentiary and is now looking for the opportunity to move from the job of a garbage man to a garbage truck driver. Troy also expresses his angst against the United States government because of their treatment to his brother, Gabriel, a WWII veteran. Gabriel received a head injury during the war, and is now disabled and disrespected in Troy’s eyes.
Jim Bono is younger than Troy and looks up to him with respect. At times, Jim finds his own voice, telling Troy to be careful of his decision to have an affair. When Troy receives the opportunity to become a garbage truck driver from his position with Jim as a garbage man, the separation changes the dynamic of their relationship. In time, Jim becomes his own man.
Gabriel suffered damage to the head and has a metal plate in his head. Troy received the compensation the government gave his brother to buy the house in which he resides with Rose. His brother lives with Mrs. Pearl, but is eventually committed. Gabriel is always talks about playing his horn for St. Peter. At the time of Troy’s death, Gabriel is playing the mouth-less horn to no avail, so he begins to dance and blurt out words as the Gates of Heaven open for his brother, Troy.
Rose, who is Troy’s wife of 18 years, has a child with him named, Cory. She sees the life with Troy as better in comparison to being without him. Rose chooses to concede Troy’s issues and mistakes because these are mended by his spirit. As Fences furthers, she is confronted with difficult decisions about their son and Troy’s extramarital affair. On the note about the affair, she tells him in a gripping scene: “You should have stayed in the bed me…you should’ve held on tight.” Eventually Troy becomes a “womanless” man according to Rose.
Cory listens to Pops, that is, Troy, but becomes defiant to Troy when he has the opportunity of be recruited for a college football program. Troy refuses to sign the document allowing Cory to participate, mostly because of the prejudices that he faced as a young man in his attempt to be a baseball player. You feel that Troy doesn’t want to see him fail. Cory confronts Troy while they are in the backyard of the fenceless field of life in conversation about family, not love—just responsibility.
“You cannot have a good play unless there is a conflict of human emotion and when you bring those together as family, it’s frighteningly dynamic,” said James Earl Jones who portrayed Troy in Fences.
Troy’s struggle with change in a society that is on the brink of change arriving in the 1960s is complicated by the decade’s conditions. His ambitions have been bordered by decisions rooted in this partially fenced yard. Once more, August Wilson’s social timeline of the discrimination for African-Americans is part of Troy’s story. It is only fair to say that there is truth in Troy Maxon’s comment about responsibility for the family. For all the faults he has as a man, his convictions are not to be contained.
Two Trains Running (VII)
Established in 1969, Two Trains Running is August Wilson’s seventh play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ There are two worlds in this play: The first is located inside Memphis Lee’s restaurant where the discussions among the characters range from their past, the present day revolution of personal and societal dealings, and to the future. The second is outside the restaurant in the city—a revolution that is expressed in many forms: A rally for African-Americans to embrace the ideology of change. A community that once thrived now barely survives as most of the businesses have left along with patrons who filled restaurants like Memphis’; add to the loss of infrastructure and many African-Americans do not have jobs as some wait for the opportunity from White business owners. For others who are in need of hope, they show their respect to a wealthy prophet named Samuel as he lie in repose in a local funeral home. The funeral home owned by a man named West is profitable in means of necessity and greed. And then there are the few that seek advice from Aunt Ester, a 349 year old woman whose wealth is a connection to African spirituality. She is still relevant in her rituals to revive a person’s outlook in life.
Laurence Fishburne who played Sterling said this about Wilson: “The concept of Blackness and the reality of Blackness, he doesn’t introduce it to you as something that’s negative. He introduces it to you as something that is positive. Being Black is a positive.”
Memphis, the owner of the restaurant, has a goal to get back to Jackson, Mississippi and claim his rightful land that was taken away from him. He is a self-reliant man whose high values of ethics, both personal and business, are great. Memphis’s flawless knowledge is challenged by his environment of the patrons in his restaurant and the action of the community at large. The need for change by Sterling and the need for greed by West make these two subjects intricate for him.
Sterling’s effort to find a better life after leaving the penitentiary entails his involvement in a rally for the deceased Malcolm X and a relationship with Risa the waitress. Sterling’s logic is based on string of ideas that will lead to something better. He urges people to attend the celebration of Malcolm X’s birthday to understand that everyone should receive fairness and freedom. This is a contradiction to Memphis who tells Sterling that the rally will not result in fairness and freedom because you must earn it. Memphis tells him that justice is blind like the Statue of Liberty. Memphis adds to thought, “Jesus Christ didn’t get justice. What makes you think you gonna get it?”
Risa herself is challenged by personal issues and attempts to block men from her life with scars of her past and visible pain. She is the thoughtful and considerate symbolic mother of the restaurant: listening to the needs of characters such as Hambone and Sterling while cooking, prepping, serving, and waiting on patrons.
Hambone, who has a mental condition that is on decline, utters limitless calls to receive a ham for work that he performed at a store owned by a White man named Lutz. Lutz offered him a chicken instead because the work was not up to his liking, but Hambone refused the offer. As Two Trains Running moves forward, Hambone is made out to be a man of action for requesting every day to Lutz about the ham that he deserves, an African-American who won’t settle for less, and not a man who involuntarily repeats a phrase. This request is summarized by Holloway and chastised by Memphis.
Holloway’s assessments of the changes in this turbulent time are predicated on his beliefs of common sense and the supernatural like Aunt Ester. His input is a balance to the daily dialogue that takes place in the restaurant. He offers a colorful commentary in Act Two, Scene Two, to the warning made by Memphis to Risa about Sterling. While he agrees somewhat with Memphis, he states that the problem Sterling faces as a Black man who now owns a gun is every Black man’s problem in the same situation. When you put a Black man with a gun, to paraphrase Holloway, the police will arrest you.
Wolf and West both have a need for money, but West as the owner of a funeral home who overcharges families; Wolf gambles for it by running the numbers. Wolf is known in the community for his skill and makes a living from it. His request for sugar from Risa plays out to be more profound in his need for a relationship. Wolf doesn’t need to trust the numbers he runs, but he needs to trust just one good woman. West, who wears only black after the death of his wife, is solely secure in purchasing and acquiring property. His attempt to buy Memphis’s restaurant is pivotal in the play as a matter of greed for both men.
“All I got to do is find my way down to the train depot. They got two trains running every day.” Memphis Lee
Two Trains Running is about reclaiming the past to preserve the future. This storyline is evident with Memphis in his realization of what greed means to him and West; this realization surfaces when Hambone is buried. Sterling’s wants and needs provoke Risa to “Take a Look” at him in a new light. Aunt Ester gives advice for those seeking their personal truth. This is the crux of the play: people seeking their personal truth.
Established in 1977, Jitney is August Wilson’s eighth play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’
“Car service. East Liberty? Whereabouts in East Liberty? That’ll be four dollars. Lady I don’t care what nobody else charge you that’s a four dollar trip. All right. Green car. What’s the address again? I’ll be right there.”
Thus began my experience at the jitney station. Sitting in a folding chair with my feet firmly on the linoleum, listening to Fielding, who has been drinking, accepting a call from a person in the community to be transported.
By the time I finished Jitney, facing the characters, listening, intently listening to the dialogue, I was engaged by the words of Wilson to a place in Pittsburgh in 1977. August Wilson said this about Jitney, “Once I got the characters talking, it was difficult to shut them up.”
The revealing routines of the nine people in Jitney are in fact, respectfully meticulous in method. I can sense each particle of the play from the checker match between Youngblood and Turnbo to Becker and Booster’s uneasy acceptance of their current state.
Youngblood, a Vietnam vet, is the youngest of the jitney drivers, but is very aware of his surroundings. Turnbo loves to gossip and gamble on people’s emotions. All the men who work for Becker, except Youngblood, relent to meddle in everyone’s business. Fielding, an alcoholic who lost his way as a known tailor and lost his woman, has an admitted dependency on the booze. Doub, a Korean War veteran, offers the sense of balance between the men. Shealy is a bookie, he banks on the station’s payphone to do take numbers and conduct his business. Philmore, a former jitney driver, now works at a local hotel as a doorman, and is always looking for a ride. Rena is Youngblood’s girlfriend and mother to their child; a very intense woman when talking to and with Youngblood. Becker is the boss of the jitney station, and someone who is respected there, and in the community; a man of great pride and work ethic. Finally, there is Booster, Becker’s son who has been imprisoned for 20 years because of killing his ex-girlfriend.
The conversation between Becker and Booster in Act One, Scene Four is bold, brutal. Booster was so smart, and Becker knew it. What we learn is that Booster’s outlook on life was changed by a decision Becker made. Becker, a noble man, World War II veteran, a family man who raised his son to be respectful, hears Booster’s reason for committing the murder: He tells his dad that he was a “warrior,” because he felt that hid dad was not. Blame is pushed around in the jitney station between the two men about the death of a wife and mother. This concludes in separation, again, of a man and his son, or as Becker tells him, “But from this moment on…I’m calling the deal off.” Booster is out of jail, but he arrives at his father’s jitney station which has left him behind the bars of his shadow.
Marion Isaac McClinton said in the introduction of Jitney: “August Wilson is the griot, our Homer, our Shakespeare, our grandfather sitting on the front porch telling us the stories that we need to know…August Wilson in a master jitney driver.”
The dialogue in Jitney is intense, funny, but most importantly it is the vernacular of the men working at the jitney station. This is Wilson, the storyteller, placing you on one of those worn chairs against a wall close to the payphone, listening, intently listening. You will find yourself in the poetic motion of Jitney.
King Hedley II (IX)
Established in 1985, King Hedley II is August Wilson’s ninth play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ The semblance of this play and its nexus to Seven Guitars makes King Hedley II a compelling story. A generational cycle from 1948 to 1985 of four consummate characters: Hedley, Ruby, Canewell (Stool Pigeon), and Louise. Their relevancy in this play starts from the seeds that King plants in the same backyard that Hedley and Louise shared with Vera; a backyard that saw Canewell confront Floyd ‘Schoolboy’ Barton about money and where Hedley kills Floyd. Canewell was given the name Stool Pigeon by Ruby because he told the truth about the stolen money that was in the hands of Hedley. Ruby was a young pregnant girl in Seven Guitars. She offers her child to an older Hedley who tells her that he has killed a man before, and more importantly to his spirituality, he needs to have a child because he might be “The father of the messiah. Maybe you could be that woman for me.” We learn that Ruby leaves Pittsburgh to sing in a big band while Louise, the mother figure among the seven friends in that play, became a surrogate and raised King. We only know that Ruby was pregnant when she arrived in Pittsburgh to visit her aunt Louise from Alabama by a man named, Leroy Slater, who was killed by her jealous ex-boyfriend, Elmore. Now Elmore plays a significant role as Ruby’s on again, off again hustling boyfriend who is visiting her in the Pittsburgh tenement she shares with her son, King.
King spent seven years in jail for killing a man named Parnell who cut his face, thus leaving King with a scar. His choices are correct in his mind because the line between right and wrong is an illusion. He had a construction job but was laid off because the city didn’t accept the bid for the company he was working for, and now he’s trying to sell refrigerators. King has adamant feelings about a society of White jurors placing him in jail for killing a Black man who was going to kill him. To King, this is the crux on his outlook about the injustice for Black men. He tells Mister that if a White man defended himself, “They pat him on the back and tell him to go home.”
Mister is King’s friend since childhood. He follows King in the sale of intangible refrigerators and has his own brushes with the law. He is a naïve man in notions when dealing with practical issues. His wife has left him with nothing. Mister loosely takes a title of businessman to the extent of selling anything, legal or illegal to make money.
Tonya is King’s girlfriend. Her honest point of view is blunt. She is thirty-five and pregnant with King’s child, but is going to have an abortion. The revolving reality in Tonya’s life about raising Natasha, her first child, without a dad and step-dad because of incarceration, is applied to King. In an enthralling match of dialogue between the two, she tells him that fatherless children must stop, especially with her teen daughter Natasha having a baby and no father around. King attempts to correct her practical examples, but she walks away from him and his idea of a relationship.
Stool Pigeon is a recognized spiritual man in the community. He quotes verses from the bible and conjures the metaphysical with his actions. He believes a new period of life is here with the death of Aunt Ester, who lived to be 366 years old. In a respectful manner he says, “God has a plan.” However, when he reflects on the work of God, he says, “God is a motherfucker.”
Elmore is a hustler who arrives after sending a letter to Ruby explaining how he misses her. In the same letter he asks Ruby if she knows any gamblers, “If so, tell them to get ready as they will surely lose all their money?” Ruby’s thought on Elmore, “He talk sugar, but give me salt.”
August Wilson said, “Women do not need to define themselves in relation to men.” This is true for several of his women characters, but pertinent to Tonya in King Hedley II, for she is determined to live her life better than what the past has provided for her. Her decisions will not be subjected to a routine, but rather a rule of right and wrong.
The story of this child, King Hedley II, thrown into this world to surrogate parents, for which he believes one of them to be his father, is compelling. The lineage of the story line from Seven Guitars to King Hedley II is a remarkable one. The outcome of this play is unpredictable as to the relevancy of the character’s dramatic roles.
Radio Golf (X)
Established in 1997, Radio Golf is August Wilson’s tenth play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle.’ The cycle of Wilson’s ten plays of African-Americans comes to an end in Radio Golf with a summary of progression. Three of the characters in this play are in the echelon of American society, but despite their accomplishments and acquisitions, one man, a warrior, will offer a key element: The simple message of managing one’s life and not forgetting one’s prudent past. There are two additional and pivotal characters who Wilson beckons to balance Aunt Ester’s providence at 1839 Wylie St: Old Joe (Elder Joseph Barlow), and Sterling Johnson.
In Gem of the Ocean we are reminded by Harry J. Elam Ph.D. who said in the documentary, “Aunt Ester, whose name sounds like ancestor, is as old as the African-American presence in the United States.” Two vital views in Radio Golf strengthen the ties of African-American ancestry: First, the symbolic door of Aunt Ester’s home has a fresh coat of red paint from Sterling; this is an idea about reviving the past. Secondly, as noted by Toni Morrison in the forward of The Piano Lesson about the piano being a deus ex machina, the deed to the house, set to be demolished as blight with other property in the neighborhood for a new development, has resurrected to redirect the plan.
Harmond Wilks is a big man in the city with a big plan to redevelop a neighborhood from homes to commercial and rental property. An opportunity to become mayor is connected to this plan, concessions are constructed, and in the name of progress, convictions are parlayed. He has been married for over twenty years to Mame, who is a professional public relations representative. She stands by his side and closely manages his path to be mayor. However, it is the steps that Mame takes that are too close and tightly guarded. Despite his goals to succeed, his sense of compassion is not compromised. He called upon by many to do the right thing, politically and personally. Harmond answers this call that reaches its long African-American heavy hearted arm to the early 1900’s; He hears the calls with an indigenous and warrior spirit.
His business partner and long-time friend, Roosevelt Hicks, is a man who has foregone the fabric of his people. The only color he sees is green in the greed he displays. He has a radio talk show about his favorite sport, golf. He also has an opportunity for a partnership in owning the radio station. But as he tells Harmond who the deal is with, a White business man being sued from other investments, Harmond warns him of his actions. Harmond tells Roosevelt that he is going to be a “Black face.” Roosevelt’s gross attack on Black people, who do not meet the White privilege that has provided him with opportunity, puts him at odds with the living standards of those in the community.
Old Joe, who is the son of Citizen Barlow from Gem of the Ocean is an important figure to the play, and most importantly, to Harmond Wilks. He has returned to the Hill District of Pittsburgh, and has walked into Harmond’s office looking for Christian people. You can sense the bond that is before the two as the play goes on, yet there is a feeling of serendipity. He knew Raymond, Harmond’s twin brother who died in Vietnam and his father. Eventually, Old Joe tells him that the house will be for his daughter, Black Mary. The fine lines of a family tree begin to come alive as the two share a common ancestor.
Sterling Johnson from Two Trains Running is still in the neighborhood with his self-determination to correct the wrong. He is a handyman and self-contractor. He is also the opposite of Roosevelt Hicks, which creates a series of serious and confrontational dialogue. He was asked by Old Joe to paint the house, so when the freshly painted red door has an X over for the proposed demolition, he wants his money back from Harmond and Roosevelt. Sterling is relentless in his principle to allow the demolition to continue, and he justly tells Roosevelt, “You gonna have to answer me on the battlefield.”
The leading African-American roles in Radio Golf are men who still deal with finding solutions for a better society, and those who compromise. The theme of the play is respect, with a collection of subject matters from the first nine plays. The answers from Radio Golf come with a caveat that if you do wrong, you must correct it. For example, Caesar Wilk’s decisions in the first chronological play, Gem of the Ocean, where he betrays his brethren only to pay the taxes on Aunt Ester’s home. Roosevelt Hicks has adhered to very same idea, some ninety-three years later.
The “warrior” is Harmond, who analyzes the life he wants through the family tree with the help from Old Joe, and the action by Sterling who places the world in practical terms. Harmond’s self-analysis wins over the self-centered goals. Radio Golf, the last play of the ‘Pittsburgh Cycle,’ is a reflective play about the social timeline of not only African-Americans, but the history of the United States during the Twentieth Century.
About the Author
Chris Joseph Stancato was born in N. Belle Vernon, Pennsylvania in 1971, moved to Miami, Florida in 1989 where he now resides. He is a short story and flash fiction writer and artist. He is the author of a short story titled, Gas Station Ganja that is available on Amazon.com as an eBook. In addition to his published work, he post stories, artwork, and book and documentary reviews on the website: www.OrangePostman.com . The Three Months of August is his first non-fiction eBook. He felt compelled to produce this personal review because, as he stated: “August Wilson’s storytelling of history in a social timeline is unequivocally a masterpiece.”
I hope you appreciated The Three Months of August. I worked diligently on this project. If you would like to make a donation please do so through the PayPal Donate button located on the side bar. Thank You, Chris
Works Cited Page
Gem of the Ocean, Written by August Wilson, Published by Theatre Communication Group Inc., New York
Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
The Piano Lesson, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Seven Guitars, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Fences, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Two Trains Running, Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Jitney, Written by August Wilson, The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. Woodstock & New York
King Hedley II, Written by August Wilson, Published by Theatre Communication Group Inc., New York
Radio Golf, Written by August Wilson, Published by Theatre Communication Group Inc., New York
McClinton, Isaac Marion, Theatre Director/Playwright, Introduction, Jitney. Written by August Wilson, The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. Woodstock & New York
Morrison, Toni, Novelist, Foreward, The Piano Lesson. Written by August Wilson, Published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Works Cited Page II
Documentary, Pollard, Sam, Stephen Stept, and Kathryn Bostic. August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand, 2015
The Ground on Which I Stand. Interviews with/about August Wilson. February 2015, Documentary by Sam Pollard, Filmmaker
Elam PhD, Harry J., Interviews for The Ground on Which I Stand. February 2015, Documentary by Sam Pollard, Filmmaker
Fishburne, Lawrence, Actor, Interviews for The Ground on Which I Stand. February 2015, Documentary by Sam Pollard, Filmmaker
Jones, James Earl, Actor, Interviews for The Ground on Which I Stand. February 2015, Documentary by Sam Pollard, Filmmaker
Shannon Dr., Sandra, Interviews for The Ground on Which I Stand. February 2015, Documentary by Sam Pollard, Filmmaker