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Apr 16, 2021 - AP Literature    Comments Off on The Great Okeechobee Hurricane

The Great Okeechobee Hurricane

palm beach

The central historical event of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the Great Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928. The hurricane had already wreaked havoc across the Caribbean, most notably on the Leeward Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. The storm made landfall in South Florida on September 17 in Palm Beach County. The internal pressure of the storm was 929 millibars, with wind speeds of around 145 mph, ranking it sixth on the list of most intense storms to hit the United States. Only four storms have made landfall in Florida with higher wind speeds: the unnamed hurricane of 1919, the Labor Day hurricane of 1935, Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Charley in 2004. The Saffir-Simpson scale that divides hurricanes into categories had not yet been invented, but based on these measurements, the Great Okeechobee hurricane would have made landfall in Florida at Category 4.

map2Although the storm caused a great deal of property damage in Palm Beach and other coastal areas, the real devastation happened as the storm moved inland over Lake Okeechobee (Okeechobee is a Seminole word for “big water”). Strong rains in the weeks before the storm had raised the water level in the lake. Storm winds drove water to the south end of the lake, and in two locations, the levee surrounding the lake broke.

In his book Okeechobee Hurricane, Lawrence E. Will described the flood this way:

The period of the lull here had apparently been between 8:30 and 9:30 that night. The exact time of the breaking of the dike is difficult to determine. There were several breaks and they may have occurred at slightly different times. Although it took an appreciable time for the flood to arrive in Belle Glade, those in the hotel said that when it did arrive, it rose on the steps at the rate of an inch a minute. The highest crest, which was during the maximum velocity of the wind during the second phase of the storm, was, according to my recollection, at 10:20 PM. This crest was a rolling swell of short duration, after which the water fell about a foot and remained nearly constant for twenty minutes. This mark in Belle Glade was about seven feet above the ground, nearer the lake it was a great deal higher, for example, in Stein’s house at Chosen, 11 feet 3 inches, and on Torry (Island) 11 feet, 8 inches, and similar heights in South Bay. As the flood advanced, it necessarily fanned out, becoming shallower. At the (University of Florida) Experiment Station its maximum depth was three feet, and that, strangely enough, according to foreman Tedder, was after daylight.

caneAs the category 4 hurricane moved inland, the strong winds piled the water up at the south end of the lake, ultimately topping the levee and rushing out onto the fertile land. The storm surge alone was nearly ten feet. The floodwaters in Belle Glade, on the southern shore of the lake, rose at a rate of one inch per minute and nearly topped seven feet. Thousands of people, mostly non-white migrant farm workers, drowned as water several feet deep spread over an area approximately 6 miles deep and 75 miles long around the south end of the lake.

The initial death toll set by the Red Cross was just under 2,000 people. However, that number most likely minimized the actual loss of life in order to prevent a negative effect on tourism to the state. The fact that most of the dead were migrant workers also played a part. The National Weather Service set the official death toll at more than 2,500* in 2003. The asterisk exists because the true death toll is unknown. Many of the bodies of the migrant workers were washed into the Everglades and never recovered. This storm was the second most devastating in terms of loss of life in U.S. history, ranking behind the Galveston Hurricane of 1900.

The burial scenes depicted in Their Eyes Were Watching God illustrate the difficulty in dealing with the huge loss of life, animal and human, and the necessity of burying so many in the short time required by Florida’s heat and humidity. They also call into attention the additional effect that segregation had on the tragedy. Whites were buried first, as many in private graves as possible until the heat demanded other measures. Blacks were more likely to have been interred in mass graves. Separate memorial services were held for white and black victims. Markers commemorating the mass burials may be found in West Palm Beach, one at Woodlawn Cemetery, where nearly 70 whites were buried, and another close to the intersection of 25th Street and Tamarind Avenue which marks the resting place of nearly 700 blacks. This marker is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

800px-Mass_Grave_020

Liz Doup’s story in the Broward Sun-Sentinel discusses the human cost of the hurricane, including interviews from survivors. Read the story here.

Information from:
Hurricanes: Science and Society, http://www.hurricanescience.org/history/storms/1920s/Okeechobee/
Memorial Page for the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane, http://www.srh.noaa.gov/mfl/?n=okeechobee

Apr 9, 2021 - AP Literature    Comments Off on Up on the Porch: The Center of Town Life

Up on the Porch: The Center of Town Life

porch

Their Eyes Were Watching God begins with Janie’s return to Eatonville, told primarily through the onlookers gathered on the porch in front of Joe Starks’s store: “It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.”

Throughout the Eatonville section of the novel, the porch serves as the center of town life. It’s the place to go for a game of checkers or a cold drink on a hot day, the one place you want to be to hear the news, swap stories, “play the dozens,” and gossip. “When the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see, it was nice.” (Chapter 6)

Janie realizes the importance of the porch as a way to integrate fully into the life of the town. Jody’s determination to keep her in the store reinforces his belief of her as something better than the rest of the townswomen, the “bell cow” whose prominence complements his own.

Porches serve as a touchstone in much of Hurston’s work, like her story “Sweat” and her novel Seraph on the Suwanee. In her autobiography Dust Tracks on A Road, Hurston recounted her early experiences in Eatonville:

“I know that Joe Clarke’s store was the heart and spring of the town. Men sat around the store on boxes and benches and passed this world and the next one through their mouths. The right and the wrong, the who, when and why was passed on, and nobody doubted the conclusions…For me, the store porch was the most interesting place that I could think of. I was not allowed to sit around there, naturally. But, I could and did drag my feet going in and out whenever I was sent there…But what I really loved to hear was the menfollks holding a “lying” session. That is, straining against each other in telling folktales. God, Devil, Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, Sis Cat, Brer Bear, Lion, Tiger, Buzzard, and all the wood folk walked and talked like natural men.”

As a cultural anthropologist, Hurston certainly knew the connections between the stories and folktales she heard on those porches and those of West Africa. Trickster tales of Anansi the Spider migrated across the Middle Passage and found new homes in the American South, Anansi becoming the fabled trickster Brer Rabbit (and his Brooklyn-accented descendant, Bugs Bunny) and the porch taking the place of the talking stool reserved for the tribal chief.

The Act I Setting of Mule Bone, written in 1930 by Langston Hughes and Hurston from her story “A Bone of Contention,” describes how the porch should look.

SETTING: The raised porch of JOE CLARKE’s Store and the street in front. Porch stretches almost completely across the stage, with a plank bench at either end. At the center of the porch three steps leading from street. Rear of porch, center, door to store. On either side are single windows on which signs, at left, “POST OFFICE,” and at right, “GENERAL STORE” are painted. Soap boxes, axe handles, small kegs, etc., on porch on which townspeople sit and lounge during action. Above the roof of the porch the “false front,” or imitation second story of the shop, is seen with large sign painted across it “JOE CLARKE’S GENERAL STORE.” Large kerosene street lamp on post at right in front of the porch.

Saturday afternoon and the villagers are gathered around the store. Several men sitting on boxes at edge of porch chewing sugar cane, spitting tobacco juice, arguing, some whittling, others eating peanuts. During the act the women all dressed up in starched dresses parade in and out of store. People buying groceries, kids playing in the street, etc. General noise of conversation, laughter and children shouting. But when the curtain rises there is a momentary lull for cane-chewing. At left of porch four men are playing cards on a soap box, and seated on the edge of the porch at extreme right two children are engaged in a checker game, with the board on the floor between them.

mule boneMule Bone was based on an African-American folktale. The play was intended to be the first of what Hurston hoped would be a truly “black vernacular” theater; however, a falling out between the authors prevented the play from ever being produced in their lifetimes. A production of Mule Bone finally made its debut in 1991. The fascinating story behind the conflict may be found here.

Apr 2, 2021 - AP Literature    Comments Off on Hurston’s Use of Dialect

Hurston’s Use of Dialect

zora2In addition to being a fine writer of fiction, Zora Neale Hurston was a folklorist and cultural anthropologist. About her writing, Hurston once said, “I tried…not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro. Neither did I want to pander to those “race” people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us.” In a letter to her friend and fellow writer Fannie Hurst, Hurston wrote, “I know I cannot straighten out with a few pen-strokes what God and men took centuries to mess up. So I tried to deal with life as we actually live it–not as the sociologists imagine it.”

Hurston’s efforts were not universally appreciated by other members of the Harlem Renaissance, most notably Richard Wright. In a 1937 review for New Masses, Wright chided Hurston for not focusing on “motive fiction” or “social document fiction” and had particularly stinging things to say about her use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God:

Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Like Mark Twain before her, Hurston was exacting in her reproduction of speech patterns, both writers valuing authenticity over the preferences of the time. The following is a passage from “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” written by Hurston and published in Negro, 1934.

If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of “ams” and “Ises.” Fortunately, we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself.

I know that I run the risk of being damned as an infidel for declaring that nowhere can be found the Negro who asks “am it?” nor yet his brother who announces “Ise uh gwinter.” He exists only for a certain type of writers and performers.

Very few Negroes, educated or not, use a clear clipped “I.” It verges more or less upon “Ah.” I think the lip form is responsible for this to a great extent. By experiment the reader will find that a sharp “i” is very much easier with a thin taut lip than with a full soft lip. Like tightening violin strings.

If one listens closely one will not too that a word is slurred in one position in the sentence but clearly pronounced in another. This is particularly true of the pronouns. A pronoun as a subject is likely to be clearly enunciated, but slurred as an object. For example: “You better not let me ketch yuh.”

There is a tendency in some localities to add the “h” to “it” and pronounce it “hit.” Probably a vestige of Old English. In some localities “if” is “ef.”

In story telling “so” is universally the connective. It is used even as an introductory word, at the very beginning of the story. In religious expression “and” is used. The trend in stories is to state conclusions; in religion, to enumerate.

I am mentioning only the most general rules in dialect because there are so many quirks that belong only to certain localities that nothing less than a volume would be adequate.

Additional material from the National Endowment for the Arts’ “The Big Read” Reader’ Guide to Their Eyes Were Watching God

Mar 31, 2021 - AP Literature    Comments Off on Meeting Zora Neale Hurston

Meeting Zora Neale Hurston

 

Hurston 1

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
From Dust Tracks on a Road

 

Although Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama on January 7, 1891, she moved to Eatonville, Florida when she was a toddler and claimed that as her hometown. Eatonville, the first black-incorporated town in the United States, served as the backdrop for her most famous work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in addition to providing a rich vein of African-American folklore that resounds throughout her writing. Trained as a cultural anthropologist, Hurston sought to incorporate the black culture and dialect that she knew best into her writing. Her positive outlook on black culture as it was created friction between Hurston and other luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance movement. After a few decades of literary success, Hurston fell into obscurity. Her works went out of print. It wasn’t until novelist Alice Walker, who had read Their Eyes Were Watching God and who became a passionate advocate of her work, published the essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in a 1975 issue of Ms. Magazine that scholars renewed their focus on the Hurston, her amazing life story, and her contribution to American literature. Their Eyes Were Watching God is now one of the most widely-taught and best-known of African-American novels. Hurston died in Ft. Pierce, FL on January 28, 1960.

Hurston’s Perspective

What strikes the contemporary reader is that Hurston was deeply passionate about the people whose dreams and desires, whose traumas and foibles she describes with such élan, and that she loved the fictional language in which she cloaks their tales; hers is not the urgency of the essayist or the columnist, intent upon reducing human complexity to a sociological or political point. Above all else, Hurston is concerned to register a distinct sense of space—an African-American cultural space. The Hurston voice of these stories is never in a hurry or a rush, pausing over—indeed, luxuriating in—the nuances of speech or the timbre of voice that give a storyteller her or his distinctiveness.

—Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke,
Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories

In the twenties, thirties, and forties, there were tremendous pressures on black writers. Militant organizations, like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, expected them to be “race” people, defending black people, protesting against racism and oppression; while the advocates of the genteel school of literature wanted black writers to create respectable characters that would be “a credit to the race.” Many black writers chafed under these restrictions, including Hurston, who chose to write about the positive side of black experience and to ignore the brutal side. She saw black lives as psychologically integral—not humiliated half-lives, stunted by the effects of racism and poverty. She simply could not depict blacks as defeated, humiliated, degraded, or victimized, because she did not experience black people or herself that way.

Mary Helen Washington, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Woman Half in Shadow”

 Hurston 2“I tried … not to pander to the folks who expect a clown and a villain in every Negro,” Hurston said of Their Eyes Were Watching God. “Neither did I want to pander to those ‘race’ people among us who see nothing but perfection in all of us.”                               

Hurston’s Language

Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for perhaps the eleventh time, I am still amazed that Hurston wrote it in seven weeks; that it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done; and that the language of the characters, that “comical nigger ‘dialect’” that has been laughed at, denied, ignored, or “improved” so that white folks and educated black folks can understand it, is simply beautiful. There is enough self-love in that one book—love of community, culture, traditions—to restore a world. Or create a new one.

Alice Walker, “On Refusing to be Humbled By Second Place in a Contest You Did Not Design: A Tradition by Now”

 

Hurston Resources

The PBS program Do You Speak American? includes an excellent essay on African-American women writers including Hurston, Alice Walker, and Nobel prizewinner Toni Morrison. Hurston’s use of dialect is discussed in detail. The essay also includes links to sounds clips and other info:

www.pbs.org/speak/seatosea/powerprose/hurston

The idea that there are proscribed ways for people of varied races to speak still exists these days. In her podcast “Sounding Black,” produced for Studio 360, performer Sarah Jones discusses “blaccents” and their impact on communication and the 2008 presidential election.

www.studio360.org/episodes/2009/10/16/segments/142665

Feb 12, 2021 - AP Literature, Honors IV    Comments Off on Mr. Bean Does Shakespeare

Mr. Bean Does Shakespeare

In this sketch, comedian Rowan Atkinson (better known as Mr. Bean or the voice of Zazu, the majordomo bird in The Lion King) explains Elizabethan theater, including the roles of king and messenger and the importance of having a poison checker. Enjoy!

Feb 11, 2021 - AP Literature    Comments Off on Elizabethan Theater

Elizabethan Theater

globeFWDuring the Elizabethan period of English history, theaters gained prominence and a greater role within the culture. Before this time, traveling actors were considered little better than thieves and vagrants. In 1572, acting was recognized as a lawful profession. Theater companies were required to be licensed. By 1574, theaters and companies were brought under the purview of the Master of Revels, who also had to approve all plays for performance.

In order to receive a license, theater companies had to have the patronage of a nobleman. The troupe then took the name of its patron. The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company associated with Shakespeare, changed its name to The King’s Men after its patron, James VI of Scotland, succeeded Elizabeth to the English throne in 1603.

Acting troupes contained between ten and twenty members, divided between shareholding main members who were paid wages and divided some profits and contracted workers who could serve as extras onstage or as skilled workmen backstage. Apprentices to the companies were boys aged 14 and older. These apprentices received training in theater craft and played the parts of children and women. Once they completed their training, they could hire on with a troupe permanently or seek other employment. The playwright, a key and usually shareholding member of a troupe, would craft parts based on the strengths and capabilities of the men in the troupe.

Playwrights were expected to produce several works during a season. They assisted during rehearsals of their plays, making them directors of a sort. Troupes had to receive permission from the Master of Revels before a play could be offered in performance. Actors received copies of their lines with cues supplied. A summary of entrances, exits, and a general plot were posted backstage for reference during the performance, while a master kept a copy of the entire play, with additional notations about props, scene changes, and cues for musicians and stagehands.

Two types of playhouses existed during the Elizabethan era. Some were small, interior stages, usually in private buildings, which could be lit by candles for evening performances. Although anyone potentially could buy a ticket to a play at one of these theaters, only privileged groups usually did, leading these theaters to be labeled “private.” The more popular and well-known theaters were the large public theaters built on the outskirts of London (and therefore not subject to the city’s stringent laws). At least nine of these playhouses were active during the Elizabethan era, including The Theater, The Curtain, Newington Butts, The Rose (made famous by the film Shakespeare in Love), The Swan, The Fortune, The Red Bull, The Hope, and of course, The Globe, the playhouse most closely associated with Shakespeare. These theaters presented a series of plays in repertory during a season, with less-popular plays being canceled and newer ones being commissioned to take their places. Performances were held often, the exceptions being special holidays, certain days within the church calendar, and at times of plague or widespread sickness. Theaters indicated a performance was being held that day by flying a flag from the roof.

Public playhouses came in varying shapes (round, oval, octagonal, square), and all were open-air, necessitating afternoon performances.  The central space, called the pit or yard, was used for general admission. Playgoers could usually get in for a penny to stand on the ground; these “groundlings” were largely uneducated, so playwrights would tailor portions of the play–usually bawdy jokes and physical slapstick–to suit them. Patrons could pay additional money to be seated in one of the galleries within the walls of the theater. Noble patrons were often granted seats in private boxes, some overlooking the stage itself. Playwrights catered to these patrons as well by inserting songs, poetry, and political and noble intrigue within the plot.

205px-The_Swan_croppedThe stage itself was a raised platform four to six feet above ground level, extending into the pit area. To its rear was a multilevel facade with doors that served for entrances and exits with a balcony above. The balcony space could be used to represent a balcony (Romeo and Juliet), castle battlements (Macbeth), or other high places. To the rear was the discovery space, also called the “inner below” for what scholars assume was its location (under the balcony). This space was used to reveal or conceal objects and characters, like Polonius hiding behind the arras in Hamlet or Puck spying on the lovers in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Because the stage lacked curtains, action was very nearly continuous. Scene and act breaks became more formalized in later years as theater spaces changed.

Shakespeare’s Globe was first built in 1599, with a reconstruction in 1614 after a fire set during a performance burned the original playhouse to the ground in a matter of hours. The rebuilt theater was closed, as all of the theaters were, by Oliver Cromwell during the English Protectorate (Puritan rule) in 1642 and torn down to accommodate more housing in 1644. In the 1980s, American actor Sam Wanamaker led an international effort to reconstruct The Globe Theatre near its original site in London, and the fully-operational theater reopened for performances in 1997, more than 350 years after the original theater was torn down. Click here for more information on the new Globe, which is pictured above. For a virtual tour of the theater space, click here.

Dec 1, 2020 - AP Literature    Comments Off on The Pittsburgh Cycle

The Pittsburgh Cycle

The Pittsburgh Cycle, also known as the American Century Cycle, is August Wilson’s magnum opus, a series of ten plays that charts the African American experience throughout the twentieth century. “Put them all together,” Wilson once said, “and you have a history.” All of the plays are set in Pittsburgh’s Hill District except for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which is set in Chicago. 

Wilson didn’t actually plan to write a 10-play cycle. “I didn’t start out with a grand idea. I wrote a play called Jitney set in ’77 and a[n unpublished and unperformed] play called Fullerton Street that I set in ’41,” he told author and teacher Sandra Shannon. “Then I wrote Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, which I set in ’27, and it was after I did that I said, ‘I’ve written three plays in three different decades, so why don’t I just continue doing that?’”  (Fassler)

Characters in the plays often appear at different stages of their lives, with the offspring of previous characters cropping up in later plays. The figure of Aunt Ester features most often in the cycle. Other recurring elements include the use of music and the presence of an apparently mentally-impaired character; examples include Gabriel in Fences and Hedley in Seven Guitars.

Gem of the Ocean
Nominee, Tony Award, 2005

Gem of the Ocean is set in 1904 in the Pittsburgh home of Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old former slave and renowned cleanser of souls. A young man from Alabama visits her for help in absolving the guilt and shame he carries from a crime he’s committed, and she takes him on a journey of self-discovery to the City of Bones.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Tony Award, 1988

Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone tells the story of owners Seth and Bertha Holly and the makeshift family of migrants who pass through during the Great Migration of the 1910s.

Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at Yale Repertory Theatre. William B. Carter, 1986. Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Tony Award, 1985

Set in 1927. Legendary blues singer Ma Rainey and her band players convene in a Chicago studio to record a new album. As their conversation unfolds, their bantering, storytelling and arguing raise questions of race, art and the historic exploitation of black recording artists by white producers. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is being released by Netflix in December, starring Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman, in his last performance, as the young jazz musician Levee.

The Piano Lesson
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1990
Nominee, Tony Award, 1990

The Piano Lesson is set in 1936 Pittsburgh during the aftermath of the Great Depression. The play deals with themes of family legacy. Brother and sister Boy Willie and Berniece Charles clash over whether or not they should sell an ancient piano that was exchanged for their great-grandfather’s wife and son in the days of slavery. The Piano Lesson was made into a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie in 1995, the first of Wilson’s plays to be filmed for a large audience.

Seven Guitars
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1995
Nominee, Tony Award, 1996

A blues singer just released from prison is asked to sign a record deal after a song he recorded months before becomes an unexpected hit in 1948. He is ready to right the past year’s wrongs and return to Chicago with a new understanding of what’s important in his life. Unfortunately his means of righting wrongs are inherently flawed.

Jean Hyppolite as Floyd “Schoolboy” Barton is confronted by Stephon Duncan’s Louise in M Ensemble’s “Seven Guitars.”
A 2018 production of Seven Guitars by Miami’s M Ensemble Theatre

Fences
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1987
Winner, Tony Award, 1987

Set in 1950s Pittsburgh, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson, a restless trash-collector and former baseball athlete. Troy has gone through life in an America where to be proud and black is to face pressures that could crush a man, body and soul. But the 1950s are yielding to the new spirit of liberation in the 1960s, a spirit that is changing the world Troy has learned to deal with the only way he can, a spirit that is making him a stranger, angry and afraid, in a world he never knew and to a wife and son he understands less and less.

Mary Alice, James Earl Jones and Courtney Vance in Fences at Yale Repertory Theatre. William B. Carter, 1985. Courtesy of Yale Repertory Theatre

Two Trains Running
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 1992
Nominee, Tony Award, 1992

Two Trains Running is set in 1969. It tells the story of a local diner owner who fights to stay open as a municipal project encroaches on his establishment. His regulars must deal with racial inequality and the turbulent, changing times of the Civil Rights movement.

Production of Two Trains Running at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

Jitney
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle

Set in 1977 in a worn-down gypsy cab station, Jitney tells the story of men hustling to make a living driving jitneys — unofficial and unlicensed taxi cabs — because official cabs will not accept jobs in the Hill District, and what the company and its drivers must consider when the building housing the station is slated for destruction. Jitney is the only one of Wilson’s plays not to have been produced on Broadway during Wilson’s life, although it had been performed off-Broadway and overseas. It finally made its Broadway debut in 2017.


Jitney at True Colors Theatre, Atlanta 2010

King Hedley II
Nominee, Pulitzer Prize for Drama, 2000

Nominee, Tony Award, 2001

One of Wilson’s darkest plays, King Hedley II tells the story of an ex-convict trying to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators so that he can save enough money to buy a video store during the trickle-down economic era of the 1980s and a decaying Hill District. Many of the characters have connections to the characters in Wilson’s 1940s-era play Seven Guitars, showing “how the shadows of the past can reach into the present.” (Samuel French playscript Overview)

Radio Golf
Best Play, New York Drama Critics Circle

Radio Golf is set in 1997 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Aunt Ester returns in this story of a charming, powerful African-American politician who is running for the highest office of his career with the support of his savvy wife. As he steps into political prominence, his plans to redevelop the Hill District collide with his past.

Sources
https://augustwilsonblog.wordpress.com/tag/the-greene-space
http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php
https://www.thegreenespace.org/watch/11-things-you-should-know-about-august-wilson
https://ronfassler.medium.com/the-magic-of-august-wilson-d6da37dbcfec

 

Nov 30, 2020 - AP Literature    Comments Off on August Wilson Introduction

August Wilson Introduction

Perhaps the most successful African-American playwright in American history, August Wilson was born Frederick August Kittel on April 27, 1945 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His parents were Daisy Wilson, who cared for August and his four siblings alongside her work as a cleaning woman, and Frederick Kittel, a German immigrant and baker.

Young August Kittel went to parochial school near his Hill District home on Bedford Avenue until his parents’ divorce. He, his mother, and his siblings moved from their historically black community to the Oakland neighborhood, which was primarily white. The constant bigotry of classmates led him to change high schools three times by the time he was fifteen, when he withdrew from formal school and began educating himself independently at Pittsburgh’s famed Carnegie Library. In 1962, at age 17, he enlisted in the Army but left after a year of service. After his father’s death in 1965, he took the name August Wilson to honor his mother.

Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Library c. 1935

The 60s launched Wilson’s writing career. Although he originally planned to work as a poet, by the late 1960s he had formed, with a group of friends, the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop. In 1968, he met collaborator Rob Penny through the CAPTW, and they co-founded the Black Horizon Theater in the Hill District, a community-based Black Nationalist theater company. Penny worked as the playwright while Wilson directed the productions, which were designed to raise awareness of the African-American experience.

Wilson relocated to Minneapolis in 1978, where he began serious work on his own plays. His first play, Jitney, was completed in 1979. Over the next few years, Wilson submitted both Jitney and his second play Fullerton Street to the renowned Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwright’s Conference without success, but his third attempt, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was selected in 1982. Through the Conference, Wilson was introduced to the artistic director of the Yale Repertory Theatre, Lloyd Richards, who nurtured trailblazing playwright Lorraine Hansberry, the author of A Raisin in the Sun and the first African-American to have a play produced on Broadway. Richards helped shepherd the development of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and ended up directing Wilson’s first six plays on Broadway, including the 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning Fences. Wilson earned his second Pulitzer in 1990 for The Piano Lesson.

From a piano hand-carved by slaves to prison work songs to blues anthems, music sings throughout Wilson’s plays. He said hearing Bessie Smith’s “Nobody in Town Can Bake a Sweet Jelly Roll Like Mine” the first time “was a defining moment: it made him recognize the poetry in the everyday language of black America and gave him the inspiration and freedom to use that language in his own writing.” (Greene Space) He often explained that he got his education from the four B’s: the blues, the art of painter Romare Bearden and the writing of poet Amiri Baraka and writer/poet Jorge Luis Borges. “The foundation of my playwriting is poetry,” he once said, and that influence is obvious from the cadence and power of his dialogue. (Greene Space)

After a decade in Minneapolis, Wilson moved to Seattle in 1990 and continued work on the ten-play series that would become known as The American Century Cycle or The Pittsburgh Cycle. The plays explore the challenges faced by African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century, “beginning with the complex narrative of freedom at the turn of the century and ending with the assimilation and sense of alienation of the 1990s.” (The Greene Space)

A passionate advocate for black representation in the theatre, Wilson explained, “I think my plays offer [white Americans] a different way to look at Black Americans. For instance, in Fences they see a garbageman, a person they don’t really look at, although they see a garbageman every day. By looking at Troy’s life, white people find out that the content of this Black garbageman’s life is affected by the same things—love, honor, beauty, betrayal, duty. Recognizing that these things are as much part of his life as theirs can affect how they think about and deal with Black people in their lives.” He stated that he didn’t write for black or white audiences, but about the black experience, because “…contained within that experience, because it is a human experience,” he said, “are all universalities.” This 1998 interview with Charlie Rose preceded a five-day symposium at Dartmouth University and reveals much of Wilson’s thinking on the topics of race and culture.

The day after Wilson’s 60th birthday in April of 2005, the last play of the Pittsburgh Cycle, Radio Golf, made its debut at the Yale Repertory Theatre. In August of that same year, Wilson revealed his diagnosis of terminal liver cancer. Wilson died October 2, 2005. Peter Marks of The Washington Post wrote that Wilson did not “simply leave a hole in the American theater, but a huge yawning wound, one that will have to wait to be stitched closed by some expansive, poetic dramatist yet to emerge.” (Greene Space)

Actor-director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who performed in many Wilson plays and won a 1996 Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play for his performance as Canewell in Seven Guitars, said, “August Wilson left such a tremendous body of work for us. He wanted to make sure that our culture did not become history without some life and love and breath in it. He wanted a heartbeat in the stories that we told.” (Fassler)

On October 16, two weeks after Wilson’s death, the owners of the Virginia Theatre on East 52nd street renamed the theatre after him. The August Wilson Theatre is the first Broadway venue to be named for an African-American. In 2006, the African American Cultural Center of Greater Pittsburgh officially became the August Wilson Center for African American Culture.

Sources
https://augustwilsonblog.wordpress.com/tag/the-greene-space/

https://www.biography.com/writer/august-wilson
http://www.august-wilson-theatre.com/plays.php
https://www.centertheatregroup.org/programs/students/learn-about-theatre/august-wilson-monologue-competition/august-wilson-biography
https://www.thegreenespace.org/watch/11-things-you-should-know-about-august-wilson/
https://ronfassler.medium.com/the-magic-of-august-wilson-d6da37dbcfec

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