Susan-Lori Parks, Topdog/Underdog

Parks, Susan-Lori. Topdog/Underdog. Theater Communications Group, Inc, 2001.

Summary of Work
Lincoln has just come home from work to see his brother, Booth, practicing a poor 3-card monte. Lincoln works at an arcade, dressed up as Abraham Lincoln, whiteface and all. He takes a lower pay rate because he is a black man, but is happy for the work. His wife, Cookie, left him, and he is living with his brother now. The home has no electricity or plumbing, but it is a place to sleep. He is the sole support to pay the rent. His brother steals things to live on.

Booth tells Lincoln that he wants to go by a new name, and Lincoln asks what, but at first Booth won’t tell him. Lincoln says whatever it is to make sure he can pronounce it or he won’t ever be able to get a job. This prompts Booth to tell him that his new name is 3-card, because he’s going to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town. Lincoln tells him that he had better practice more and start small and learn one thing at a time. Booth responds that he would learn faster if Lincoln would teach him.

Lincoln used to be the best 3-card monte dealer in town, bringing in thousands each month, but one day when he ignored a feeling that he was going to get shot and then his friend got shot during a hustle, he determined to never touch the cards again, believing that if he did it would lead to his death. He may have lost everything, but now he has the chance to be a new man. He tries to get Booth to see that there is that same opportunity for him. Booth, however, is intent on getting his woman, Grace, back. He tells Lincoln that he stole a diamond ring and that he’s going to get her to forgive him for his infidelity and marry him. He also tells Lincoln that he needs to move on because the lodging for him was only supposed to be temporary.

The next day, Lincoln comes home upset; the arcade is looking at cutting jobs, and since Lincoln has only worked there for eight months, he knows that he’ll be among the first to be fired. Booth has stolen a set of suits and gives Lincoln one in an attempt to cheer him. He also tells him to practice his act and build it up some so that he can’t be replaced by a wax doll. He needs to practice falling and jolting around a little when he gets shot in the arcade game to liven things up so he’s indispensable. Lincoln asks Booth to help him practice, but Booth says that he’ll help him when he gets home if Lincoln waits up, and that he should get into his costume to practice while he’s away. Lincoln does so, and practices once or twice, but then gets drunk and passes out in the chair he sleeps in.

When Booth gets home from his date, he tells Lincoln that he had sex with Grace and she didn’t make him use a condom. He also says he gave her the ring and she begged him to marry her. Lincoln calls him out on it and says that he knows he didn’t have sex with her because Booth went in the other room to look at dirty magazines. Booth gets angry at him and just says that he has an insatiable sex drive and that it’s too expensive to hire whores. He does try to help Lincoln a little, but then Lincoln accuses him of being a saboteur rather than an aid. Booth again tries to convince him to start running the 3-card monte hustle and to help him learn to run it so they can make more money together. Lincoln again asserts that he’s done with that life. Still, the cards call to him.

Later in the week Booth has stolen a whole apartment’s worth of things in order to impress Grace for a dinner, and he tells Lincoln to get out of the house and that he’ll have to move out because Grace will be moving in when they get married. Lincoln says he’ll get out tomorrow, but that he wants to sit in the house. He’s lost his job. He was let go and replaced by the wax dummy of Lincoln. It is 3 AM and Booth is trying to convince himself that he hasn’t been stood up, but Lincoln finally gets him to realize it. They talk about their childhoods as they look through the photographs they have in an album, and they wonder if their parents had it all planned out to leave them. Both of their parents slept around, and Booth saw his mother’s infidelity and Lincoln saw his father’s, even sleeping with one of his mistresses. They talk about how their mother, when she left, gave Booth five hundred dollars, and when their father left, he gave Lincoln five hundred dollars. Each of them were told not to tell the other that they had that money. Both of them are miserable, and after Booth and Lincoln eat, they remove everything off the makeshift table, revealing the cardboard card playing surface. As Booth goes to bed, Lincoln again picks up the cards.

The next morning, Booth sees Lincoln with the cards, and Lincoln tries to teach him about the game and the process of the hustle. When they go out again, Lincoln goes and starts hustling again, earning five hundred dollars in a day and feeling like himself again for the first time rather than a man in another man’s clothes. He comes in the home to tell Booth, but he doesn’t see him so he sits and counts his money time and time again. But Booth is there and comes out and tells him first that it had been a mistake and that Grace thought their date was the day after, not last night, so it was a misunderstanding. He gets Lincoln to admit what he did, and he tells Lincoln to try it on him again. Lincoln lets him win the first time, and then Booth says that it’s not real because there’s no money bet. So Lincoln puts his money down, but Booth says it’s still not real because he hasn’t matched the money. He goes and gets the money his mother had given him all those years ago. Lincoln is genuinely surprised Booth still has that money. He asks him if he’s sure he wants to play it, and Booth insists. He lets Booth win the first round, but then he loses the second, and Lincoln gets all the money.

Lincoln laughs but consistently insists he is not laughing at Booth. He tells him how the first rule is the rule that Booth never learned: that a competitor is beat the moment they step up to the table in a hustle. Booth, furious that Lincoln is trying to open his money and take it from the knotted nylon, tells Lincoln that he actually killed Grace. Lincoln, surprised and now worried, offers the money back to Booth, but he won’t take it. He keeps talking to Lincoln, telling him that he’s lost everything, and how dare he laugh at him and try to steal his inheritance from him when he squandered his. He pins Lincoln in the chair and puts a gun to his head. Lincoln tries to tell him to calm down and that he can have his money and it’s okay, he didn’t mean it. But Booth shoots him and kills him. He then realizes what he’s done, and he cries, holding Lincoln in his arms, realizing he has now lost everything.

Discussion of Work
The setup for this play is interesting, particularly because of the way the script itself is written: there is very little stage direction, the setting and time is labeled “here” and “now,” and there is direction on how to speak specific lines and how to add pauses in the space of time (the pauses are marked by the characters’ names in bold with no text underneath them). Much of the language is written in dialect form and hyphenated during the 3-card monte speaking sequences. I am unsure why it is written this way, other than to perhaps first ensure that this play is timeless—that it could happen anywhere and to any set of black men—and to second more firmly place the work within a black literary tradition.

The play explores the limited opportunities for black men in the cities, or anywhere, and what they end up resorting to in order to survive. Even the family unit that they very briefly experience first in childhood and then in adulthood falls apart due to the inability for them to meet societal and personal expectations. From stress from broken families to lack of opportunity for a career to poor living conditions, these men may never have a chance. And the ones who try to change their situation are drowned out by the actions of those around them who feel that they cannot change and that the only option in life is criminality to survive. Consequently, they all hoard what is most important to them, whether that is memories of love or if it is money. All of these issues also inevitably lead to violence, which bursts in Booth when he loses what he finds most precious, not just his money, but his memories of his mother that are tied to that money.

The brothers also act as a symbol of America: Abraham Lincoln and John Wilkes Booth and what they stood for. Lincoln stands for hope and a push toward progress for all in America, not just white people. The fact that Lincoln “whites up” to play the role of Abraham Lincoln speaks to Abraham Lincoln representing all men, not just white men. Lincoln inhabits a dual identity. Then, Booth is the frustrated man who feels that his world is falling down around him and that the only way to beat the system is to destroy anyone who gets in his way to having money or opportunity. His killing of his brother, then, is a re-enactment of the shooting, but also a re-enactment that indicates the failed hopes of Abraham Lincoln: while he had good intentions, it was just too naive to believe that white people would ever let black people have an equal footing in America.

August Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone

Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Plume, 1988.

Summary of Work
Set in Pittsburgh during the Great Migration, the play’s central focus is on the characters living and coming and going from the boarding house Seth and Bertha Holly run, a boarding house they inherited from Seth’s father, a Northern free black man. Bynum, a boarder at the house, is performing a sacrificial ritual on a pigeon in the backyard when the play opens, and Seth is upset because he doesn’t approve of the voudon rituals being done at his house. Still, Seth sits and watches Bynum while he waits for Rutherford Selig to drop in. He buys metal from Selig to make pans with, and then when Selig returns, he sells the pans to Selig for him to then sell to other customers. While Seth would love to start a pan selling business, he cannot because he cannot obtain the capital needed to start it unless he offers his home as collateral, a price he is not willing to pay.

When Selig comes by and sells metal to Seth, Bynum comes back in. He hires Selig to find the “shiny man,” because he knows Selig can track and find anyone. But when Selig asks for more details about the man so he can actually go about the task of finding him, Bynum refuses, saying only that he had a mystical experience where he saw a shiny man who led him to his father, and then Bynum’s father taught Bynum a song that gave him the power to bind people together (hence his name). Selig leaves with the information, and those present are doubtful that Selig will be able to find such a person given Bynum’s description.

After Selig leaves, Jeremy Furlow, another boarder, comes back from jail. Seth warns him that he will not allow him to stay in the home if he keeps up his behavior, but Bynum offers Jeremy the idea of entering a guitar contest. Jeremy states that he doesn’t like the idea because of a bad experience, and instead starts talking about perhaps meeting a woman that isn’t desperate and clingy as a way to solve his problems. Just then, another boarder, Mattie Campbell, comes looking for Bynum to have him bring her beau back, but he tells her that she needs to learn to let him go. Seeing the situation, Jeremy starts flirting, and they decide to go out on a date.

When those two exit, Harold Loomis enters with his daughter, Zonia. They are looking for his wife, Martha, and they need a place to stay for a time. When Bynum hears about the situation, he tells Harold he should talk to Selig, because he can find anyone. But Seth is worried about the situation because Harold is agitated; Seth thinks he knows who Harold’s wife is: Martha Pentecost. He doesn’t say anything and decides to mind his own business. Still, Bertha and Seth start talking about the situation, and they decide that Martha had in fact come to stay at their boarding house years previously when she was looking for Bynum, and that she had moved out to go with the church to another town about a year previous. When Selig comes to do his regular business with Seth, Loomis pays Selig to find Martha.

Meanwhile, things are going well between Jeremy and Mattie, and he asks her to move in with him. But then Molly Cunningham comes to the boarding house in search of a room to rent, and Jeremy becomes infatuated with her, threatening to destroy his relationship with Mattie.

That evening, the whole household except Harold are conversing and they get patting juba. Jeremy brings down his guitar to accompany the rhythmic clapping, patting, and dancing. Harold comes in furious, shouting at them to stop, but becomes paralyzed suddenly, having seen a vision because of the religious power present within the history of the juba dance. Bynum acts as a mediator, helping Harold to reveal the vision of bones rising out of the water and walking on top of the water, then sinking to create a wave that washes up the bones onto the shore. The bones become African Americans. Harold is one of the bodies that has been washed to shore and given flesh once again, and Bynum tries to get him to stand and walk. Harold cannot, and he collapses.

Seth, scared by the behavior, tells Harold that he must leave, but he tells Seth that they are paid up through Saturday, and they will not be leaving until then. Molly is also downstairs complaining to Mattie about having to work for other people. She doesn’t understand why Mattie is working if she’s with Jeremy and he can support her. As Mattie leaves, Jeremy enters, having lost his job for refusing to pay a white man what he asked. He is upset over the exploitation of not just himself but of all black workers, but Seth tells him that he needs to get over it and go back to work because he needs the money. Jeremy, not listening, grabs his guitar and says he will go on the road to find a better situation. He starts flirting with Molly after that, and he convinces her to leave town with him for a better life.

In the afternoon, Bynum is singing a song about Joe Turner, the white man who illegally enslaved African-American men to exploit their labor. Harold hears the song and tells him to stop singing it because he doesn’t like it, and Bynum uses it as an opportunity to learn about Harold’s past. He tells Bynum that Joe Turner is the man who kidnapped him and forced him to work for seven years, stealing him away from his newborn child and his wife. During those years, Martha left his daughter with her mother and disappeared, and he has been looking for Martha ever since he got out of bondage.

Mattie, meanwhile, is upset over Jeremy’s leaving, and Bertha tells her she should just forget about him. Harold is attracted to Mattie but is unable to talk to her about it. Zonia is playing in the backyard, and she meets a neighbor boy named Reuben. They talk about how Zonia and Harold are looking for Martha, her mother, and as they are playing, Reuben talks about his friend Eugene, and how he always kept these pigeons, the ones that Bynum keeps using for ritual sacrifice. He has come to free the pigeons, because it is what Eugene had asked him to do, and he feels he must do it to honor Eugene.

On Saturday morning, Zonia and Harold are scheduled to leave, but Martha arrives just in time to catch them. She and Harold talk about their lives and her decision to leave because of how difficult her life had become after he had been imprisoned. Harold tells Zonia that she must now go with her mother, and Martha thanks Bynum for his help in the process. Then Loomis gets angry at Bynum, blaming him for his life and his predicament, and he slashes his own chest in frustration as he mocks Martha’s religion. Then he walks out. Mattie realizes that she is bound to Harold, and she runs after him, and Bynum finally recognizes Loomis as his “shiny man.”

Discussion of Work
This work tells stories about several important historical narratives in African American history: re-enslavement and oppression, migration, and religion, music, and dance and their interconnectedness. The play’s name itself centers the play around the re-enslavement and forced labor of African American men. Readers and viewers alike are forced to see and contemplate the oppression and disadvantage that black people of that time had: if they aren’t re-enslaved like Loomis was, they are disallowed to build businesses and progress, exploited and unfairly compensated for their labor, and forced into less than favorable economic situations. The unfavorable and oppressive situation in the South leads to a migration North in hopes of better treatment, only to find similar hardships once there.

Yet despite all this hardship, the play demonstrates how important it is to understand that for all the economic poverty and oppression, there is a rich cultural life that is lost when only looking at the economics and social politics of the time. Martha represents the Christian influence and importance of the Church in black life, and Bynum represents the still powerful and relevant religious beliefs evolved in the African Diaspora. The two are not opposites of each other, as white Christianity would have us believe, but intertwined and both important in the religious understanding of the characters. Bynum serves as a practitioner who can not only bind people’s souls together (like Martha’s and Zonia’s), but can walk people through difficult portions of their lives and bring them understanding through his suggestions. Dances like the juba, which were originally sacred in origin and then moved into the secular sphere, still have both functions in the African American cultural experience and understanding. The dance then becomes the central turning point scene for the entire play.

Response for Future Use in Dissertation
August Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone lives and dies by the songs within the souls of its characters. The song in Bertha’s soul is a home full of laughter and love; the song in Seth’s soul is order, propriety, and creation; and the song in Bynum’s soul is the religious power of binding people together, and bears the great responsibility of helping people find their way in this life and the next. Each of these individuals play an important part in helping Herald Loomis, a man who has lost his song, and therefore his purpose in life, come to understand that his life will only have meaning if he finds his song, his desires and drives, within himself again.

Herald Loomis is a wanderer, a man whose life experience and values are difficult to grasp at any given moment in the play. While from the very beginning he states that he and his daughter are looking for his wife, readers feel uneasy about the reasoning behind this search. Loomis does not move, does not seem to be searching for his wife, but instead waiting for her to arrive; he does not engage in conversation with the others at the boardinghouse, eats his meals alone, and rarely speaks to his daughter except for to tell her to behave. With no growth or movement in his body, and no music in his soul, he seems a dead man in comparison to everyone around him[1].

The Juba scene, then, can be said to be the turning point of the entire play for Loomis, because it is at that point that he realizes he is a dead man, and must do something about it. Juba, as music and dance, is closely related to the Ring Shout, and utilizes religious themes while participants shout, chant, and move in a circle as they dance different movements. Juba needs no instruments: the rhythm of Juba is often patted on the body, as well as on readily available objects. The music for Juba quite literally comes from the movement of the body, offering a direct connection to religious figures through the medium of drum-like music. While the context of Juba does not always have to be religious, in this scene, it is apparent that Wilson intends it to be a religious ritual of spiritual awakening.

Our main cue to know this will be a spiritual awakening is that Bynum, the conjure man of the group, calls the dance, and the others participate in the creation of the music. Wilson writes stage directions for the actors to “include some mention of the Holy Ghost,” and that “It should be as African as possible, with the performers working themselves up into a near frenzy” (52). We are meant to recognize the religious connotations as these characters lose control of themselves and give themselves up to a higher power, which Bynum calls upon through his chanting as he presides over the group. Yet the spirit coming to visit the participants is not a Loa or an Orisha, as might be expected, but a soul Bynum needs to help free from the bondage of past slavery.

Loomis loses his mind as he comes into the room, screaming that the Holy Ghost will burn them up, and then dancing around the room with his pants down as he speaks unintelligibly, as if taken over by spirits. As he gains enough control of himself to try to leave the room, he has a vision of himself, all bones rising up out of the water, sinking down, and then being pushed by a wave onto the beach, the bones now covered in flesh, waiting to be brought to life and stand, yet unable to (53-5). Bynum guides him through this journey, pushing him to realize that he is accountable for his lack of movement, and he must find a way to put himself together and move forward with all the other black figures he sees moving along the beach. “I got to stand up. Get up on the road,” he says, but when he tries, he collapses, his legs unable to bear his weight (56). The change has begun for Harold Loomis and he knows it needs to happen, although he has been resistant to it. His soul has been dead for too long, and he cannot stand up, because he is not strong enough, and he must start to slowly rediscover his soul’s song in order to move again.

Bynum from then on meddles with Loomis through music, singing the song “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” to pull out the story he knows is the story of so many men: taken prisoner for no reason, forced to work in a chain gang, and set loose seven years later, having lost song, spirit, and all material goods in life. Still, Loomis refuses to recognize his value, his calling, and his song. It is not until the very end when not Bynum, but Loomis’ wife Martha, coaxes Loomis’ song out of him as she quotes scripture to him and he, in musical form, responds to each line of scripture she quotes.

Wilson states in the stage directions that what Loomis has learned is his song, “the song of self-sufficiency” (93), and having found that song, he finds himself freed of all his past as he accepts responsibility for himself. Once he came to understand how his song was meant to respond to the call of life’s experiences, he learned how to get up, walk, and respond to life’s challenges, joys, and beautiful moments. The call and response of blues music allows Loomis to reconnect with life in a way that no other medium had allowed him to after the trauma of enslavement. Blues music, then, is the key to processing, coming to terms with, and moving forward from the injustices of life as a black man in the racist South, and a prejudiced America.

[1] Delroy Lindo, at the 10th Anniversary August Wilson Conference in Washington, DC, spoke of the genuine struggle it was for him as an actor to feel he could find the motivations for Herald Loomis. He said that while the director felt that Lindo was a good fit to play the role, Wilson, never satisfied and always looking for the best actors, kept auditioning for the role of Loomis until just before opening, hoping that there might be someone who could capture his character better. But he did not tell Lindo he was doing so; Lindo only found out through the director. Frustrated at the difficulty of the character and angry at Wilson for seemingly not trusting him with the role, he worked harder. Yet he said he never found the motivations in rehearsals. It was not until he got on stage to perform that he felt he had understood and become Herald Loomis. The power to perform in order to find oneself, then, cannot be overstated for this character.

Tony Kushner, Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes.

Theater Communication Group, 2013.

 

Summary of Work
Set in New York City in the 1980s during the Reagan years, this play centers around the judicial system: Roy M. Cohn, a power broker and successful lawyer, is trying to talk a head judicial clerk by the name of Joe Pitt into taking a job in Washington, D.C. Cohn is talking to Pitt and at the same time answering many phone calls, including one from a client from whom he took a half million dollars; she wants her money back. Cohn is using the Lord’s name in vain, and Joe gets very uncomfortable over it and asks Cohn to stop. He asks him why he doesn’t want to hear it, and Joe says that he’s Mormon and it is against his beliefs and values to use such language. At the same time, Joe tells him that he’ll have to talk to his wife about it. Cohn urges him to take the position, saying that it won’t stay available for long.

Meanwhile, Joe’s wife, Harper, is coming out of a valium high. She has dreams and hallucinations on the drugs, and she doesn’t leave the apartment. Joe gets home to talk to her, and she says she doesn’t want to go to Washington, D.C., stating all sorts of superficial reasons for not wanting to go, and at the same time starting arguments over his lack of sexual interest in her. He leaves her be and goes out for a walk. She gets back to her hallucination of selecting a vacation to go on with Mr. Lies.

In another part of town, Louis Ironson and Prior Walter sit together after the funeral of Louis’ grandmother Sarah. They argue over the loss of a cat, and then Prior tells Louis that he has been diagnosed with AIDs and he’s having to be seen for it. Louis cannot handle the news and he seriously considers leaving Prior. Even though he loves Prior and has told him that he can handle everything with Prior, he finds himself incapable.

The next day, Joe runs into Louis crying in the bathroom. He asks him how he’s doing and if he wants to talk, and Louis tells him thank you for noticing and insinuates that Joe is gay. Joe is very offended at first, but then they get talking about how Joe voted for Reagan and is Republican, and Louis, very much disliking both Reagan and Republicans, starts teasing him. Meanwhile, Harper is high on valium again, and she hallucinates Prior in her dream; she and he talk about unhappiness, and he suggests to her that her husband is gay. When Joe gets home from the office, she confronts him about it, causing a huge fight.

Roy Cohn is next seen in the doctor’s office, and he has just been diagnosed with AIDS. He insists to his doctor that he has slept with men, but is not gay, and no one can know that he has AIDS because he doesn’t have AIDS and his doctor should call it liver cancer. The doctor tells him that he can call himself and the disease whatever he wants, but it won’t change the fact that he does, in fact, have AIDS.

When Prior gets sick enough to be defecating blood on the floor in the bathroom, Louis calls an ambulance and gets him to the hospital even though Prior is insistent that he can’t go because they’ll never let him out of the hospital again. After he starts to get better but then has another episode, Louis tells the nurse to tell Prior he is sorry, but he just can’t stay. He goes to Central Park and sleeps with a man there to deal with the pain. Prior is very upset but expected it to happen, and he confides in his friend and nurse, Belize, who is a black gay man who regularly performs in drag. She makes sure he stays on the medication he wants, because it makes him hard, and he wants to experience orgasm. When he experiences this, he starts seeing past relatives and then hearing voices, who tell him that he will soon be visited by an angel.

Joe talks to Cohn and tells him that he can’t take the job, and Cohn gets upset because he wants him in Washington so that he can have someone on the inside to influence decisions and potentially court case decisions. Joe is mortified at the statement, but Cohn says that he’s been doing it in the past, and it was the reason that the last person he had executed was executed. Another politician comes in to talk, and Cohn tries to explain to Joe that power is to have people across the political spectrum at your beck and call, just like he has. He tries to tell Joe that he is throwing away his chance at greatness and he should just go to Washington and forget about what his wife wants. Joe refuses and leaves. The politician then tells Cohn that he is under investigation for his misconduct with the woman he took half a million dollars from. Cohn says that it won’t matter, that they can’t get him.

Harper and Joe fight again over Washington. She wants him to leave and she wants to leave him. They both get upset, and Joe leaves. On Sunday, he goes to the office and finds Louis there. They talk about what’s going on with Louis and then, moving past the sexual tension, they both leave. Joe goes and gets drunk and calls his mother, Hannah, in Salt Lake City to say that he and Harper aren’t fine and that he is gay. Hannah refuses to believe him, and she states that he needs to get ahold of himself. Hannah proceeds to sell her home in Utah and move to New York City to be with her son and daughter-in-law. Joe has some sort of ulcer or injury, and he has to go to the hospital.

Louis goes back to Prior to tell him that he is moving out, which infuriates Prior. He goes to talk to Belize about it and says some pretty racist things about the state of relations between black people and Jewish people in America, and it infuriates him so that Belize leaves him to his thoughts and goes back to work at the hospital to work. Prior has been sent back home because he is doing well enough, and while he is trying to sleep at home, he sees an angel come down and destroy the ceiling and speak to him and force him to go get a book of prophecy out of his kitchen floor.

Louis and Joe meet again, and after some conversation, Joe and Louis go home together, and Harper has disappeared into the city in a valium high. She has left the apartment and thinks she is in Antartica with Mr. Lies. She spends days outside in the winter cold without proper clothing, and she cuts down a tree and gets arrested for it. Hannah has just gotten into town, and she is lost in the Bronx when she should be in Brooklyn. She is upset that she has had to navigate her way around town because Joe was supposed to come get her from the airport. When she finally gets to the Pitt apartment and pays to be let in by the building manager, she receives a phone call from the police department letting her know that they are going to take Harper to the hospital to put in the mental ward, because she thinks she was in Antarctica cutting trees down with her teeth. Hannah insists that they leave her alone and she’ll be over to get her.

Prior keeps seeing angels and they keep having sex with him and telling him things that he will prophesy to the people. He goes to a funeral with Belize for a fellow drag queen, and Prior is upset and grumpy. He talks to Belize and tells him about the visions he’s been having and what is going on. Belize tries to get Prior to think that he doesn’t think he’s crazy, but somewhat fails. Prior has also been overdoing it, and is causing his health to decline even though he had been doing well getting rest in his home. Prior talks specifically about how the angel told him that the prophecy is that he should stop progressing. It scares him.

Roy Cohn ends up in the hospital after having had an episode and seeing the woman, Ethel, he had sentenced to death for being communist. Belize is his nurse, and he sees that Cohn actually has AIDS, not liver cancer. Even though he absolutely hates Cohn, he tells him that he shouldn’t let them give him radiation because it would destroy t-cells he can’t afford to lose. Cohn, both homophobic and racist, tells Belize to do his job and get out. Belize continues to talk to Cohn, telling him that the research study he’s been able to get in on for the AIDS drug is double blind, meaning that he may not be able to actually get treated, and he’ll die anyway because he’ll be given a placebo. When Belize leaves, Cohn makes a phone call to get the drug AZT, which is in experimental stages, to his hospital room. He is given a very large amount, enough to last more than his lifetime.

Prior goes to the Mormon Visitors’ Center, and Hannah is working there as a volunteer. She takes him in to see the visitor center show, and Harper is there, eating junk food even though there is no food or drink allowed in the theater. He sits by her and she says that she’s waiting for the woman in the show to talk, since the mannequin never does even though all the men do. She also says that the man in the show looks like her husband. As they watch together, they both have the vision of Louis and Joe together talking and they are talking about Mormonism in Louis’ apartment. Prior leaves, and Harper realizes that she knew the man sitting next to her because he was in one of her hallucinations.

Prior takes Belize to the courthouse and they both get a look at Joe. Prior can’t believe just how good looking and large he is. Belize realizes that he knows Joe from having seen him in Cohn’s hospital room. Joe confronts them, and they find a way to skirt out of the awkward situation. Louis and Joe are together at the beach, and Louis has just told Joe that he wants to go try and repair his relationship with Prior. Joe rips off his temple garments on the beach and yells that Louis will come back to him eventually, and Louis helps him get some clothing back on, but does leave. Prior then confronts Louis, who has come to apologize, and he tells him that he shouldn’t come back until there are literal cuts and bruises on him.

Not knowing where else to go, Joe goes back to Cohn and confides in him that he is gay. Cohn discusses ideas about father figures and disappointments and then goes into a coughing fit and Joe gets sprayed with blood on his shirt. Belize tells him to get out and to throw away the shirt because it will make him sick. Joe has just come to the realization that Cohn has AIDS, and he is upset over the deception. That evening, Cohn and Belize talk about heaven and hell, and Belize constructs the image of a more nature-like San Francisco as heaven. Cohn laughs and slings insults.

When Louis comes and talks to Belize about what has happened between him and Prior, he goes off on Louis and tells him that Joe is good friends with none other than Roy Cohn and that he stands against everything that they are. Louis at first doesn’t believe it, but then goes and pulls court decisions and files, and he realizes that Joe is the one who has written decisions that have affected LGBT rights, specifically the anti-discrimination laws. He again breaks up with Joe over it, and Joe beats Louis.

Joe goes back home to Hannah and his wife and discusses why Hannah came to New York City, and he suggests that he has everything under control and that she should leave. She doesn’t tell him that she sold her house and can’t go back to Salt Lake City. They realize that Harper has once again escaped the house, and they go out to find her. Joe and Hannah split up, and Joe is the first to find Harper, shoeless and running around. He wraps her in his arms and takes her home. Prior is also out in the rain, and he runs into Hannah and starts talking to her. When he gets so sick he needs help, Hannah goes with him to the hospital.

Prior asks Hannah to stay with him at the hospital, and despite her discomfort over his homosexuality, she promises to stay until he’s asleep. They talk and he tells her that he’s a prophet and has seen angels, and Hannah at first thinks he’s crazy, but then talks to him about how their church believes in continuing revelation so he may have actually seen an angel. When he says what should I do if I don’t want to be forced to do what the angel did, and she tells him that like a prophet of old, he should wrestle with it and not let go. Then, later that night, she sees the angel he spoke of, and watches him wrestle with it and win. Then, he climbs a ladder into heaven. She has an orgasm and then doesn’t remember anything more.

When Prior reaches heaven, which looks just as Belize described, he learns that God has left heaven and the angels don’t know why. They are listening to the radio and hearing about Chernobyl, and he tells them that they only see fear and pain and suffering because they don’t understand life or see the larger picture. He gives them their seeing stones and book back and says that Earth doesn’t want the prophecy. He also says that he will not give up and that he wants life no matter how painful it is. They allow him to go back to Earth.

Roy Cohn learns that he is disbarred for his actions just before he dies, and Ethel is the one to tell it to him. She has wanted to be able to forgive him but cannot, and instead has wanted some sort of revenge, and has been able to get it by watching his pain. Belize is with him when he dies. Belize, knowing that the medicine will be taken back since he is dead, opens up the container that holds it and takes many bottles

Joe and Harper have sex one more time, but then she determines she will be leaving him. She gets dressed and leaves him in the apartment. She goes to San Francisco. Louis returns to Prior once more, beaten up and bloodied, and Prior tells him that while he cannot let him move back in, they may be able to see each other. The play ends a year later with Hannah, Prior, Louis, and Belize are sitting at the Bethesda fountain in the park, and Prior is still alive and functioning with the aid of the drug. When Prior starts talking about the history of the Bethesda fountain, Hannah states that when the fountain becomes a living fountain again, she will take Prior to bathe him in it and heal him.

Discussion of Work
This work nearly seamlessly blends Catholic, Mormon, and Jewish belief systems and thoughts to show the complex relationships that LGBT people experience with those religions and religious concepts. The religious-secular tension of the LGBT experience is embodied in Joe, who ultimately stays still and never moves forward because of his inability to fully come to terms with both his religion and his sexuality. The language of the angels in the work is almost Shakespearean when they talk about the great unraveling of heavenly design.

Prior and Cohn are foils of each other: one wants to make sure he’s remembered as heterosexual and powerful, a lawyer of the most memorable kind, but Prior wants to remain living and experiencing the pain and pleasures of life while admitting his true identity. Hannah shows the most character growth, coming to recognize that perhaps her belief system isn’t as whole as she thought it was.

The play also contains information about a historical moment: the AIDS crisis during the Reagan era. Cohn was also a real person who did illegal things, although his character is not a perfect representation of Cohn but rather a different character and person. It does a good job of exploring how LGBT people felt during that time period and the dangers of not just the physical illness, but the societal dangers of being out in the open about non-heteronormative sexuality.

August Wilson, The Piano Lesson

Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. 1990 Plume, 2013.

Summary of Work
Boy Willie and his friend Lymon go North to visit Boy Willie’s sister Berniece and to sell a truck full of watermelons. They intend to take a family heirloom, a piano, from her so they can sell it to buy land that was previously owned by the family who had enslaved their family. Sutter, the landowner, was said to have died by the hands of ghosts. But Berniece won’t sell the piano, even though she won’t play the piano either. The piano has been in their family for over a hundred years, when the first Boy Willie carved the faces of his son and wife into the piano after the Sutters had sold them to buy it. He also carved their family history from Africa forward into the wood. Decades afterward, the boys of the family—Wining Boy, Doaker, and Boy Charles—decided to steal the piano rather than let it remain with the Sutter family. The family history carved into it represented the family’s soul, and they could not leave it in the hands of their former slavers. They got the piano, but not before Sutter caught up to them and burned Boy Charles and for traveling hobos alive in a train car. Boy Charles and the hobos became ghosts and avenged themselves on white bullies. The piano went to Boy Charles’ wife, Mama Ola, and when she died, she passed it on to both her children.

Berniece is being courted by a preacher named Avery, but she won’t give him the time of day. Lymon gets through her rough nature, however, and it causes him to have doubts about Boy Willie’s plans to steal the piano from her since she won’t willingly give it to him. As Boy Willie and Lymon try to move the piano, they encounter Sutter’s ghost, who has been haunting the space and the piano in particular, and Lymon and Boy Willie are thwarted in their plans. They determine that the only way to be able to do anything at all with the piano and to be able to live in the house, they must perform an exorcism. They call the preacher Avery to come perform the exorcism, and the ghost Sutter appears. Boy Willie starts to attack the ghost, but nothing is working. Everyone is losing. In desperation, Berniece decides to try to exorcise the ghost through playing the piano. She starts playing the piano, and it summons her ancestors who are carved into its wood; they attack Sutter’s ghost and it flees.

Having played the piano, Berniece has a change of heart about it and the history it holds, believing even more strongly that it cannot be sold, but must be allowed to be a living representation of their family history and ancestry. Boy Willie finally accepts that he will not be able to sell the piano, and he leaves the house.

Discussion of Work
In retelling and centering a marginalized black history, August Wilson seeks to show the importance of family heritage and family history as a powerful form of resistance to white oppression. The piano itself is the living embodiment of that history, housing the spirits and images of the family genealogical line from Africa forward to when Boy Willie carved the piano. Since Voudon so strongly relies on knowing one’s ancestors in order to retain balance and peace between the worlds of the living and the dead, the piano, when not played, becomes a forgotten artifact, and therefore a forgotten family. The imbalance leads to the struggles that Berniece and her brother, Boy Willie, have in their lives.

The effects of slavery are very apparent generations down the family line. Many men, promised 40 acres and a mule to be able to work their land with, never had that dream realized when they were emancipated. Boy Willie’s desire to sell the piano for that land then becomes rooted in the historical significance and economic power of black people holding land as reparations for centuries of enslavement. Yet the sale is not just of a piano, but a selling of family history and legacy, something that even not fully understood or appreciated, Berniece cannot let him do. The conflict is then set up as more than just the sale of a piano, but the conflict of remembering family heritage and yet still finding ways to move forward and succeed. This conflict is embodied in Sutter’s ghost, who haunts the space. Sutter, the ghost of white supremacy, oppression, and ownership, cannot be ousted until the family heritage is claimed, and a selling of the piano is simply a strengthening of Sutter’s ghost, because it allows him ownership over the family once again by owning the family spirits and genealogy. As long as the piano stays in the hands of the black family, no one owns them; they are free from ownership in death.

The imbalance is corrected upon the physical use of the piano, a release of all the cultural and family heritage and knowledge upon the white oppressor. The music coming from Berniece’s piano playing, much like the blues, carries with it all of the knowledge of survival and living that are necessary to avoid a second enslavement. Berniece accepts her role as matriarch of the family at the point she starts playing the piano; she becomes the family griot that holds the authority of the family line. Boy Willie recognizes this change in her, and while he still dreams of economic success through land ownership, he comes to recognize how important Berniece’s role of preservation is to their family line.

Lorraine Hansberry, A Raisin in the Sun

Hansberry, Lorraine. A Raisin in the Sun. Vintage Books, 1995.

Summary of Work
Ruth and Walter Younger, their son Travis, and Walter’s sister Beneatha and mother Lena all live together in a small, two bedroom apartment on the South side of Chicago. Walter’s father has died, and after months of waiting, they are expecting an insurance check for ten thousand dollars. It is all Walter can think about, and over breakfast, Ruth tries to keep order as Beneatha and Walter fight about what will be done with the money. Ruth is acting strange, and she is particularly hard on Travis when he asks for money he needs for school, and harder on him when he asks to be able to deliver groceries after school in order to make the money himself. Walter gives his son $1 and sends him on his way, much to Ruth’s dismay. Walter wants to go into business with his friends to buy a liquor store, and he is upset that Ruth is always so worried about money but won’t let him do anything to change their situation. He is insistent that his mother will give him the insurance money to go into business. He leaves for work, Beneatha leaves for school (she is in college and wanting to become a doctor), and when Lena comes out, she starts fussing over Ruth and then talking about how she doesn’t know her children anymore. Ruth collapses.

She goes to the doctor and learns she is pregnant, and she is devastated. However, the next day, the check comes, and everyone starts out happy. Lena tells Ruth that she’s thinking about putting some money away for Beneatha so that she can go to school, and then trying to decide what to do with the rest. She thinks she might buy a house. Walter is angry that she won’t invest in the liquor store scheme, and he goes to leave, but Lena makes him stay, trying to get him to listen to Ruth’s important announcement. He just yells at Ruth, and she goes in her room. Lena tells him that Ruth is pregnant, and Ruth comes out to talk about it. She talks to her family about her trip to the doctor, and lets slip the wrong pronoun, indicating to Lena that Ruth actually went to see the woman who would help her get an abortion. Ruth confirms this, stating that with how Walter is acting and the financial state they are in, it doesn’t make sense to bring a child into the world. Lena, feeling like her world is falling apart, leaves the house with the check that has come in the mail.

When Lena returns, she’s bought a house, but in the white area of town rather than the black area. The family doesn’t know what to say, worried about what will happen. Beneatha, meanwhile, has been going out with different men. One, George, is the son of one of the richest men in town, and the family would like to see her keep dating him and potentially marry him. But Beneatha likes Asagai, the Nigerian who is in Chicago going to college to learn about democracy so he can bring revolution to his country. He brings her a beautiful Nigerian set of clothing, and she puts it on, and he comments that her hair isn’t natural, and that’s sad. She goes to the hairstylist and has it cut off. When she returns, all dressed up, she starts dancing how she imagines a Nigerian woman would dance, and Walter walks in and sees her. He is drunk, and starts wildly dancing as he imagines an African warrior would dance. It is this scene that Ruth and George walk in on, and George is flabbergasted at her dress and her hair. She comments that it’s natural, but she goes to change clothing for their date. Walter, still drunk, sits down, sullen. He makes crude comments about George and about how he dresses, and then they leave. Walter continues his bad attitude to Ruth, but they get talking, and he starts making up with her.

Lena, meanwhile, sees how sullen her son is, and she decides to give him the remainder of the money, the 6500 dollars, to invest as he sees fit, as long as he puts 3500 of it in a bank account for Beneatha. He is ecstatic, and becomes a completely different man. He even takes his wife to the movies and dances the Slow Drag with her. The kids get their mother a set of gardening tools to work with, since she now has the space to garden that she always wanted. They all get ready to leave by helping pack, when a man comes to the apartment to tell them that the white community doesn’t want them there, and they are willing to pay them more than they paid for the house to sell. The children are upset, and they tell him no and to leave. A neighbor also comes over with a newspaper to scare them by showing them the headlines of black people’s homes getting burned when they move into white neighborhoods. Not long after that, Walter’s friend comes around and tells him that their other friend and business partner has run off with all the money. They are broke. Walter is dumbstruck, especially because he didn’t follow his mother’s direction and invested the whole of the 6500 dollars rather than set aside the 3500 for Beneatha.

Everyone is upset and angry at Walter for his poor judgment. They start talking about needing to stay in the apartment now, because they cannot afford the mortgage without that extra money. Walter calls the man from the Homeowners Association in order to accept the offer for the house. Lena is sad and tells him that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and that his father wouldn’t recognize the man he’d become, because he wasn’t a man. And Walter won’t listen. Instead, he puts on a parody of what he’ll say when the man comes, choking himself up with the words as he says it. When the man actually comes, he realizes that he cannot do it, and he regains his dignity and tells the man that they are going to keep the home and that the white community will have to deal with them moving in.

Lena and Ruth talk about how they just watched Walter learn what being a real man is as they get ready to take the moving boxes down and direct the movers on how to carry the furniture. Beneatha talks about how Asagai has proposed to her and that she is thinking of accepting so she can move to Nigeria with him and be a queen, and both Lena and Walter talk to her about how she is too young to be getting married and that she should stay here and marry someone rich, like George. She is upset and still talking about it when she leaves the apartment. Lena is the last one to leave the apartment, happy and yet nostalgic about her husband. She grabs her plant, which has struggled to survive in the apartment environment, and turns the light off on the space.

Discussion of Work
This play explores themes of poverty and discrimination in Chicago: the abysmal conditions of the kitchenettes that black families are forced to live in and pay ridiculous rent for; few economic opportunities; discrimination from the economically wealthy black elite; racism from even poor whites in similar economic situations; and pipe dreams such as the “Back to Africa” movement and better economic situation through education.

The play also explores the meaning of gender roles and expectations within black families. Ruth is as much a breadwinner as she is a housekeeper, and her decisions are what goes for the whole family, often making her husband feel like less of a man when it comes to financial decisions and decisions regarding his own life choices. And yet what Walter comes to understand about his role is that it is owning up to mistakes, standing up and supporting his family both emotionally (when they learn they will be having another child) and physically (when he must stand up to the white HOA representative and when he tries, and fails, to stand up for and do what’s right by his mother’s trust and insurance money). Children’s roles are a main focus of the play, both with Ruth and Walter’s little boy and with Walter and Beneatha as Lena’s children. There is a level of obedience and respect that is expected, and when not shown, it in effect collapses the family unit because the people with the life experience and wisdom are not heeded (Beneatha disregarding marriage advice and basic life advice; Walter disregarding financial advice and friend advice; Ruth disregarding childbearing advice).

For the purposes of my dissertation, dancing features in this play in two separate instances: when Beneatha puts on the Nigerian robes, and when Walter and Ruth slow drag in the living room. The first instance highlights a particularly problematic obsession with Africa and the need to hearken back to African roots. African Americans, while certainly their culture does have African roots, is not African. And the imitation African movements come off as not only false, but disrespectful and comical. Just as Beneatha does not fit within the Nigerian culture that Asagai would have her assimilate to, African Americans cannot magically regain “Africanness” by dressing in native garb and attempting African dance ritual. The second instance highlights what happens when Walter becomes happy about his life prospects again and takes Ruth to the movies and then comes back home with her, still elated about his financial gain. A blues song is playing in the background, and they dance in the living room, much to Beneatha’s chagrin. Still hooked on the idea of going back to Africa, she cannot fully accept or appreciate her own culture, which Walter and Ruth have embraced both in music and physical movement. The space demonstrates that these dances are done in multiple spaces and for multiple reasons, whether they be to release sad or happy emotions, to engage in romantic entreaties, to engage in social convention, or other reasons altogether. The acceptance of the space, dance, and moment create a level of happiness and authentic cultural experience that the African dance scene lacks in its farcical display.

August Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Plume, 1985.

Summary of Work
The play opens in a recording studio, with two men, Sturdyvant and Irvin, discussing Ma Rainey’s work. Sturdyvant, the owner of the recording studio, thinks that Ma Rainey is a diva, and he’s upset that her last recording didn’t sell as well as he wanted in the North, even though it sold in the South. He wants nothing to do with talking with the black people in the studio, and leaves Irvin to take car of that. He also requests that Levee, the horn player, have more of a role in the music because that is what is the new sound that’s selling. Aftewards, the band sets up for rehearsal. Levee is late because he is buying new shoes. When he arrives, he immediately starts bantering with the other band members: first about the price of his shoes and how Cutler helped him pay for them; then about how to spell the word music, and then about how the songs should be played. Levee wants to add more of a jazz feel to the music, and he doesn’t want to rehearse songs they’ve played numerous times.

They start rehearsing, but are regularly interrupted by arguments between Levee and Toledo, who reads books and has a lot to say about race relations and black entertainment and advancement. Slow Drag, a man who’s as laid back as his name implies, keeps trying to divert discussion so they can get back to rehearsing, but he fails. In the meantime, Ma Rainey has still not shown up, and Irvin is nervous about it. Just as Sturdyvant is getting angry, Ma Rainey, her girlfriend Dussie Mae, and her nephew Sylvester walk into the recording studio, escorted by a policeman. The policeman tells Irvin that she had hit another car with her car and then tried to run away in a cab, and then assaulted the cab driver when he wouldn’t take her. Irvin tells Ma he will handle it, and he slips the police officer some money for him to forget about taking her to the precinct.

Since the production of the record is delayed from the incident, Irvin gets sandwiches for the band, and while eating, they discuss their pasts. Cutler tells about how Slow Drag, dancing in a competition with a woman one evening, nearly got knifed for dancing with her when the woman’s boyfriend saw them. He talked the guy out of knifing him by saying that he was trying to help the girl win the competition so she could buy him a gold watch. After that, all the women wanted to Slow Drag with him, which is how Slow Drag got his name.

Toledo discusses how black people are the “leftovers” (57) in America, and after a brief discussion about race relations, they start to rehearse Levee’s version of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Ma hears it from upstairs and confronts Irvin about it, who tries to convince her that it’s the style people want, but she’s not hearing it. She goes downstairs and tells them what they will be playing, and tells them that Sylvester will do the speaking part at the beginning of the song. Afterwards, Levee goes off, and in his anger, tells the story of watching his mother get gang raped by white men, and how he tried to stop them by getting a kitchen knife and cutting them, and they took the knife and sliced his chest open, nearly killing him. Then he tells about his father selling the home to one of the white rapists so they could get out of town.

Act Two opens with Irvin and the band discussing how Sylvester can’t do the part, and Irvin tells them to stick with Levee’s version of the song and he’ll work it out with Ma. Ma goes to record and sees there’s no coke to drink, and she will not record until she gets one. She waits, and tells Cutler that she knows that she doesn’t mean anything but money to these white men. She says that because of that, she’s going to do everything she can to ensure that they treat her how she wants to be treated even if it kills the white men. She talks about how the blues are a more than a form of expression for her, they are a form of survival, a way to understand life. Meanwhile Levee starts seriously flirting with Dussie Mae.

When they finally get to recording, they first have problems with Sylvester getting the line right. When he finally does, they don’t get it recorded due to technical difficulties with the sound equipment. Ma threatens to leave, and Irvin hurries to get the issues fixed. While they are waiting, the other men in the band tell Levee to lay off Ma’s girl, and try to tell him the problems that it will bring him to meddle with women who are involved already. They also try to tell him that the way he dresses won’t change anything in the eyes of white people, and that they even know black preachers who, very well dressed, were publicly humiliated and harassed by white people. Levee gets angry and says he isn’t an “imitation white man” (94), and he starts in about how he is going to be successful with his music once Sturdyvant lets him record. When Cutler tries again to talk to him about God, he insults Cutler and says that his God, if he is real, can strike him down.

Finally, the issues are fixed, and they finish recording. Afterward, Ma confronts Levee about his playing and tells him that he is to play his horn in a way that fits her music style for the band. When he gets upset at Ma, she fires him. Figuring he doesn’t need the job anyway, he goes to talk to Sturdyvant about his music, and he finds out that Sturdyvant will buy his songs for a few dollars, but won’t let him record. With no job and no prospects, he is upset, and as the band is getting ready to leave, Toledo accidentally steps on Levee’s shoes. Levee, in a rage, stabs and kills Toledo.

Brief Note on Themes
This play is the only one of Wilson’s Century Cycle plays to be based on a historical figure, although he insisted that Ma Rainey was not a researched character. The play itself deals with how the music and entertainment industry treated its black artists, who sold very well and yet were terribly treated and underpaid. Issues of segregation, how popular music is marketed, race relations, economic opportunity, educational opportunity, and black rage brought on by systemic injustice and oppression feature throughout the play. One distinct example is the altercation with the police, where only a white man can pay off the white police officer to keep Rainey out of jail. Still, the power black entertainers held was more than the average black person: Rainey describes being able to be forceful and get what she wants from white men in the business when otherwise she has no power to command respect, or if not respect, then decent treatment.

Music plays a big part of this play, the first of Wilson’s Century Cycle. The purpose of the blues is a theme running through the work. Blues is one of Wilson’s main influences for his work (he stated this many times in interviews during his lifetime). While Rainey outright states how she feels about it, the blues also feature as each of the characters tell their stories of sadness, travel, and life experience. Recording technologies are explored, as glitches occur throughout the process (a known problem for Paramount, since their recordings were regularly poor quality). The recorded and unrecorded blues songs can stand in as a form of cultural memory, music that passes on important information from one generation of listeners to the next.

August Wilson, Fences

Wilson, August. Fences. Plume, 1986.

Summary of Work
Troy Maxson and his friend Jim Bono are at Troy’s home after working at the Sanitation Company, and they are discussing Troy’s recent decision to apply for a job driving the garbage truck rather than staying on the back and lifting the bins. Bono thinks that he is going to get himself and other black men fired, but Troy disagrees, and says that what he’s after is to have them change the job description so everyone can drive the truck. His wife comes in and they start discussing the past and then their son, and Troy is upset that his son Cory is being recruited to play football at college. Troy remembers back when he played baseball (it’s how he met his wife Rose) and was denied the chance to play professionally due to segregation and injustice. Rose tries to tell him that times have changed, but he won’t hear it. As he rants about Selkirk and Jackie Robinson, he gets drunker and drunker, and when his wife tells him that he’ll drink himself to death, he speaks the famous line “Death ain’t nothing but a fastball on the outside corner” (10) as he tells about when he had pneumonia and beat death.

His older son Lyons stops by and asks for ten dollars, and Troy, after being upset at Lyons and telling him that he needs to get his life in order rather than just playing music and relying on others, he hands all the money from his paycheck to Rose, and she gives Lyons ten dollars from the money. The next morning, when Troy comes down wanting to have Cory work with him on the fence, Rose tells him that Cory is at football practice, and Troy is upset again. He’s also upset that his wife is playing the numbers. Then Gabriel, Troy’s brother who was injured in the war and is now mentally ill, walks up carrying his trumpet and basket of fruits and vegetables that he tries to sell. He thinks Troy is mad at him for moving out, but Troy insists to Gabe he isn’t upset. Rose tries to feed Gabe, and he tells Troy that he knows Saint Peter has Troy’s name in the book but not his own. When he leaves, Troy starts feeling guilty again about taking the disability money Gabriel got so they could buy the house.

When Cory gets home, Troy starts in arguing with him. Cory asks if they can get a TV, and Troy lectures Cory on how much money it takes to roof the house and to keep it up and make sure that everyone is fed and taken care of. Then, when they start talking about Cory’s football scholarship chances, Troy tells him to forget it because the white people aren’t going to let him get anywhere, so instead he should be focusing on his job at the A&P so he could actually earn a living doing something. Two weeks later, Cory is still more concerned with football than chores and work, and takes off to play. Just after, Troy comes back with Bono, ecstatic because he just got the job as a driver for the Sanitation company. Bono asks him if he even has a license, and Troy states that he doesn’t need a license.

Lyons comes back to return the ten dollars he borrowed, but Troy won’t take it, telling him to save it for the next time he needs to borrow money. So Lyons gives the money to Rose. Gabriel also comes in, having been he thinks, in his mentally ill state, chasing Hellhounds away from St. Peter’s gates. He asks for a sandwich, and when Troy starts up again about family matters, Rose shuts him down and says that Troy is to stop it about Gabe and his landlord Miss Pearl and about Cory, and he is to sign the papers allowing Cory to play when the college recruiters come, and that’s the end of it. Then they get talking about parents, and Troy tells of how he was from a family of eleven, and his mother ran off from her evil husband, who was a sharecropper. Troy was just eight and thought his mother would come back for him, but he didn’t. When he was 14, he had a girlfriend, and he was going to sleep with her in a field, when his father came upon them and whipped him badly. Troy, thinking that he was done, went looking for his father after that and found his father having sex with the girl, so he got upset with his father, and his father beat him unconscious. He awoke to the family dog Blue licking him, but he couldn’t see anything. After that, he figured he couldn’t go back home, so he walked all the way to Mobile and started stealing to survive. It landed him in jail for fifteen years, and that’s where he learned to play baseball and where he met Bono.

When Cory comes back home, Troy tells him that he’s in trouble because he found out that he quit his job at the A&P and he hasn’t been keeping his chores up. Cory tries to explain that he can’t do both work and football practice, and Troy tells him that’s his first mistake, strike one. He is to go and get his job back and quit the football team. Cory refuses, and tells his mom so. That afternoon, when Troy and Bono and Cory are out, they say they don’t know why Rose wants the fence put up. Bono suggests she wants it up to keep everyone close to her. When Cory leaves into the house to get something, Bono confronts Troy about his affair he is having, saying that Rose is a good woman and he shouldn’t be doing it. Troy, says he loves rose but can’t shake this other girl loose, and Bono replies that he doesn’t want to see Rose hurt.

They’ve had to go get Gabe out of jail for disturbing the peace, and it cost 50 dollars. During the time that Troy is explaining this to Rose, he also lets her know that he is going to be a father: the woman he is having an affair with is pregnant. To get Gabe away from the situation, she tells him to go get the watermelon in the fridge that he can eat and sell. Rose, upset that after eighteen years of love and work in the marriage, even knowing it was tough and wanting to give up often, Troy would cheat on her.  He tries to explain that he felt like he was standing in the same place for eighteen years and wanted a change, and she tells him that she’s felt the same way but never acted on it. Troy goes to hit Rose, and Cory sees and grabs Troy from behind and hits him. Troy tells him that that’s strike two.

Six months later, Rose confronts Troy about having signed a form to put Gabe in the hospital, and tells him that he’ll have to pay for that. And she also tells him that Alberta, the woman with whom he had the affair, died in childbirth. Troy leaves and comes back with his daughter, asking Rose to help him raise the child. She tells him she will raise the child, but that he no longer has a wife. Two months after that Troy comes into the house one day and when Cory tries to get past him without saying excuse me, an all out fight ensues. Troy tells Cory that he’s raised him and given him all he has because it is his responsibility, and when Cory gets upset and says that he’s done nothing but bully everyone and abuse them into fear of him, Troy gets ready to beat him. Cory picks up Troy’s bat and starts swinging it at him, but cannot bring himself to hit his father even as he is backed into a corner. They fight over the bat, and Troy is stronger than Cory. He gets it and tells him to get out of the house and never come back. Troy starts talking about death and preps to swing the bat at that fastball on the outside corner.

The final scene is the family getting ready to go to Troy’s funeral. Cory is a corporal in the marines, Lyons is just out of jail for the funeral before he has to do nine more months, and Gabriel is still in the hospital. Raynell, Troy’s daughter, is elementary school aged now. When Cory tells his mother that he doesn’t think he’ll go to the funeral because he can’t have his father still hanging over him, she tells him he will go and that he is just like his father, that for all that he did wrong, Troy was a good man and that he should respect him and recognize that he gave the best he had to him. She says that she loved him and lost touch with him, but Raynell is a saving grace and she intends to give her the best she has to offer as well. Afterwards, when Cory goes out, Raynell follows him and they sing the song their dad used to sing, Dog Named Blue, together. When they all walk outside together, Gabriel tries to blow his horn, which has no mouthpiece now, to open the gates of heaven for Troy. When no sound comes out, he does a ritual dance and tells Troy that it’s the way to go.

Brief Discussion of Themes
The Pittsburgh Cycle of plays is an attempt to center marginalized black history and experience. This play explores what it is like to live in the North in a city where black people are better off than in the South, but still not allowed full participation in society. Jim Crow laws are fully seen in the play with the discussion of baseball and segregation as well as Troy trying to get a promotion. The struggles of employment and poverty stem from this, which is evidenced by Troy’s discussion of his thieving in order to survive in the North until after he went to prison for fifteen years. The struggles of black family life are also a focus, with not just Troy’s family in the North, but his young family life in the South. Troy’s pride is that he has a good job and owns his home for his family to live in, and he guards money viciously because of his knowledge of what it is like to be without. That fear is what drives him to treat his son the way he does and to deny him the opportunity to attend college on scholarship: he doesn’t believe that anything has changed or will changed in white-black relations. It is a similar fear, a fear of staying in the same place, that leads Troy to be unfaithful, and it costs him everything. The plays end shows a recognition of human weakness and a recognition of the love and progress that is being made from generation to generation, as the struggle is passed on and the history of that struggle lives on through Troy’s children.

For a discussion of Jim Crow laws in Fences, see the study guide I am published in through the August Wilson Society.

 

Tennessee Williams, A Streetcar Named Desire

Williams, Tennessee. A Streetcar Named Desire. 1947. New Directions, 2004.

Summary of Work
The play opens with a woman, Blanche DuBois, finding her way to her sister Stella’s home. Her sister is married to a Polish man and they live in a low income area of New Orleans. Blanche is somewhat disgusted but enters the apartment space upon being let in by a neighbor. When Stella comes home they start talking, and Blanche tells Stella that she was put on leave from teaching for the summer and that’s why she’s here to stay sooner than expected. She also tells Stella that they lost their home, Belle Reve, to mortgage because she had to keep taking money out against it to pay for funerals for all the family members after Stella left. Blanche is her usual self, very self-centered and obsessed with looking and acting younger than she is and always dressing fancy and acting fancy.

Her husband Stanley is very upset upon hearing about Blanche’s dealings with the real estate and says that Blanche has swindled them and used the money to buy fancy clothing, throwing out all of Blanche’s clothing from her trunk to prove it. Stella tries to talk Stanley out of talking to Blanche, who is bathing, but he insists. When she comes out of the bathroom, he confronts her, and she is forthright with him about what happened. Stella goes to get Blanche a lemon coke in the meantime. Stanley also lets slip that Stella is pregnant and that is one of the reasons he’s concerned about her land.

After a few days having Blanche around, Stanley is having friends over one evening for a poker night, and Stella takes Blanche out so as to not worry her or bother the men. They get in at 2:30 AM, but the men are still playing poker. They are very drunk, and due to Blanche’s insistence on music and his friend Mitch’s insistence on talking to Blanche, when Stella tells Stanley to end the poker night, he beats her and the men have to get him away from her. Blanche takes Stella out and they go upstairs to their neighbor’s. That evening, Stanley yells up to her that he’s sorry and to come back, and she sneaks out and spends the night with him. Blanche is beside herself over this, and the next afternoon when she thinks Stanley won’t be coming home she tells her sister that she thinks he is common and a brute and that she doesn’t understand why Stella stays with him. Stanley walks in during the middle of the speech, and he pretends he didn’t hear her.

In the meantime, Mitch starts dating Blanche. His mother is sick and dying, and she wants him to settle down before she dies. He thinks that Blanche might be a good choice. He learns of Blanche’s first marriage when she was young: she married a good looking young man who wrote beautiful poetry, and one night she caught him with another man. When they were at a dance together, she told him she knew that he was degenerate and how much she hated him for it, and he ran outside during a polka song and shot himself. Meanwhile, Stanley, wondering about why Blanche is really sticking around for so long and worried about his friend’s interests in Blanche, decides to investigate about her.

On Blanche’s birthday, when Stella is getting things ready for a party, Stanley tells her that Blanche has done some terrible things; when she lost Belle Reve she moved into a cheap hotel called the Flamingo and had a string of lovers so large that the hotel kicked her out; and while she was teaching she became involved with one of her high school students, and she was forced out of town. Stella doesn’t want to believe it, and she’s upset that Stanley has not only verified it through three different people but has told Mitch. Mitch doesn’t come to the birthday party even though Blanche is waiting for him. During the party, after dinner, when Stella tells Stanley to bring the dishes to the sink, he slams them to the ground and then confronts Blanche about her previous behavior. She admits to it, and yet sees no problem with her behavior. And when Blanche leaves the room, Stella goes into labor and Stanley has to take her to the hospital.

While they are at the hospital, Mitch stops by in his work clothes and talks to Blanche. Blanche finds out what he’s been told, and that Mitch no longer intends to marry her because of what kind of woman she is. He finds out that she is older than he thought, but is fine with that. And he attempts to have sex with her, but she screams fire out the window and he gets scared and leaves. But then Stanley comes home, drunk. Blanche is also drunk, having been drinking heavily the whole summer and emptying out Stanley’s liquor. Stanley says that the baby hasn’t come yet and they told him to go home and they’d let him know when his child was born. He says he’ll put on his pajamas that he wore the first night of his marriage and rip them off to celebrate when he gets the phone call. Blanche, worried, tries to get the operator to put her on the phone with a rich man she knew in Dallas, an oil man. But she is not successful, and when she backs herself into the bedroom and tells Stanley to stay away, he comes on to her and rapes her.

Weeks later, everyone is still catering to Blanche, but Stella has decided that she needs to put Blanche in a psychiatric ward. And they have told her that Shep, the man from Dallas, is coming to get her. Stella worries that it is the wrong decision, but she cannot believe what Blanche told her about what Stanley did that night, and so she has to do something to get Blanche out. The men are again at their home playing poker, and Stella’s neighbor is out with her to give her support when the doctor comes. When he does come, Blanche at first resists until she is forced down by the matron. Stella can’t stand to watch, and she has second thoughts, but her neighbor tells her it is the only way. Blanche talks to the doctor and calmly goes with him, telling him that she’s always relied on the kindness of strangers. As she leaves, she doesn’t say goodbye to anyone, and both Stella and Mitch are terribly upset. As the play closes, the men are still playing poker.

Brief Note on Themes
This play has a number of running themes or conflicts worth discussing: race relations, since one of the issues that Blanche has with Stanley is that he’s Polish, and this really bothers Stanley; economic and class struggles, as Blanche is further frustrated with her sister’s choice in husband because he is poor and from a lower social class than they were, having come from a plantation home of old money in Mississippi. The play explores the decline of individuals or families who have seemingly met with success in reaching the American Dream and their inability to fully let go of the lifestyle and attitudes that came with such wealth and privilege.

Male-female relationships, both romantic and familial, are explored through Stella’s relationship, somewhat abusive, and Blanche’s relationship with Stanley; female friendship and companionship heavily features in this play; the nature of story and actions is also a running discussion, as Blanche’s whole life is a series of lies or glossed-over truths which later make it hard or impossible for people to believe she was raped. The dual nature of male/female moral expectations also features, as Stanley has been very promiscuous and demanding of women and does not receive anywhere near the same treatment that Blanche receives for her promiscuity. This seems to play in Blanche’s favor, however, in the fact that she is simply sent away instead of put on criminal trial for sex with a minor (perhaps this wasn’t a legal issue in the early 1900s?). Questions about morals and forgiveness or belief in a person’s statements given their previous actions feature heavily in this play.

Music features throughout the play, with blues playing in the background. The lifestyle that these men live is a rough one of work, but they regularly enjoy poker and games such as bowling. The music itself, and the streetcars that run throughout the area and make such loud noise as they pass, show the co-mingling of progress and innovation and poverty and decline within the same space of a city.

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman

Miller, Arthur. Death of a Salesman. Viking P, 1949.

Summary of Work
Salesman Willy Loman comes back to his home after struggling to drive to Boston. He tells his wife Linda that he is just too distracted on the road and cannot go to Boston that evening, and that he will try again tomorrow. He inquires after his boys, who are visiting. Linda says they went out together and are now asleep in their old room. Linda asks him if he is hungry or would like to go to bed, but he says he will go downstairs himself and take care of it. He starts talking to himself downstairs, and it wakes his boys, Happy and Biff. Happy tells Biff it has been going on for a long time, and that it gets worse when Biff comes into town. Biff is worried his father is going crazy.

Willy’s neighbor Charley is also awoken, and comes over to play cards with him. Willy, however, is still talking to his dead brother Ben, who struck riches in Africa, so Charley leaves. When the boys come down and start making worried comments and say things against their father, Linda tells the boys that Willie has lost his salary and works solely on commission, and hasn’t been making any money, but actually borrowing it from Charley. Biff determines that evening that he will stick around in New York City even though he doesn’t want to (he’s a bum who goes from job to job out West), and he talks with Happy about meeting an old boss to invest in a sports company they have an idea for. Willie gets very excited, getting more delusions in his head about the grandiose things his eldest sone will do. When they finally get Willie up into bed, Linda tells her sons that their father has been trying to kill himself for some time now by crashing his car, and he has a rubber pipe in the cellar that he’s used to try and kill himself. Biff is so furious that he goes down to the cellar and gets the rubber pipe, putting it in his pocket.

The next morning the boys leave early, and Willie determines he will go to the office and demand a job in New York City rather than having to travel for work. And Linda tells Willie that the boys are planning on having him at a restaurant for a fancy dinner. Upon going into the office, he is made to listen to a dictation device recording that his boss, Howard, has used the night previously with his family. When he finally gets around to having the job change discussion with Howard, he fires him despite the over three decades Willie has spent with the company. This throws Willie into another fit of delusion, and he remembers back to the football game his son Biff played and all the colleges that were after him. He wanders over to Charley’s office and talks to Charley’s son Bernard about the past, asking why his son never made anything of himself. Bernard talks about Biff flunking math and not making it up in summer school, and asks him about what happened when Biff went to see him in Boston. This throws Willie into even deeper fits of delusion and he fights with Bernard, saying that nothing happened and he can’t help that his boy just rolled over and failed.

Bernard leaves when his father Charley comes in to talk with Willie. Charley tells him that his son is now leaving to go try a court case before the Supreme Court, and Willie is sick with jealousy. He asks Charley for another hundred or so dollars to make the insurance payments, and Charley asks him why he doesn’t just take the job he offered him for 50 a week. Willie gets mad and admits that he lost his job but he just can’t work for Charley. Charley angrily hands him the money, and as Willie is leaving, he admits to Charley that he’s the only friend he has. He meets his sons for dinner, and Biff tries and fails to tell his father that he didn’t get in to see Oliver and did not get the money. Upon several failed attempts, Biff leaves the restaurant in a fury. Happy, the whole time, has been courting two women and trying to sweep the family drama under the rug. Willie wanders into the interior of the restaurant toward the stairs, and Happy states that Willie isn’t his father, pays the check, and leaves with the women.

Willie goes into another flashback where he is in Boston with his mistress and Biff unexpectedly comes knocking at the door. He hides her in the bathroom and opens the door, talking with Biff about the failed math class. While he is talking with his son, his mistress comes out and Biff is horrified and will not do anything his dad says after that, calling him a phony and a fake. The waiter Stanley helps him out of the restaurant and gets him on his way home. When the boys return home, their mother is furious, stating that they should get out and never come back because they left their father in the restaurant. Biff goes out to his father, who is planting a garden in the middle of the night and talking to his dead brother Ben about killing himself to give his family the insurance money. Biff tells his father that he’s never been anyone and that no one in the family ever has; they’ve all lied about themselves and their goings on their entire lives. He explains that over the last few months he’s been in jail for stealing a suit, and he stole his way out of every single job he ever worked. He determines he will leave and never come back because it will be better for everyone involved, especially his Dad. He grabs his father and starts crying, and his father comes to realize that his son does love him, but Willie is unable to get rid of his delusions of grandeur about his son. With the reassurance that his son loves him and the thoughts that he will one day be a great man, Willie goes through with his suicide plan and crashes his car.

The family goes to his funeral, but no one else attends. Linda doesn’t understand why she can’t cry about her husband’s death. Biff feels like his father never knew who he really was, which is why he ended up killing himself. And Charley feels that he died the true death of a salesman.

 

Brief Note on Themes
This play goes a long way in exploring the heart of the American Dream and what its real value is, as well as what a failure to reach that dream does to people as they age. The structure of the play experiments with the idea of life as a series of memories, and what happens when there is no growth or improvement: people live in the past to live with themselves, and when it brings regrets, brings bitterness. In order for these people to live with themselves, they create mythologies or legends surrounding their family members and themselves; it is hard to know if Ben actually struck rich or if it is a story that Willie made up to feel better about his family.  The whole of their family’s identity is based on performance, on presenting a likable image to the world with the idea that image alone will get you ahead. The American West is an escape for Biff, although Biff realizes that the dreams of making it big in the frontier are far flung.