Essay: “Southern Roots in Four Plays by August Wilson”
Though the late playwright August Wilson is associated, for obvious reasons, with Pittsburgh, some of the most important aspects of his most important plays are rooted in Southern culture. While I appreciate the focus on his work as an exploration of black life, I also believe that it is key to involve discussions of Southern culture, what it is and was, and why that matters. This essay on that subject came about for a graduate school course, but that early version was much shorter. Later, I expanded the paper significantly and included more of what I believed it should contain, then submitted it around to literary and scholarly journals. Unfortunately, none of them took the bait, and the essay has lain fallow for more years than I like to think about. Yet, I still believe it is solid.
The Southern Roots of Motivation and Subtext
in Four Plays by August Wilson
The concepts of motivation and subtext are essential elements within a stage play. Motivation concerns the central question, “What does this character want?” within the coinciding idea that conflict and tension – and thus, the plot – are driven the characters’ warring desires. The concept of subtext concerns another central question, “What is being expressed even though it is not being said?” That one relates to a richness of characterization and thus leads to richness in the dialogue and the story, when fully developed round characters begin to interact with one another. Both motivation and subtext deal with what lies beneath the surface, and what may come to the surface, for the characters and within the play, which in turn act as catalysts for the dialogue and actions that occur on stage.
In four of August Wilson’s most famous works, all within his ten-play Pittsburgh Cycle, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Fences, The Piano Lesson, and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the Southern roots of the characters, the conflicts and the stories lie at the heart of what occurs on stage, creating the motivation for many of the characters and the subtext for many of the scenes in the plays. Although each play is set in what Southerners would call generally “the North” – three in Pittsburgh and one in Chicago, which technically would be considered Midwestern – the beginnings of the conflicts in these plays occur in the South. Subsequently, Southern culture and Southern folkways are definite influences on the identities – and consequently the motivation and subtext – of the protagonists in the four plays. These include Ma Rainey in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Troy Maxson in Fences, Boy Willie in The Piano Lesson, and Herald Loomis in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Yet these four characters are not the only ones whose Southern roots provide their motivation and the subtext for their actions.
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was the earliest of the plays to be produced and is set in the 1920s, as readers/audiences experience a fictionalized recording session in 1927 in Chicago for the renowned blues singer Ma Rainey and her band. The play is rife with tension, seen in the conflicts between Ma Rainey and the white music businessmen Irvin and Sturdyvant, and especially in the conflicts between the Ma Rainey (and her older and more established band members Cutler, Slow Drag and Toledo) and the upstart band member Levee.
In his introductory note to the play, August Wilson comments on the Southern roots of the blues, as well as how the blues has transcended the South and moved on as something larger. He writes:
This music is called the blues. Whether this music came from Alabama or Mississippi or other parts of the South doesn’t matter anymore. The men and women who make this music have learned it from the narrow crooked streets of East St. Louis, or the street of the city’s Southside, and the Alabama or Mississippi roots have been strangled by the northern manners and customs for free men of definite and sincere worth, men for whom this music often lies at the forefront of their conscience and concerns. (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom xvi)
August Wilson acknowledges that both blues music and African-Americans have moved on from the South, and both have now evolved into something new outside of the South; however, he also asserts subtly that the old ways may have been “strangled” but their roots have not completely disappeared. Writer, critic and Alabama native Albert Murray makes similar assertions about the blues in the opening chapter, “Antagonistic Cooperation in Alabama,” of his collection, From the Briarpatch File, about what the blues can mean to African Americans: “Anyway, to me blues music is an aesthetic device of confrontation and improvisation, an existential device or vehicle for coping with the ever-changing fortunes of human existence, in a word entropy, the tendency of everything to become formless” (5). Both Wilson’s and Murray’s statements can be applied to or related to ideas about atuonomy and freedom expressed by Ma Rainey and by members of her band. One instance of this is Slow Drag’s punctuating of Levee’s story of his Southern sharecropping roots and his father’s death with blues lyrics to end Act One: “If I had my way / I would tear this old building down” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 71). For others of August Wilson’s characters, including Troy Maxson in Fences who sings “Old Blue” and Boy Willie, Doaker, Lymon and Wining Boy in The Piano Lesson who sing “Alberta” to reminisce about Parchman Farm, the blues songs that have come with them out of the South and into the North are simultaneous expressions of a reality full of difficulty and of a possibility for something better; “Old Blue” describes a faithful dog who is now in heaven, and “Berta” has its male speaker encouraging a woman who he has left behind to marry another man, but definitely not a farmer.
The Southern subtext of the character of this play’s central character Ma Rainey, called “the mother of the blues,” is historically based and drives one aspect of the conflicts with some members of her band, with Irvin and with Sturdyvant, because for Ma Rainey the blues is more than culture or art; it is how she makes her living. The historical Ma Rainey was born in Columbus, Georgia in 1886 and was very popular in the South. The play, which is set in 1927, makes repeated references to Memphis, Tennessee, as one of their Southern homes, and the action would have occurred during a period when the real Ma Rainey was recording many of her songs; according to the Red Hot Jazz website, “She ended up recording 100 songs between 1923 and 1928 on Paramount Records.” Ma Rainey’s importance in the South is also emphasized during the opening exchanges of the play; when only Irvin and Strudyvant are present, they argue over whether working with Ma Rainey and her band is even worthwhile:
Irvin: You did all right last time, Mel. Not as good as you did before, but you did all right.
Studyvant: You know how many records we sold in New York? You wanna see the sheet? And you know what’s n New York, Irv? Harlem. Harlem’s in New York, Irv.
Irvin: Okay, so they didn’t sell in New York. But look at Memphis . . . Birmingham . . . Atlanta. Christ, you made a bundle.
(Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 19)
Sturdyvant, whose studio is in Chicago, is more interested in sales in larger Northern cities like New York, but Ma Rainey’s sales (and prestige) are concentrated in the South, as Irvin points out. Some of the conflicts in the play rise out of this dichotomy between Ma Rainey’s strength and power, which is rooted in the South, and the power and strength of Irvin and Sturdyvant in the North where the play is set and where life is different. Near the end of the play, Slow Drag and Cutler discuss the racial element involved in Ma Rainey’s power in some situation and weakness in others, but much earlier Levee alludes to this North-South dichotomy as the band is getting ready to rehearse the songs they will record that day: “Ma’s the boss on the road! We at a recording sessions. Mr Sturdyvant and Mr. Irvin say what’s gonna be here. We in Chicago, we ain’t in Memphis!” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 38) This aspect of conflict presents itself repeatedly throughout the play when the overriding motivation of Sturdyvant to sell records in the North conflicts with Ma Rainey’s understanding of herself as a Southern artist. Ma Rainey is clear about the situation, whether it is rooted in region or race or both; she says in the beginning of Act Two, “They don’t care nothing about me. All they want is my voice. Well, I done learned that. And they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 79). She is also aware that the South is the base of her power, when she tells Cutler a few moments before: “And I want you to find somebody else to replace Levee when we get to Memphis” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 78). Even though she fires Levee in Chicago during a heated exchange near the end of the play, she intends to replace him with a musician from the South who will understand her importance and her dominance.
Levee’s motivation to gain the kind of power that Ma Rainey has also extends from his Southern roots. As Act One progresses, we see Levee as an extremely assertive – and somewhat off-putting – young musician; for example, he has spoken with Irvin in advance to have his own arrangement of Ma Rainey’s signature song recorded instead of her traditional arrangement. When Ma Rainey arrives and gets ready to record, she states that she has no intention of doing Levee’s version, telling him, “Levee, I ain’t studying you or Mr. Irvin” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 64). Levee soon speaks out against Ma, Cutler and the whole situation: “I don’t care what Ma say! I’m talking about what the intro gonna do to the song. The peoples in the North ain’t gonna buy all tent-show nonsense. They wanna hear some music!” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 64-65). Levee’s interest in moving the music forward and his indignant statement send the focus back to August Wilson’s introductory comments about the blues having moved on from its Southern roots and its evolution since leaving; Ma Rainey would be symbolic here of the roots, where Levee would symbolize the evolution, even though he is also a Southerner by birth and raising. Soon after this outburst, at the end of Act One, Levee tells the story of his own Southern roots and sharecropper father “about eighty miles outside of Natchez,” Mississippi; Levee is prompted to tell the story after being taunted by the band members that he cowtows to white people, to which he responds by first proclaiming that “Levee got to be Levee!” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom68). He then proceeds to relay a very Southern story of a black woman (his mother) who is outnumbered and overrun by a group of aggressive and salacious white men, yet in this tale her black husband plans and seeks revenge; when Levee reaches the end of the narrative about his father who was killed while trying to avenge the attempted rape, he helps the audience to understand more thoroughly how his own motivation for success and the subtext of his actions are underwritten by experiences witnessing brutality and resistance to that brutality in rural Southern culture:
My daddy wasn’t spooked up by the white man. Nosir! And that taught me how to handle them. I seen my daddy go up and grin in this cracker’s face . . . smile in his face and sell him his land. All the while planning how he’s gonna get him and what he’s gonna do to him. That taught me how to handle them. (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 70)
Levee’s motivation to become a strong band leader is heavily rooted in the subtext of his Southern upbringing, during which he saw his father exhibit an uncommon strength of character in the face of the tremendous power of the Jim Crow-era South, and the traumatic experiences he describes to end Act One.
Other aspects of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom also have roots in the South, which reinforces how much of Southern subtext exists in the play. The most prominently evidenced Southern roots of a minor character in the play center on Slow Drag. The earliest example comes after Toledo’s rant midway through Act One about the self-destructive behavior of black people when Slow Drag tells the story of Eliza Cottor, a man he knew in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, who had “sold his soul to the devil” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 44). The way that Slow Drag explains this mythic Southern scenario, everyone knew that Cottor had made a deal with the devil, although Slow Drag could not explain when, where or how it had occurred, where the man is now, or what ever happened to him; the main feature of Slow Drag’s story centers on the unbelievable and unacceptable nature of a Southern black man’s sudden and uncommon success in a white-dominated culture, even in his dealings with the law. He explains that Eliza Cottor was “living up in an old shack on Ben Foster’s place” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 43), when seemingly out of nowhere:
He done hooked up with the devil, showed up one day all fancied out with just the finest you ever seen on a colored man . . . dressed just like one of them crackers . . . carrying this bag with them papers and things [of his work with the devil]. All right. He had a pocketful of money, just living the life of a rich man. Ain’t done no more work or nothing. Just had him a string of women he run around with and throw away his money on. (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 44)
As he continues the story of Eliza Cottor in Alabama, Slow Drag explains further that Cottor bought a nice house and even killed a man whose woman “he was messing with” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 45). However, in events that seem too fantastical to explain in the context of the South of the twentieth century, the Sheriff came and arrested Eiza Cottor, but “then let him go,” and then his trial came, and “the judge cut him loose and give him a bottle of whiskey!” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 45) Because Southern sheriffs and judges were notorious for their extremely harsh treatment of black people, Slow Drag’s story shows his character to be rooted in Southern culture, believing that supernatural powers are the only reasonable explanation for a Southern black man who succeeds and even prospers, even receiving favors from the law that only white people receive. Slow Drag ends the tale by telling his fellow musicians that eventually people wanted a solid explanation for Cottor’s uncommon luck, and “he’d tell them straight out he done sold his soul to the devil and ask ’em if they wanted to sell their cause he could arrange for them” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 45). As the monologue ends, the exchanges that follow show us that Cutler questions the validity of the story, asking his friend where the man is now, to which Slow Drag responds that the last thing he heard was that Eliza Cottor was moving North and “handing our hundred-dollar bills on the spot to whoever wanted to sign on with the devil” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 45). Even Eliza Cottor knows not to push his luck in the South. In this story, we see Slow Drag as something of a superstitious commoner, a man with rural Southern roots who is inclined to place his faith in wild stories rather than rational explanations, which is important because the South is widely known for its storytelling.
Another bit of evidence showing Slow Drag’s far-flung Southern roots comes in two closely related interchanges with his bandmates. When Levee asks Slow Drag if he has ever been to New Orleans, Slow Drag responds, “You ever been to Fat Back, Arkansas? All right then. Ain’t never been nothing in New Orleans that I couldn’t get in Fat Back” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 54). To this Levee comes back, “That’s why you backwards. You just an old country boy talking about Fat Back, Arkansas, and New Orleans in the same breath.” Slow Drag does not respond to Levee’s jibes, yet Cutler interjects, which eventually leads to the explanation of how Slow Drag got his nickname. When asked to tell Levee the story, Slow Drag refuses, so Cutler tells the story of how the bass player came down off the bandstand in the small town of Bolingbroke, Georgia, near Macon, and swept up a woman to dance the slow drag and win a contest; while Slow Drag was dancing very close with this woman he had grabbed out of the crowd, her man pulled a knife on Slow Drag, who simply told the jealous man that if he wanted to share in the ten-dollar prize they were about to win, he should back off. Since then, he has been called Slow Drag. At this point, we have heard about the bassist’s life having episodes in Memphis, Tennessee; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; Fat Back, Arkansas; and Bolingbroke, Georgia. On the one hand, while Slow Drag might be a rural South, small-town kind of person, he shows himself with the breadth of his travels not to be a yokel.
A third and final example allows us see Slow Drag’s, as well as Toledo’s, rural Southern farming heritage: in the discussions toward the end of Act Two, Toledo relays that his brother is running an elevator in St. Louis, to which Slow Drag responds, “That’s better than stepping in muleshit” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 93), a reference to the work of plowing fields, a very common aspect of the rural South. A moment later, Toledo states that he had enjoyed farming, and Slow Drag gives another glimpse into his own rural Southern roots: “I done hauled plenty wood. My daddy used to haul wood” (Wilson, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 93). This intimation, coupled with other stories and comments, allows us to see Slow Drag as a product of the South, who was raised in the agricultural South and seems to thirve in the small towns in the South, like Fat Back rather than New Orleans or like Bolingbroke rather than nearby Macon.
In one of the final discussions of the play, as Cutler attempts to tell a story, he, Levee and Toledo also give the impression that they too have traveled widely in the South and are deeply influenced by its culture. In Cutler’s story, a black man named Reverend Gates is traveling from Tallahassee, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia, to see his sister, but gets put off course in a small town called Sigsbee. Early in the tale, Cutler gets sidetracked when Levee interrupts and dispute the stops of the train that Cutler describes, and they begin to argue incessantly about the names of towns in Georgia and Florida and where certain trains stop on that route. This seemingly insignificant bickering provides insight into both men’s roots in the South where they both have enough knowledge of places to argue minute details about train schedules. Furthermore, Cutler’s story shows his Southern roots, in that he is defining for his bandmates (and for the audience) a major difference between the North and the South. In the story, Rev. Gates has gotten off the train in this small town to use the “colored rest room,” which is set far off from the tracks, and the train pulls away, leaving him stranded in an unfamiliar town, near dark, with a group of white men standing nearby and watching him. As a move of panic, the preacher begins to walk down the railroad tracks hoping both to find some other black people and to escape the group of white men, who begin following him. Soon, the preacher hears a gunshot, and Toledo breaks in, “You don’t even have to tell no more. I know the facts of it. I don’t heard the same story a hundred times. It happened to me too. Same thing” (97), providing for us an intimation about the universality of this experience for African-Americans in the South. The group of white men then humiliate the black preacher by forcing him to dance, by tearing the cross off his neck and by ripping his Bible. Slow Drag punctuates Cutler’s story by saying, “White folks ain’t never had no respect for the colored minister” (97), to which Cutler responds, “That’s the only way he got out of there alive” (97) and contrasts the desperately frightened preacher to Ma Rainey, who is not the kind of person who will bow down to such pressures. During this episode, we finally get to hear about Cutler’s understanding of the South, we get to connect Toledo’s comment about having farmed in the past with his comment that he has faced the same situation as Reverend Gates, and we get to connect Levee’s allusions to New Orleans with a solid knowledge of places names and train stops in Georgia. While the story could be read and analyzed by itself, each man’s contextualizing during the situation also gives insight into their respective characters’ experiences in and ideas about the South.
Even though the time jump in setting from Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom to his second play, Fences, is thirty years, from 1927 to 1957 (with a jump at the end to 1965), Troy Maxson’s Southern roots are very similar to those of Ma Rainey’s band members, since he also grew up in a life of Southern agriculture and sharecropping. Troy also came North looking hopefully for a better life, and whether he finds it, or whether he finds the same kind of iniquity that Ma Rainey and her band find, is debatable. However, Troy Maxson also being a product of the South is clear, and his roots bring plenty of bearing on the story in Fences. His clearly domineering style of living affects everyone around him, but what is unclear about Troy Maxson through most of the play is his motivation for his actions and behaviors, as well as the subtext of what lies beneath his extroverted behavior. Some of that motivation and subtext becomes clearer when the reader or audience finds out the details of Troy’s Southern roots.
When Troy Maxson explains his Southern family and upbringing, in particular his Southern sharecropper father, to Bono and his son Lyons, the urgency with which the story is told provides some much needed insight into the motivation and the subtext for Troy’s words and actions, as well as some insight into his identity as a father who does not want to be like his own father. Comparing and contrasting Troy’s description of his own father with his tirades aimed at Corey at the end of Act One, Scene Three show both an indentification with and a conscious rejection of his own Southern sharecropper father’s parenting style, which constitute subtext for his character and contain elements of motivation for him. After having yelled the following difficult-to-reconcile statements at Corey, “Who the hell say I got to like you?” (37) and “A man got to take care of his family” (38), in a separate conversation, at which Corey is not present, Troy describes his own father as a cruel man who “would sit down eat two chickens and give you the wing” (50) but who “felt a responsibility toward us” (51). Troy also tells Bono (who has just explained that he never knew his father) and Lyons about his own father who was mired in the cyclically hopeless and exhausting life of a black Southern sharecropper:
Sometimes I wish I hadn’t known my daddy. He ain’t cared nothing about no kids. A kid to him wasn’t nothing. All he wanted was for you to learn to walk so he could start you to working. When it come time for eating . . . he ate first. If there was anything left over that’s what you got. (50)
Lyons, who has no knowledge of Southern life, seems perhaps to regard it as another one of his father’s exaggerations, and his disbelieving response acts a catalyst for Troy to continue his story. Troy begins to tell his elder son about his own confusion over his father’s participation in the Southern sharecropping life: “The only thing my daddy cared about was getting them bales of cotton to Mr. Lubin [ . . . ] Sometimes I used to wonder why he was living. [ . . . ] ‘Get them bales of cotton in to Mr. Lubin’ and find out he owe him money . . .” (Wilson, Fences 51). Yet, Troy’s father exhibits a similar kind of lifestyle to what we have already seen in Troy, a mixture of endless exasperation coupled with a strong sense of responsibility, both of which were elements of Southern sharecropping. When Lyons asks why his grandfather did not just leave and walk away, Troy reminds Lyons of the eleven children that his father had and continues the story to explain that his own mother and every other woman the man ever had left him, too: “My mama couldn’t stand him. Couldn’t stand that evilness. [ . . . ] All his women run off and left him. He wasn’t good for nobody” (Wilson, Fences51). According to Troy, his father took out his hopeless desperation on everyone around him, including multiple wives and children, and needed people only for their ability to work as field hands. His own father’s situation within the Southern sharecropping system may have informed Troy’s decision to seek a promotion to sanitation truck driver even though he has no driver’s license, out of the simple hope of transcending the hopelessly menial work on the back of the truck; the move into the driver’s seat, which could be regarded as a metaphor for taking control, may not be any less tedious work but it does symbolize a promotion for Troy, and promotion is something that sharecropping did not offer anyone.
As the crescendo of his story about his father and his Southern sharecropping roots, Troy explains how he came to leave his Southern roots, but not of his own choice. As a boy of fourteen, Troy sought solace from the grind of farming work in illicit sexual encounters with “Joe Canewell’s daughter” – a girl who has no name herself – only to find that the sharecropping life catches up to him, exposing his attempts at thwarting his duties, when the mule Troy is supposed to be working wanders back to the house. Troy is caught by father, who has already been established as a despicable man who only cares about children for their ability to work. His father “commenced to whupping on me . . . quite naturally I run to get out of the way” (Wilson, Fences 52). However, Troy realizes his father’s goal was only partially to scold his son for neglecting his work when he comes back and catches his father trying to rape the girl. Troy says, “When I see what the matter of it was, I lost of all fear of my daddy” (Wilson, Fences 52). When a teenage Troy Maxson tries to stand up to his father – who has now become the symbol of the Southern sharecropping life and its attendant cruelty – he is beaten severely, left for dead, and he knows that he cannot return home. In severing his Southern roots, Troy Maxson had to come to an awful realization: “And right there the world suddenly got big,” he says. Lyons clears up for the audience that Troy has not shared the story previously, at least not with him, and Troy responds, “The only part of the world I knew was the forty-two acres of Mr. Lubin’s land. That’s all I knew about life” (52). Troy had spent fourteen years establishing Southern roots, growing up in the harshest and poorest of Southern environments, but his defiance of his father meant that he had to move on from them, even though he has ended up having to carry them with him in the long run.
After the story about the altercation with his father and the necessity of his leaving home, Troy continues his Southern story, explaining what he did next and how came to live in Pittsburgh. Troy’s claims that, after the beating from his father, he then walked “the two hundred miles to Mobile” incites Lyons to respond, “Nobody walks no two hundred miles” (Wilson, Fences 53). The next part of Troy’s Southern story displays his participation in what can be recognized as The Great Migration, an important movement in Southern culture that resulted in a massive loss of African Americans who had previously been the region’s shamelessly exploited cheap labor. In his story, the year is 1918, and he is a fourteen-year-old boy on his own who has walked two hundred miles to Mobile, Alabama, and then decides to follow a group of people who were heading north. Assuming that Troy is, at this point, a reliable storyteller who has not embellished this matter of how many miles he walked, this narrative of a sharecropping life would likely place Troy’s roots somewhere in the Black Belt of Alabama or eastern Mississippi, a feasible location for a cotton-farming sharecropper to live. Following modern roads, Selma, Alabama is approximately 160-170 miles from Mobile, while Philadelphia, Mississippi is approximately 180-200 miles away; on the eastern end of the Black Belt in Alabama, Tuskegee is approximately 200-220 miles away from Mobile by modern roads (Google Maps). It can be surmised then that Troy spent his first fourteen years growing up somewhere in the Black Belt and being influenced by the culture of the Deep South. Next, Troy begins to explain that he followed groups of people up North, in hopes of work and a better life: “I thought I found freedom. Shhh,” he says (Wilson, Fences 54). Troy’s explanation of how he came to live in Pittsburgh is also historically feasible; the “African American Mosaics” website from the Library of Congress explains:
In the early decades of the twentieth century, movement of blacks to the North increased tremendously. The reasons for this “Great Migration,” as it came to be called, are complex. Thousands of African-Americans left the South to escape sharecropping, worsening economic conditions, and the lynch mob.
This summary fits squarely with Troy Maxson’s autobiographical narrative, especially the aspect of leaving the South “to escape sharecropping.” Troy’s details of the multitudes of African Americans who had left the South and were seeking work in the North, so many that “you couldn’t find no place to life” (Wilson, Fences 54), are also realistic:
The racial composition of the nation’s cities underwent a decisive change during and after World War I. In 1910, three out of every four black Americans lived on farms, and nine out of ten lived in the South. World War I changed that profile. Hoping to escape tenant farming, sharecropping, and peonage, 1.5 million Southern blacks moved to cities. During the 1910s and 1920s, Chicago’s black population grew by 148 percent; Cleveland’s by 307 percent; Detroit’s by 611 percent. (Digital History)
Pittsburgh would have fit this model. The Southern-based reality of Troy’s young life – keeping in mind that he would have only been a teenager when he fathered Lyons and later when to prison for killing a man in a robbery attempt – provides significant subtext, albeit not necessarily justification, for Troy’s actions. After leading a life centered on sharecropping until he was fourteen and then taking part in the massive Great Migration during which Southern blacks, many of whom had no money or resources, Troy joined millions of other African Americans with Southern roots as they piled into Northern cities, seeking a better life than the South offered, and made their way as best as they could.
However, Troy’s Southern roots do not hold only negative memoires for him. He often shares another side of his father and his Southern upbringing when he sings the folk/blues song usually called “Old Blue,” crediting its writing to his father. Popularized by white singers of the 1960s folk rock movement, like Joan Baez and The Byrds, the Southern blues song’s origins remain unknown. In Act One, Scene Four, prior to telling the story of his father and his leaving home, Troy sings two lines of a verse of “Old Blue,” about a faithful hunting dog that has died and gone to heaven to wait for its master, and then he says to Bono and Rose, “That my daddy’s song. My daddy made up that song” (Wilson, Fences 44). Prior to placing his own identity squarely within the context of Southern sharecropping and the Great Migration, Troy’s earliest comments about his Southern roots make himself out to be the son a Southern folk-blues songwriter, before he details what seems more likely to be the real story of his father.
Finally, Troy’s experiences in the South may influence his motivation in dealing with another significant aspect of the play’s action that involves the South: his son Cory’s recruitment by a college football team from North Carolina. If Cory is allowed to accept the scholarship, not only will he exceed Troy in educational level and accomlishments in sports, he will also return to the South that his father left. Troy’s motivation about why he forces Cory to give up his dreams of playing football – often discussed possibilities include jealousy and conservative ideas about work and jobs – but the possibility that Troy does not want his son to move to the South in 1957 is very real too, considering the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, which Troy may or may not pay attention to. Troy understands Southern culture and its attitudes toward black people in a way that Corey does not, and even though it has been almost forty years since he left the South, his attitude may well be surmised by his response to Rose who tells him that times have changed since he played baseball before World War II: “How the hell they done changed?” (Wilson, Fences 9) Troy Maxson’s skeptical attitude toward the opportunities in sports for his son may extend also to the place where his son’s best opportunity will occur.
Troy Maxson’s story of a harsh history involving the South and the Great Migration is unfortunately not shared with the character who most needs to hear the story: Cory. Only Lyons, Bono, Gabriel and Rose hear Troy’s story of his Southern roots and sharecropper father. If Cory were able to understand his father’s motivation and the subtext behind his words and actions, Cory might be able to understand his father better. Troy’s motivation is deeply rooted in having watched the hopelessness of his father’s life, yet those experiences have had both positive and negative effects, which form the subtext out of which Troy interacts with other people who have no connections to that old life. Troy’s roots in Southern farming and sharecropping in Fences connect him to other characters in August Wilson’s plays, including Levee, Slow Drag, and Toledo in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and to Boy Willie and Lymon in The Piano Lesson.
The third of the four of Wilson’s plays, The Piano Lesson, moves the time setting moves backward from Fencesby twenty-one years, to 1936, into the heart of the Great Depression. Another of Wilson’s plays to win the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Drama, The Piano Lesson centers on the tension over whether or not to sell a piano that is a family heirloom intricately carved by the characters’ slave ancestors. Beyond being one of a kind as an art object, the piano holds many meanings within the family’s history, which is rooted almost completely in the South, in Mississippi. The backstory to The Piano Lesson began literally generations earlier, as its takes Doaker and Wining Boy’s reminiscences to explain, and it has now come to a head as a decision must be made once and for all whether to keep the piano— and possibly its curse.
Set in Pittsburgh, the story in The Piano Lesson centers on the dualing motivations of brother and sister, Boy Willie Charles and Berniece Charles; the former’s motivation is to sell the family piano to obtain the last part of the money he will use to buy one-hundred acres of land from the recently deceased Sutter, the grandson of the slave owner who owned their own great grandparents, while the opposing motivation of Berniece is to retain and cherish the most significant object in their family’s history and to honor the legacy of the struggle that brought their family through it.
The Southern-based story of the piano, which is at the heart of the tension, is told by Doaker to Lymon (and also in a way as a reminder to Boy Willie) in Act One, Scene Two when Doaker insists that the two men do not fully understand why Berniece will never sell it. Even though he is a native of the same part of Missisippi where the episode occurred, Lymon Jackson is not aware of its history nor why Boy Willie will have a hard time taking it from Doaker’s house to sell it. Also, the story serves as a reminder and as a warning to Boy Willie, who clearly does not fully understand why Berniece will not concede to Boy Willie’s plan, even though he knows the story. Doaker Charles’s telling of the Southern roots of the piano and the gravity of the its significance includes how the recently deceased Sutter’s slave-owning grandfather had traded members of their own family to get the piano, into which grandfather Willie Boy, a slave, carved a whole artistic rendition of the family’s history in the piano’s wood exterior. Although it was not a wholly Southern institution, slavery was more predominant and lasted longer in the South than in other parts of the United States, and is most heavily identified with the South; by the time of the abolitionist movement of the 1850s, the only remaining states which had not outlawed slavery were in the South (Slavery in America). These historical facts make the Charles family’s heritage and the history of the piano not merely a story of a family’s struggle, but a distinctly Southern story as well.
However, that elaborate tale from the time of slavery only represents one part of piano’s significance within the family’s Southern roots. According to Doaker, Boy Willie’s and Berniece’s father was obsessed with the piano and insisted in 1911 that his brothers help him to steal it, an action that got him killed:
Now I don’t know what happened when Sutter came home and found that piano gone. But somebody went up to Boy Charles’s house and set it on fire. But he wasn’t in there. He must have seen them coming cause he went down there and caught that 3:57 Yellow Dog [train]. He didn’t know they was gonna come down and stop the train. Stopped the train and found Boy Charles in the boxcar with four of them hobos. Must have got mad when they couldn’t find the piano cause they set the boxcar afire and killed everybody. Now, nobody know who done that. (Wilson, The Piano Lesson 45)
Their father’s death, which occurred in obtaining the piano for the family, added a whole new layer of meaning to the object. Their late father’s preoccupation with this extraordinarily decorated piano, which was made so by his own grandfather, and his death in claiming it for his family brought generations of suffering and sorrow to bear on the piano. When Doaker finishes the story of the piano and how it came to be in their possession, Boy Willie’s immediate response is: “All that’s in the past” (Wilson, The Piano Lesson 46). The story of the piano’s significant Southern roots in the cruelty of slavery – trading human beings as property, separating families, pleasing the mistress at any cost – creates the basis for another plot point that is also distinctly Southern, yet from a later era: the execution/murder of a black man (and some transients) without proof of a crime, without a trial, in full view of locals, and possibly committed by officers of law enforcement. This scenario was common in the early 20th century South, where black people had no rights under the law, and Boy Willie’s and Berniece’s father was found and killed out of suspicion and frustration – not proof – by the white men who did it.
The conflict in The Piano Lesson is rooted in this Southern past, which Berniece and Boy Willie regard with totally different responses. Berniece, who has left the South, reveres the piano as an irreplacable symbol of family heritage, of the strength that it took to live through slavery, of the determination and sacrifice that it took to reclaim the piano for the family. As the action of the play is occurring, her daughter Maretha is learning to play piano on this very instrument. Berniece’s motivation is to maintain the piano’s place in their family, literally and symbolically. By contrast, Boy Willie, who has stayed in the South, places value on the piano mainly for the possibilities it can bring to present and future generations of the family, namely in the price it can fetch if it is sold. He has come from Mississippi, from the mythically Southern place where the piano’s story began, to sell the piano in order to obtain the land owned by the family that once owned his family. This potential personal triumph, which is also literal and symbolic, would allow Boy Willie to own land, to have economic freedom in his community, not to be beholden to farming on shares any longer, and to have finally taken over the Sutter’s property, which is their reason for owning slaves in the first place. The conflict areises because both of their motivations are strong. However, one mystery that is rooted back in Southern soil surrounds the sudden availability of Sutter’s land for Boy Willie to buy and provides another layer of conflict between Berniece and her brother.
Beyond the dispute over the piano, two other disputes with roots in the South hang over Boy Willie, Berniece and their interactions: the matter of whether Boy Willie killed Sutter or whether Sutter was a victim – as the local myth goes – of the Ghosts of Yellow Dog, and the matter of whether Boy Willie bears responsibility in the death of Berniece’s husband Crawley, who was killed back in Mississippi. Both disputes offer more Southern backstory that occupy the play first as subtext and then add to the story in The Piano Lesson. Although the questions are never answered for certain, both quandaries have come North with Boy Willie just the same. Just as Boy Willie claims that the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog plagued Sutter and pushed him down his well back in Mississippi, the Ghost of Sutter plagues the Charles family in Pittsburgh, eventually subduing Boy Willie and ending his quest to sell the piano. Because he is seeking so fervently to return to Mississippi, to buy Sutter’s land, and to farm it, Boy Willie is certainly suspect in the murder, especially no other plausible suspect is named within the play, yet he adamantly denies involvement. Similarly, he denies responsibility for Crawley’s death. Although Berniece has moved North with her daughter to live with Doaker, her husband’s death, which occurred in Mississippi, stays with her and informs her dealings with her brother. The situation comes to the foreground at the very end of Act One. After insisting that too much “thieving and killing” have surrounded the piano’s history, and consequently their family’s history, Berniece indicts her brother directly: “You killed Crawley just as sure as if you pulled the trigger,” to which Boy Willie responds, “See, that’s ignorant. That’s downright foolish for you to say something like that” (52). Through the dialogue, audiences learn that Lymon and Boy Willie had been engaged in a scheme that would be distinctive to the agricultural South of the early 20th century: stealing wood a little at a time from a job they were doing, with the intention of picking up the whole large load later and selling it. Crawley got involved in loading the stolen wood, law enforcement officers arrived to stop them, in the melee that ensued, Crawley was killed, Lymon was shot in the stomch, and Boy Willie And Lymon were sent to Parchman prison.
The Piano Lesson also contains as a part of its story one of the most widely known Southern places: Mississippi’s Parchman Prison. Now called Mississippi State Penitentiary, the prison commonly called Parchman Farm is well-known as one of the toughest prisons in the US. It is “the state’s oldest Institution, opening in 1901 [and] is located on approximately 18,000 acres at Parchman, MS in Sunflower County” (Mississippi Department of Corrections). Parchman, which also houses Mississippi’s death row, is widely accepted as one of the most common enforcement tools used by the Jim Crow-era establishment to control and subdue black people in Mississippi. According to the description of Parchman on the Mississippi Blues Trail’s website:
In 1900 the state of Mississippi began buying parcels of land near this site for a penitentiary and soon accumulated about 16,000 acres, over half of which had been owned by the Parchman family. For decades the prison operated essentially as a for-profit cotton plantation; prisoners grew their own food, made their own clothing, raised livestock, and even served as armed guards or “trusty shooters.” The harsh working and living conditions made “Parchman Farm” notorious, but the state was later able to improve Parchman’s image by implementing prison reforms.
During the discussion of the infamous prison, Lymon’s statement that black people receive better treatment up North and Boy Willie’s response that he does not allow anyone to mistreat him prompt Wining Boy to break in with his come-uppance of Boy Willie, explaining how Southern white people use law enforcement officers and prisons to maintain the unfair system. His hypothetical anecdote of convoluted land-use arrangements, misrepresented expectations, arrests and imprisoned details how any rural Southern white landowners used their economic and political power to cheat and abuse laborers, especially black laborers. Including Wining Boy’s explanation of unbeatable misdirection schemes alongside this archetypal symbol of Southern harshness and cruelty adds a significant feature to the play, establishing the subtext of common bonds between the men, since all four of them – Doaker, Wining Boy, Boy Willie, and Lymon – have served time there, as evidenced when all four men know how to sing the work song, “Alberta.” During the conversation about Boy Willie’s and Lymon’s time there, Wining Boy calls Parchman “my old stomping grounds” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 37), and as they begin singing, Boy Willie interjects, “Come on, Doaker. Doaker know this one” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 39). Having these four black men from Mississippi all to have served time in Parchman is a testament to their understanding of the widespread nature of Southern inequality and brutality, not only in their family history stories, but in real-life personal experiences.
Certainly Boy Willie and Lymon have come to Pittsburgh with the overt motivation of selling a truckload of watermelons – a very Southern thing to do, bringing watermelons to sell to city people – but both men have other motivations that relate to the perceptual (and perhaps actual) differences between life in the North and life in the South for blacks. Lymon’s decision to leave South for good, due mainly to his status as a wanted man who understands what more time in Parchman Farm will mean, stands in stark contrast to Boy Willie’s decision to obtain the money to return and make a life there. The two men represent two diametrically opposed reactions to the quandary that Southern African-Americans faced: to leave the South to escape its patterns of injustice, as represented by Lymon’s ideas, or attempt to work hard enough to gain the status to overcome that injustice – and to avenge the mistreatment of his ancestors – as represented by Boy Willie’s ideas. During their conversations about Parchman, Lymon tells the other men, “They treat you better up here” (Wilson, The Piano Lesson 38), yet his motivation involves more complex reasons. Lymon is wanted by the sheriff because a white man has paid his hundred-dollar fine on a trumped-up charge, which was a common scheme by Southern whites to obtain cheap labor, and now Lymon is expected to work the money off for the white man; however, Lymon recognizes the scheme and refuses, as he tells Berniece in Act Two, Scene Three:
They never get me back down there. The sheriff looking for me. All because they gonna try and make me work for somebody when I don’t want to. They gonna try to make me work for Stovall when he don’t pay nothing. It ain’t like that up here. Up here you more or less do what you want to do. (Wilson, The Piano Lesson 77)
Unlike Lymon, Boy Willie relishes the opportunity to get back to Sunflower County, Mississippi. Although he expresses his motivation at earlier points in the play, Boy Willie makes his most elaborate explanation of his motivation in Act Two, Scene Five, as the play is nearing its end. Boy Willie recalls his father often staring at hands and wondering what the man might be thinking; now as a grown man, Boy Willie believes that he understands what his father was thinking:
Got these big old hands capable of doing anything. I can take and build something with these hands. But where’s the tools? All I got is there hands. Unless I got out here and kill me somebody and take what they got . . . it’s a long row to how for me to get something of my own. [ . . . ] See now . . . if he had his own land he wouldn’t have felt that way. (Wilson, The Piano Lesson 91-92)
As Levee in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and Troy in Fences both had their Southern sharecropper fathers as early examples to look on, Boy Willie is made to understand the importance of land by also having watched his father and by having contemplated his father’s predicament. Boy Willie intends to take the fight to the oppressor, meet him on his own terms, and literally on his own turf, with money he hopes to get from selling the family’s heirloom, the piano. His motivation is to have what his father did not have: full ownership of the land and the crops that come from it.
Although The Piano Lesson is set in a Northern city and shows a family in turmoil there, the supporting details of action seen in the play are all Southern: slavery, plantations, Jim Crow-era injustice, Parchman prison, freight train lines, unsolved murders, farming. Without the Southern backstory and subtext, there would be no motivation to cause the plot, which is also true of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
The last of these four plays, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is set the earliest in 1911, and has undeniable Southern roots, as well. Although the play is set in a Pittsburgh boarding house, the family in turmoil portrayed in the play is seeking to resolve problems that began in the South with a uniquely Southern feature: the unjust roundup of African-American men to do forced farm labor under the guise of being imprisoned for a breach of the law, sometimes real and sometimes falsified, which supplied Southern chain gang and convict lease systems with their labor supply.
In the introductory note to the play, August Wilson writes, “From the deep and near South the sons and daughters of newly freed African slaves wander into the city” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone i), which foreshadows the story to come in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. In the play, Herald Loomis has come to Pittsburgh as one of many stops in his journey to find his estranged wife Martha after she left their home while he was in prison, put there unjustly by Joe Turner, the brother of the governor of Tennessee. According to the mythically Southern explanation, Joe Turner rounds up groups of forty black men, arrests them even though they have either committed a relatively minor crime or committed no crime, and has them imprisoned for seven years of hard labor.
When he arrives at the boardinghouse owned by Seth and Bertha Holly, Herald Loomis is almost completely a character of subtext, a consequence of his internal shame and confusion over his confinement; he gives few details about himself, shrouds himself in mystery, and is even angered when questioned. Herald Loomis has a story to tell, but he withholds as long as he can. His motivation is rooted in the South, in Memphis, where he was detained and imprisoned, which caused his wife to lose hope and leave, to place his daughter in the home of her mother, then to move North. Martha’s eventual explanation to Herald Loomis at the end of the play involves the pleading insistence that, for safety reasons, she had to leave their daughter Zonia with her mother and go North: “I didn’t leave her motherless, Herald. Reverend Tolliver wanted to move the church up North ‘cause of all the trouble colored folks was having down there [in the South]” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 89) Through Martha’s and Herald’s final conversation, we hear about the South as a horrible place that robs wives’ of their husbands and children of their fathers, an unsympathetic place where a landowner will evict a wife left work the land on her own, a cruel place that even a preacher will abandon, and a forsaken place that makes the risks of going to unknown places worthy of the journey.
As a literal story, Herald Loomis’ tale of being imprisoned by Joe Turner may seem implausible, but it has a historical basis. Just as Wilson’s Ma Rainey was based on an actual Southern blues singer, Joe Turner is based on a real man named Joe Turney, the brother of Peter Turney, a colonel in the Confederate army who later served as the state’s Chief Justice from 1870 until 1893 and as the state’s governor from 1893 until 1897 (Schlup). Joe Turney was widely known for exactly the scheme as the one described by Herald Loomis, and his re-naming within blues folklore to “Joe Turner,” by famous Southern bluesmen like Mississippi John Hurt and Big Bill Broonzy, had occurred long before August Wilson had written his play. Not until Act Two, Scene Two will Loomis tell his story, when prompted by Bynum, who jibes at him first, “You a farming man, Herald Loomis? You look like you done some farming” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 70), and then a moment later in the discussion, which includes Seth, who has never lived in the South, Bynum continues to egg on the brooding man: “Mr. Loomis done picked some cotton. Ain’t you, Herald Loomis? You done picked a bunch of cotton” (70). Loomis begins to get agitated, replying, “How you know so much about me? How you know what I done? How much cotton I picked?” (70) In the long speech in which he responds to Loomis’ agitation, Bynum begins with, “I can tell from looking at you,” and ends by proclaiming, “That’s why I can tell you one of Joe Turner’s niggers” (71).
Initially Loomis denies the charge, but soon acquiesces that he was arrested in 1901. In the speech that follows, Herald Loomis describes the unfounded charges and unjust arrests, the seven-year prison terms, and the working conditions that all paralled the actual system perpetrated by Joe Turney (Litwack 8). According to Loomis’ account of his own misery, he relays that he was a “deacon in the Abundant Life Church” and had “stopped to preach to these fellows [who were gambling] to see if maybe I could turn them from their sinning when Joe Turner, brother of the Governor of the great sovereign state of Tennessee, swooped down on us and grabbed everybody there” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 72). According to historian Leon Litwack, one of Turney’s main tactics to obtain black laborers was to raid “a craps game set up by an informer” (Litwack 8) and arrest the men who show up. Loomis, in this historical parallel, was a preacher who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got arrested for actions that he was trying to stop.
Although it most of the play’s action has passed when we reach the Southern roots of Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, those roots come flying out the script unhindered when it does occur. Up to the point of Herald Loomis’ confession, we are left to wonder why this strange man who wears a heavy overcoat and makes strange pronouncements about oceans fulls of bones, is looking for his wife, why his seemingly normal daughter travels with him, and why his wife left him in the first place. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone maintains the tension about the subtext of the main character and the plot longer than the other plays, only to have it come out with a vengeance during Act Two.
However, Herald Loomis is not the only character in the play who hails from the the South. Jeremy Furlow also stays at the boarding house and has found work on a new road that is being cut. In an exchange between Bynum and Seth, they tell a little bit about Jeremy in the opening moments of the play:
Bynum: That boy got a lot of country in him. He ain’t been up here but two weeks. It’s gonna take a while before he can work that country out of him.
Seth: These niggers coming up here with that old backward country style of living. It’s hard enough now without all that ignorant kind of acting. [ . . . ] That boy done carried a guitar all the way from North Carolina. (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 5-6)
Jeremy, also a new arrival, gets there ahead of Herald Loomis, and is in the city for very different reasons, and with a very different tone about him. The young man is almost the antithesis of Loomis: hopeful, fun-loving, carefree, and uncommitted. He flits through his new life with a careless attitude, including being nonchalant about being fired from his job, which prompts Seth to scold him that he may not care right now, but “We gonna see if you feel like that come Saturday” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 64), when the rent is due. Jeremy traverses the time period of the play’s action going from being single to getting involved with the lonely and disconcolate Mattie Campbell to leaving her for the vivacious and attractive Molly Cunningham who tells him, at the end of Act Two, Scene One, after being asked if she will travel around with him:
Molly: There’s one more thing, sugar.
Jeremy: What’s that, sugar?
Molly: Molly ain’t going South. (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 66)
We do not have a clear indication of what Molly means by her comment or what will occur between Jeremy and Molly, as this scene is the last we see of either of the them; however, we are allowed at the last minute to know that Molly’s intention of having a good life has no connections to the South, which we can assume is due to its notorious harshness for African-Americans.
In the final scene of the play, Herald’s wife Martha comes to the boardinghouse, brought there by Rutherford Selig, who Loomis has paid a dollar to find her. In the last scene of the play, Herald and Martha meet and both release all of the anguish that has built up since their parting in the South. Martha reveals that she was unable to farm the land alone at “Henry Thompson’s place,” while Herald gushes that “after seven years of living in hell, and all I’m looking to do is see your face” (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 89), but she wasn’t there. Martha tries to explain to him that Henry Thompson evicted her, and she stayed at her mother’s house for five years, but moved on after deciding that he must be dead. She tells him that she had to leave Zonia with her mother, with the intention of coming back to get her. With Martha praying and pleading with Herald to return to his Christian faith as a solace, to give up what she calls “the devil” as Herald holds a knife in his hands, Herald Loomis begins a series of statements that seem to equate Joe Turner (or possibly one of his white overseers) with Jesus Christ:
Loomis: And all I seen was a bunch of niggers dazed out of their woolly heads. And Mr. Jesus Christ standing there in the middle of them, grinning.
Martha: “Thou anointest my head with oil, my cup runneth over.”
Loomis: He grin that big old grin . . . and niggers wallowing at his feet.
Martha: Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Loomis: Great big old white man . . . your Mr. Jesus Christ. Standing there with a whip in one hand and a tote board in another, and them niggers swimming in a sea of cotton. And he counting. He tallying up the cotton. “Well, Jeremiah . . . what’s the matter, you ain’t picked but two hundred pounds of cotton today? Got to put you on half rations.” And Jeremiah go back and lay up there n his half rations and talk about what a nice man Mr. Jesus Christ is ’cause he give him salvation after he die. Something wrong here. Something don’t fit right! (Wilson, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone 92 – 93)
The play ends with Herald Loomis’ violent rant and wild exit, which are precluded by a rejection of Christianity as a cruel mechanism of control; he cuts into his own chest with his large knife, and then runs outside (offstage) with it, after remarking that he is finally capable of “standing,” something he has been seeking most of the play. Audiences can assume here that Herald Loomis is liberated by his rejection of the South, rejection of his family who are his only remaining ties to the South, and rejection of the Christianity that convinced him to tolerate Southern cruelty
One similarity among these highly regarded, award-winning plays places is all of their deepest roots lie in Southern soil, often in sharecropping and within the unfairness of the Jim Crow system, which were common cultural features of the African-American experience in the South in the early twentieth century, when these plays were set. The story that provides insight into Levee’s motivation and subtext occurs near Natchez, Mississippi probably in the 1910s, when his father is killed while avenging the attempted rape of his wife and the attack of his son. The story that allows us to understand Troy Maxson’s motivation and subtext is rooted likely in the Black Belt of Alabama or Mississippi in 1918, when his sharecropper father beat him severely and caused him to leave home and join the Great Migration. The story of the Charles and Sutton families (and the piano), which creates the scenario for the plethora of motivations and subtext, occurs in the 19th century, before the Civil War while slavery was still the reigning system of the South, and in 1911, when the three brothers take the piano from the Sutters, both in Mississippi. Finally, the story that lets us into Herald Loomis’ dark motivation and subtext occurs near Memphis, Tennessee in 1901, when Loomis is arrested and imprisoned by Joe Turner. Even though August Wilson’s highly acclaimed ten-play series about African-American life in the twentieth century is called the “Pittsburgh Cycle,” the stories within these four award-winning plays could not occur without the Southern backstories that create the subtext and the motivation that are central elements.
“Division of Institutions State Prisons.” Mississippi Department of Corrections. State of Mississippi. Copyright date. Web. 27 Jun 2011.
“Gertrude ‘Ma’ Rainey (1886 – 1930).” The Red Hot Jazz Archive. Web. 12 July 2011.
“The Great Migration.” The Jazz Age: The 1920s. Digital History. University of Houston. 2006. Web. 22 June 2011.
“Migrations.” The African American Mosaic. Library of Congress. 23 July 2010. Web. 22 June 2011
“Parchman Farm.” Mississippi Blues Trail. Web. 27 June 2011.
“Slavery and Abolition States.” Slavery in America. Web. 17 July 2011.
Litwack, Leon. Trouble in Mind: Black Southerners in the Age of Jim Crow. New York, 1998. Google Books. Web. 12 July 2011.
Schulp, Leonard. “Peter Turney.” The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture. Version 2.0. Web. 12 July 2011.
Wilson, August. Fences. New York: Plume, 1986. Print.
Wilson, August. Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. New York: Plume, 1988. Print.
Wilson, August. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. New York: Plume, 1985. Print.
Wilson, August. The Piano Lesson. New York: Plume, 1990. Print.
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