August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the OceanGem of the Ocean by August Wilson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is perhaps an open question as to the order in which one should read August Wilson’s plays—the chronological order of the Century Cycle, Wilson’s ten-play decade-by-decade portrayal of the African-American experience in the twentieth century, moving from Gem of the Ocean to Radio Golf? the order of composition, in which case you would be reading Gem of the Ocean toward the end? the order of general-consensus quality, in which case you would probably go for Fences and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone and The Piano Lesson first?

I initially chose the latter option and read Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, the second play of the Century Cycle, the fifth in order of the composition of Wilson’s published plays, and the author’s own favorite among his works. But I admired it enough that I decided I would read the whole Cycle eventually (an added motivation is that I, like Wilson, am from Pittsburgh—and, for that matter, that I moved from Pittsburgh to the Twin Cities as Wilson did, not to push the parallels too far!). So I decided that I would proceed in the order of the Century Cycle, which brings me to the earliest play in the sequence, and the penultimate play Wilson wrote before his death, Gem of the Ocean.

This drama is set in the Hill District, Pittsburgh’s historic black neighborhood, in 1904. It focuses on the house of Aunt Ester, “a very old, yet vital spiritual advisor for the community,” as Wilson calls her in the dramatis personae. This centuries-old seer has the power to “wash the soul,” which is why a young man from Alabama called Citizen Barlow seeks her out—he has a sin to expiate. Meanwhile, though the play never leaves 1839 Wylie Avenue, the situation is growing grave outside: in Pittsburgh itself, the black millworkers are about to strike over the drowning of their co-worker, falsely accused of stealing some nails; in the South, where some of the characters still have family, the law is being used to halt the Great Migration, to keep black labor where southern whites can profit from it. The heroic veteran of the Underground Railroad, Solly Two Kings (who named himself, upon escaping slavery, for the Biblical kings Solomon and David—which is to say, allegorically, wisdom and strength) plans to take his notched stick down South to rescue his sister. In the midst of these events, the brother of Aunt Ester’s housekeeper Black Alice, a man called Caesar, has become a constable who threatens to arrest almost every character in the play and who delivers long paeans to law and order.

Eventually, these characters and conflicts coalesce, as you would expect in a well-made play; but this is something more than well-made play. Its climax is not so much a single event in the plot as the pageant-like ritual during which Aunt Ester, aided by family and friends, leads Citizen Barlow on a spiritual visitation to “the city of bones” at the bottom of the ocean, where the bodies of those enslaved Africans who did not survive the Middle Passage rest. The characters don “European masks” and act out the experience of slavery itself, pretending to be white slavers who capture Citizen and then fall prey to the shipwreck that sends him on his journey to the underworld. (The play’s title comes from the name of the ship, Gem of the Ocean.) This is both a mythologically resonant performance—audaciously placed in the middle of an ostensibly realistic Ibsenite or Millerite historical drama—and a defense of the art of the drama itself as a purifying and cleansing rite.

But even the more realistic aspects of Gem of the Ocean are deceptive, for apart from the mythopoeia, there is also a beautifully economical political allegory. Solly Two Kings represents the Biblical heroism, the royal individualism, of the generation that had to fight its way clear of slavery. Caesar, as his name implies, stands for worldly as against spiritual power—and also stands for the figure of the black conservative, from Booker T. Washington to Clarence Thomas, the servant of the dominant culture who polices his people. He wields the law as a weapon against spiritual freedom, which is the essence of his conflict with Solly:

CAESAR: You under arrest.
SOLLY: I’m under God’s sky, motherfucker! That’s what I’m under!

But the figure who inherits Solly’s mantle at the end of the play is Citizen. This implies that the promise of freedom under and within the law must be fulfilled, as against Caesar’s mere tyranny and even Solly’s historically necessary but limited lordly antinomianism. Thus the play leaves us on the threshold of the twentieth century.

It is a pleasure to read such an artful construction, even leaving aside Wilson’s visionary audacity and vernacular poetry. I look forward to going on the in the Cycle. In the meantime, in lieu of my quoting said poetic prose from the text, you may wish to listen to some of it instead.

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