Ashland 2007 Day 3b - Gem of the Ocean

I’ve got some catching up to do, as 5 plays have slipped by since my last post.

August Wilson’s oeuvre consists mainly of a “cycle” of 10 plays about the black American experience, one set in each decade of the 20th century. Gem was the 9th play written, but the earliest chronologically, set in 1904 in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Its action begins when a black worker at a steel mill that employs many Hill residents, falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails, jumps in a river and drowns rather than turn himself in and serve time. Many blame his death on Caesar, the local constable and black himself.

The entire play, however, takes place in the house of a matriarch named Aunt Ester, a character whose name resurfaces in other plays in the cycle and who comes to represent a spirituality older than and separate from the American African-American experience. As the action unfolds, Citizen Barlow, the young man who actually did steal the nails, arrives at the house much burdened with guilt, seeking healing from Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester sends him on a metaphysical journey to the City of Bones, a half-mile by half-mile area on the bottom of the Atlantic built with the bones of those who died at sea during the Middle Passage, borne in a paper boat she’s fashioned from her own slave’s bill of sale.

Citizen Barlow, in the process, is reattached to his culture and becomes a scion of it. This is an important, perhaps the overriding, theme of Wilson’s writing - the evocation of a culture and identity that he feels was lost in both the forced journey from Africa, and again in the migration from the agrarian south to the urban north:

Wilson’s plays clearly demonstrate the tensions between blacks who want to hold onto their African heritage and those who want to break away from it. As a result of being pulled in different directions, violence often breaks out among blacks in Wilson’s plays, yet that violence is often misdirected. (from an informative discussion of Wilson here)

Caesar, in attempting to begin assimilating into white culture, is disdained, and ultimately disowned when he arrives to arrest Aunt Ester for harboring accused criminals.

The play was cast using actors who have been in the Ashland company, some for many years. Although the Ashland audience has to be about 99% white, the Festival has been freely using black actors in traditional and non-traditional roles since we’ve been coming. It’s interesting, though, to see them performing as an ensemble.

The “message”, if you will, is definitely the foundation of the play, but Wilson’s writing and character development make it a rich and pleasing experience, and not merely an exercise in didactics and white guilt. While I’m close to “hitting for the cycle” with Shakespeare (I’ll have to check to see if there are any of his plays I haven’t seen), I’m interested in seeing all of Wilson’s cycle as well.