Posted by: Sally Ingraham | February 5, 2014

Gem of the Ocean

by August Wilson

Someday I hope to see this play performed, but the hour or so I devoted to reading it was well spent. It is the first chronologically in Wilson’s 10-play cycle about the African-American experience in Pittsburgh during the 20th century. It is every bit as “fat with substance” as Wilson liked to claim. With a few characters and just one set, he deftly brought to life the restless, confused state of the country at the turn of the century, when the question of what freedom meant lay heavy on hearts and minds.

I say I got it but what is it?” asks Solly Two Kings. “I’m still trying to find out. It ain’t never been nothing but trouble.” Gentle Eli replies: “Freedom is what you make it.”

That’s what I’m saying,” says Solly. “You got to fight to make it mean something. All it mean is you got a long row to hoe and ain’t got no plow. Ain’t got no seed. Ain’t got no mule. What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it? I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.

Solly Two Kings always fought to make his freedom mean something. Born a slave, he escaped and made it to Canada, then turned round and became a conductor on the underground railroad. He guided Union soldiers through the swamps during the Civil War, and after Emancipation he made his way to Pittsburgh, where Gem of the Ocean finds him selling dog shit as fertilizer and trying to woo Aunt Ester, the 200+ year old women whom ‘the people’ say can wash your soul clean.

Citizen Barlow arrives in Pittsburgh and isn’t there a week before his soul needs just such a washing.

In 1904, industry was driving the country. The African-American population was flooding north to work in mills in the big cities. The federal authorities wanted them to stay in the South and work with their former slaveholders to rebuild it, so not unlike the days of the underground railroad, the journey north was tough and full of dangers. Black people were denied the right to vote, and the Jim Crow laws were in full effect. The law was the new slaveholder. In the industrialized cities, the cycle of debt and poverty for recently freed slaves was almost impossible to break. Solly Two Kings says, “The people…got the law tied to their toe. Every time they try and swim the law pull them under.”

As Gem of the Ocean begins, a man has recently died, because he refused to come out of the river. Doing so would have seemingly proved him guilty of the crime of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. He refused to live with that truth. Soon after, Citizen Barlow winds up on Aunt Ester’s porch, demanding a soul-washing.

Citizen’s spiritual journey is just one part of the story. Solly Two Kings and his fight for freedom is another. Black Mary, the young apprentice of Aunt Ester, finds her heart stirred by Citizen, although “You got to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.” And then there’s the cop Caesar, Black Mary’s brother, who has gone over to the dark side, so to speak, utterly mistaking his role and responsibility toward ‘the people’.

This play is heartbreaking and beautiful. Phylicia Rashad, who played Aunt Ester in a stage production, says in her intro: ‘It is a hymn in praise of freedom and moral redemption, an ode to community, a song of love, a wellspring of wisdom, and a summons to critical thought and action.

In his intro to the entire series, John Lahr writes: ‘The blues are catastrophe expressed lyrically; so are Wilson’s play, which swing with the pulse of the African-American people, as they moved, over the decades, from property to personhood.

August Wilson was born in Pittsburgh, and although he left in his 20s and and spent his last years in Seattle, the Pittsburgh Hill District is the setting for his 10-play cycle. I wanted to read one or two, as part of my exploration of my new city, but having read Gem of the Ocean, I am floored by Wilson’s storytelling and characterization, and eager to read whatever I can get my hands on.

There is something important to me here in Wilson’s work. I was startled by how much I could relate to Citizen Barlow, as he floundered desperately in the muck of the American Democratic promise. Forced to live in the mill rooming house, where the rent was slightly more than he was paid in a week, Citizen was in debt to the company from the get-go, unable to leave to find a better job, unable to save any money to improve his situation… How many young people today are crippled by student loans that bought the education that the jobs they now cannot find demanded? Those cycles of debt and poverty still suck us in. And so many young people today are just as much disconnected from their history and cultural heritage as Citizen was from his. How often have you heard someone claim they feel “like I got a hole inside me“? We’re still a country restless and confused by the idea of freedom, and we need stories and myths and folklore and the blues to fill us up with something.

I can guess, just from reading this one play, that Wilson understood that. Phylicia Rashad called Gem of the Ocean ‘a great and mighty ship riding the waves of history. With sails at full mast, blown by the winds of charity and tireless resolve, it surges onward toward its charted destination, the port of right understanding.

Right understanding, now there’s a port I’d like to sail into someday… I’ve got 9 more of Wilson’s plays to help show me the way!


  1. […] What we have here… […]

  2. […] was drifting in this direction already this year, with my discovery of August Wilson and recent obsession with the Cuba of Margarita Engle’s books. It has also […]

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