Carole’s notes on “Gem” (11.28.2018)

Because Gem of the Ocean is the Aunt Ester  (ancestor) play, and because Biblical and other spiritual references are rife, I think it’s particularly important to look at the sources of some of these spiritual references in Gem.

Christian and Yoruba religious characters seem conjoined and inform the major characters’ personalities and actions.  Orisa are the human form of the spirits meant to guide humanity on how to live.  They include Yemaya, portrayed in flowing blue gown, whose realm is the upper ocean; Black Mary’s blue gown and her willingness to take on Ester’s  role and therefore the capacity to go back across the ocean may be informed by the Yemaya myths, although her singing of Twelve Gates to the City and her name also clearly evoke the New Testament’s mother of Jesus—as does her nurturing of Everyman, Citizen. Olokun, the ruler of the lower ocean (and perhaps of all bodies of water, variously portrayed as male, female or androgynous, and able to bring riches to the chosen, has a mythical role not unlike Esther’s herself—who draws Citizen to the underwater city and knows the Passage well enough to make that symbolic trip back.  Ogun is god of iron, war and the heavily beating heart—his myth may inform the character of Solly Two Kings, who more obviously borrows from David and Solomon, the Hebrew kings.

Santeria:  The Religion, Faith, Rites and Magic, by Migene Gonzales Wippler, describes  Obatala as a peace-bringer; he is the sky god and creator of land and shaper of man, and one source suggests he may be represented in Eli, who intones “welcome to the house of peace” to those who approach the door of 1839 Wylie Avenue. Since Shango, both a famous Yoruba king and the Orisa who threw the rocks that created fire and lightening evokes fire imagery, he too seems incorporated in Solly’s character, since it was Solly who set fire to the Mill; as well as in Eli’s, who is collecting rocks for his fence. Wilson, describing his drama, discusses the significance of  the past as present in his plays, which to me seems to add some validity to these potential Yoruba references. And individual human lives, and deaths, become fraught with more powerful meaning when they borrow from mythologies meaningful to us. And there’s some comfort, as well, in imagining Solly, like Shango, becoming an Orisa when his mortal life is done, or being immortalized as are David and Solomon. 

Regarding the two pennies Citizen must find—the coin referred to in the Biblical “render unto Caesar” passage—called “the tribute penny”—had the head of Tiberius Caesar on one side, and Jesus’ reply to the question of whether Jews had to pay taxes to Caesar was “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s”. Interpretation has been extended to suggest that when the divine Jesus permitted himself to be crucified he was rendering unto Caesar what was his—the body—but not his immortal soul. It would seem to parallel Garret’s death in the water.

Tuesday is Ogun’s day in the Yoruba calendar, and is described as the best day for resolving conflicts—according to book Way of the Orisa. Tuesdays are the days when Ester is willing to cleanse souls.  I found a 1993 New Yorker article about a black man named Willie Edwards Jr who in 1957 jumped off the Tyler Goodwin bridge in Alabama after being beaten and threatened by four Klansmen who believed he’d made an impolite comment to a white woman.  He died in the water. One of the men confessed on his deathbed and the story was revived 36 years later.  Is there a possibility Wilson saw it and referenced that young man in  Garret’s death?  Is that why he gave Ester the last name Tyler in this story?

Like Ester’s  vision of her own dead children, the bushmen of Southern Africa describe the dead as stars  in the heavens. Lastly, I could not find a copy on line but think it would be important to look at Amiri Baraka’s play, Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean, as both it and Baraka’s play The Slave Ship would seem to be strong sources and reference points for this Gem of the Ocean;  and perhaps Aunt Ester’s recreation for Citizen  of the tragic passage is influenced by Baraka’s Slave Ship play.

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