Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean
Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, represents the first decade in the Century Cycle. It is also the play in the cycle that gives us the full portrayal of Aunt Ester, who is more of a myth in earlier plays (2 Trains, King Hedley), a spirit presence that never actually reaches the stage but lurks in the background.
Gem of the Ocean, we learn in Act 2, is an imaginary boat, a document folded in the shape of a boat, Aunt Ester’s Bill of Sale (Sail) from Guilford County, NC. But the document that becomes a model of a boat serves as a prop during the staged journey to the City of Bones.
But what was that voyage? Was it a seance? Was it an exorcism? Or was it just a dramatic ritual? It seemed that Citizen Barlow believed something out of the ordinary was happening. But it also seemed like Eli, Solly, Black Mary, and Aunt Ester had all done this thing before, had practiced every aspect and had it down cold. I think it was a type of ritualistic exorcism. But it works for Mr. Citizen, a recent arrivee from Alabama with a heavy burden on his soul.
Garrett Brown’s obituary is the saddest thing I have heard in an August Wilson play. But I’m so happy Wilson included its text in the play:
BLACK MARY (Reads): “Garret Brown of Louisville, Kentucky departed this life on September 30, 1904, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, at midday, in the midst of a life of usefulness and in the fullness of his powers. He was born of slave parents June the 29th 1862, in Charleston, South Carolina. At an early period in his life, interested parties hurried the mother and three children northward, without the protection of a husband and father, to begin a long siege of poverty. Mr. Brown leaves to mourn his unfinished life, a wife and three children, and a host of family and friends.”
Solly Two Kings is another interesting character. He changed his name from Uncle Alfred to Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon from the Bible) after he escaped from slavery in Alabama and fled to Canada, but he missed his family, so he returned as worked as a “dragman” in the Underground Railroad. He now collects dog feces, called “pure,” and sells it to tanners for money.
Feces – Wikipedia
Dog feces were used in the tanning process of leather during the Victorian era. Collected dog feces, known as “pure”, “puer”, or “pewer”, were mixed with water to form a substance known as “bate.” Enzymes in the dog feces helped to relax the fibrous structure of the hide before the final stages of tanning.
Caesar Wilks, the community constable, has been through his own transformation, having been a bit of a thug in his younger days. Through illegal means, he raises enough money to purchase a small commercial property, but not before he gets selected by the crime bosses (politicians) uptown to run their operation and maintain order on the Hill. He let’s it all go to his head under the guise of “respectability politics.”
Then there is the dynamic relationship between Aunt Ester and Black Mary, Wilks’ sister by a different mother. Wilks’ father was a rascal too. And we will see his grandson, along with Citizen’s son, in the next and final play, Radio Golf.
There are many songs in the play, but these two stand out:
Finally, doesn’t this underwater sculpture remind you of the City of Bones? It is not intended to depict the Middle Passage, but its intended message speaks to us still.
p.s. 1839 Wylie Street is the residence of Aunt Ester. 1839 was the year of the Amistad mutiny. And William Cullen Bryant’s poem, Thanatopsis, was cited in Act 2 Scene 2 and at the very end of the play, although his later poem, The Death of Slavery also foretold the era of this play and of the entire century cycle. Bryant was a noted 19th century newspaper editor, poet, and abolitionist.