2 October 2004: Wilson, Gem of the Ocean

Huntington Theater Company, at Boston University. Directed by Kenny Leon.

August Wilson has written this play late in his cycle of ten plays spanning the twentieth century; chronologically, however, it falls as the first, set in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh. And so, if we are pleased to think of it this way, it serves as an after-several-facts introduction to the entire cycle. The play features as its central character Aunt Ester, who is now more than two centuries old, having sustained the notorious Middle Passage in which African slaves were transported to America. Many of those slaves died en route, their bodies were buried at sea, and the result, over the years, was the building up of an enormous graveyard of bones in the mid-Atlantic. This quasi-fiction — that the bones are all in one place on the floor of the Atlantic — becomes part of the founding myth of the play, the truth that pervades the culture of Blacks in America and, even forty years after the Civil War and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, sets them apart, in their own consciousnesses and in the brutal post-Reconstruction days whose time provides the temporal setting for this complex, moving, truth-telling play.

It is a play that is long on character and theme and short on plot. A man who seems to be on the run, named Citizen Barlow, arrives at Aunt Ester’s house (1839 Wylie Avenue, once a symbol of upper-class prosperity, now fallen on hard times) to see Ester because of her reputed wisdom. She eventually leads him through a sort of shamanistic exorcism — he having previously told her, in one of Wilson’s signature monologues, that he stole a bucket of nails and allowed anoth­er man to be condemned for it. That other man walked into the water and drown­ed rather than be punished for a crime of which he was innocent. Citizen carries the guilt of this event with him, and it is this guilt that is exorcised, in a scene in which Ester acts as a shaman in an ornate shawl and two other charac­ters put on masks reminiscent of African witch doctors. I had the distinct impres­sion, as this scene progressed, that Wilson had read O’Neill’s Emperor Jones and was writing his own version, in a kind of ironic echo, of a process in which a man resists first his own guilty past and then the historical past and then, via the sym­bolic means of a small, folded brown paper boat, his African origins and, finally, his own soul.

This is powerful stuff, but it is surrounded by other characters’ strivings to survive, live and feed themselves in the hostile world of turn-of-the-century Pitts­burgh. Things happen: a mill is burned down, forcing hundreds of poorly paid Blacks out of work. Caesar, the brother of Black Mary, the chief cook and servant in Ester’s household, is a deputy sheriff who packs a gun and a white man’s un­com­­promising attitude toward even the slightest transgression of the law. And there is Solly Two Kings, who early on gets a letter from his sister in Alabama saying she can hardly survive and who plans to go back to Alabama and rescue her. But Solly, it turns out, is the perpetrator who set the mill on fire and who then becomes the object of Caesar’s outrage and determination to bring the crim­inal to justice. In the last scene of the play, Solly, who has been mortally wound­ed, is brought into Ester’s house to die. As he is dying, Black Mary has a show­down with Caesar, her elder brother, telling him that she no longer recognizes in him the brother, kind and generous and helpful, that she once knew. Solly dies, and the play ends — in a way reminiscent of the ending of Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom — on this somber note of a killing of one member of the black com­mun­ity by another.

Wilson writes from the gut, and his voice is an utterly authentic one. He lets his characters speak for themselves — there are perhaps four autobiographical monologues in the play — and it is their stories that commingle and make up the bulk of the play. I felt the ending of the play to be at once moving, sobering, and inadequate. Wilson presumably means this killing to be not only illustrative but emblematic of the plight of Blacks in this country: the last result of slavery, in this dramaturgical scheme, is that it pits black bitterly against black, to the dehuman­izing of some and the detriment of all. This is a bitter indictment, and it gets at us all where we live. The problem — and it remains a problem as the lights go out — is one of finding a dramatic action that will measure up, in comprehensive­ness, articulateness, and specificity, to the importance and value of Wilson’s them­atic perceptions. I left the theatre feeling both moved and confused, and it was not until now, on the morning after, that I found I had sorted out my confus­ion. Wilson’s characters are real, vibrant, with depths and complexities equal to any in the modern American theatre. But, in this instance, at least, he has not quite found a central action that, in power and scope as well as in passion, is a sufficient match, a sufficiently all-embracing summary, acted out, of the fiery and compelling truths and insights that move him so powerfully as a playwright.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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