Living Memory in "Gem of the Ocean"

Andy Knight
 | Oct 06, 2017

Gem of the Ocean Logo

“People say you crazy to remember. But I ain’t afraid to remember. I try to remember out loud. I keep my memories alive. I feed them. I got to feed them otherwise they’d eat me up.”

—Aunt Ester, Gem of the Ocean

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean begins in the dead of night with a knock on the door at 1839 Wylie Avenue, a house in Pittsburgh’s Hill District. In 1904, it’s the home of Aunt Ester, a former slave, rumored to be 285 years old, who is well​-known within the city’s black community. When Eli, the house's gatekeeper, opens the door, he finds a young man named Citizen Barlow standing there. Citizen has done something terrible, and he’s come to see Aunt Ester; the word is that she can “wash people’s souls,” and his is in turmoil. But Eli tells Citizen he must wait until Tuesday, which is three days away, to see her.

The next morning, Citizen is still there, standing across the street with the hope that Aunt Ester might come out. Eli and Black Mary—the housekeeper and Aunt Ester’s protégé—suspect that the young man has nowhere else to go. His farm boots suggest that he’s new to the city, likely a Southerner who’s come north in search of work in the city’s steel mills. The nearby mill, however, has shut down temporarily after a worker named Garret Brown drowned in the river while trying to avoid arrest. Brown was accused of stealing a bucket of nails, but maintained his innocence and chose to die to keep his honor intact and to avoid punishment at the hands of Caesar, the local constable and Black Mary’s older brother.

That afternoon, while Eli and Black Mary are away, Citizen climbs into the house through an open window. Aunt Ester finds him in the kitchen and Citizen, desperate for her help, admits that he has killed a man. Only later, after Aunt Ester takes him in, does he reveal that the man was Garret Brown. Four weeks earlier, Citizen had come to Pittsburgh from Alabama to work at the mill. But he was taken advantage of by the bosses: they underpaid him and overcharged him for room and board. And so Citizen retaliated by stealing a bucket of nails—the same bucket of nails that cost Garret Brown his life.

With the truth out in the open, Aunt Ester agrees to help Citizen find his redemption. For Citizen, that means a journey to the City of Bones, a mystical city in the Atlantic Ocean that was built from the bones of Africans who died aboard slave ships. It’s a treacherous voyage, but one that Citizen must take to live in truth and to find his worth.

With its turn-of-the-century setting, Gem of the Ocean is the first play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, a 10-play series that reflects on the 20th century black American experience decade by decade. Although Gem comes first in the cycle chronologically, it was the penultimate play that Wilson wrote before his death in 2005. The story’s inspiration, however, can be found in two of Wilson’s earlier works—Two Trains Running (which is set in 1969 and premiered in 1990) and King Hedley II (set in 1985 and first produced in 1999). In both plays, Aunt Ester is discussed by characters as a sort of mystical healer. She never makes it to the stage herself in these two plays, but her presence is keenly felt. (It’s also worth mentioning that in Wilson’s final play, Radio Golf—which is set in 1997 and premiered in 2005—Aunt Ester’s name is, once again, invoked.)

In Two Trains, Aunt Ester is said to be 349 years old; in King Hedley, she has recently passed away at 366; and in Gem of the Ocean, she claims to be 285. Her advanced years give her not only an otherworldly quality, but also a historical significance: it puts her birth around 1619, the same year that the first Africans were brought to North America as slaves. In Aunt Ester—a name that evokes the word “ancestor”—Wilson gives human form to the collective memory and tenacity of a people oppressed for centuries, and so it is no surprise that she is at the center of the play that begins the American Century Cycle.

“Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant persona of the cycle,” Wilson wrote in The New York Times in 2000. “The characters, after all, are her children. The wisdom and tradition she embodies are valuable tools for the reconstruction of their personality and for dealing with a society in which the contradictions, over the decades, have grown more fierce, and for exposing all the places it is lacking in virtue.”

In Gem of the Ocean, only Aunt Ester can guide Citizen through the City of Bones. She is, after all, the ultimate link between past and present, the real world and the spirit world and Africa and America. Upon his return, Citizen is reborn as a new man full of consequence and purpose, and Aunt Ester is, appropriately, the mother of that rebirth.

Gem of the Ocean Cast

THE CAST: Hal Landon Jr, Shinelle Azoroh, Arnell Powell, L. Scott Caldwell, Preston Butler III, Cleavant Derricks and Matt Orduña with director Kent Gash

Director Kent Gash makes his South Coast Repertory debut with Gem of the Ocean. Gash has a significant history with Wilson’s work and has directed five of the 10 plays in The American Century Cycle. In addition to his work as a freelance director, Gash is the founding director of the New York University's Tisch School of the Arts’ New Studio on Broadway and the former associate artistic director at both the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta and the Alabama Shakespeare Festival.

Gash has assembled a first-rate cast, many of whom are new to SCR. L. Scott Caldwell makes her SCR production debut in the role of Aunt Ester. Caldwell is a veteran of both stage and screen, and perhaps best known to audiences for playing Rose on the hit TV show “Lost.” Like Gash, she has a long history with the work of August Wilson and won a Tony Award for her role as Bertha in the original Broadway production of Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come and Gone. Caldwell is joined by another Tony Award-winner Cleavant Derricks (Broadway’s Dreamgirls), who plays the role of former Underground Railroad conductor Solly Two Kings. The cast is rounded out by Shinelle Azoroh (Black Mary), Preston Butler III (Citizen), Matt Orduña (Eli) and Arnell Powell (Caesar)—all of whom make their SCR debuts in the production—as well as SCR founding artist Hal Landon Jr. (Rutherford Selig).

Gem of the Ocean’s design team includes Edward E. Haynes (scenic design), Susan Tsu (costume design), Dawn Chiang (lighting design), Lindsay Jones (original music and sound design), Shawn Duan (projection design), Judith Moreland (dialect coach) and Ken Merckx (fight choreographer).  

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