This study group begins Friday, March 8, 2019 and covers the 10 plays of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, one play for every decade in the twentieth century. Over ten successive weeks, we will explore a wide range of themes: the Great Migration; the plantation system in the post-Reconstruction South; mass incarceration; the recording industry; urban renewal and gentrification; Civil Rights and protest movements; political, social and business reform throughout the century. We investigate these and other themes through the lens of a small urban community in Pittsburgh, their daily successes and failures across the decades. We discuss themes of family relationships, conflict avoidance, and conflict resolution through those same lenses as we explore the structure of drama. We will read the plays chronologically, in order of decade.
Week 1: March 8, 2019 – Gem of the Ocean (2003)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1904, the play features a man whose
small crime has had deadly consequences for another man. Feeling guilty,
he comes seeking the spiritual healing of Aunt Ester. A recurring
character in Wilson’s plays, Ester claims to be 285 years old and is the
kind matriarch of her household in Pittsburgh.
Week 2: March 15, 2019 –Joe Turner’s Come and Gone (1984)
Synopsis: Set in a Pittsburgh boardinghouse in 1911, the ensemble
play includes characters who were former slaves and examines the
residents’ experiences with racism and discrimination.
Week 3: March 22, 2019 – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (1982)
Synopsis: Set in 1927 in a Chicago recording studio (the ten-cycle
play not set in Pittsburgh), Ma Rainey examines racism in the history of
black musicians and white producers, and the themes of art and
Week 4: March 29, 2019 – The Piano Lesson (1986)
Synopsis: Set in 1936 and named after a painting by Romare Bearden, the play follows
the Charles family in the Doaker Charles household. A brother and a
sister have different ideas about what to do with their piano, a family
heirloom. Sell it to purchase land their enslaved ancestors once toiled
upon, or keep the piano, which includes carved depictions of two distant
Week 5: April 5, 2019 – Seven Guitars (1995)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1948, blues singer Floyd “Schoolboy”
Barton is newly freed from prison when he’s asked to sign a record deal
after a song he recorded months before becomes a surprise hit. He
struggles to right wrongs and make his way back to Chicago. Black
manhood is a theme of the play and a rooster is used in to symbolize it.
Week 6: April 12, 2019 – Fences (1984)
Synopsis: In 1957, Troy Maxson, a former Negro Baseball League player, is a bitter man in his 50s who works as a garbage man. His frustration and disappointments in life affect his wife Rose and son Cory, who like his father, is a gifted athlete
Week 7: April 19, 2019 – Two Trains Running (1990)
Synopsis: Set in 1969, the play revolves around a restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, which has suffered a long economic decline. The restaurant owner, Memphis, worries what will happen when the city comes to claim the building through eminent domain. A young activist, Sterling, tries to organize protests and rallies that can help save the restaurant, but Memphis is not so supportive.
Week 8: April 26, 2019 – Jitney (1979)
Synopsis: Set in an unofficial taxi station threatened with demolition in 1977, Jitney explores the lives and relationships of drivers, highlighting conflicts between generations and different concepts of legacy and identity.
Week 9: May 3, 2019 – King Hedley II (1991)
Synopsis: Set in Pittsburgh in 1985, an ex-con tries wants to support
a family and aims to get the money to open a video store by selling
stolen refrigerators. The play features some characters from Seven
Week 10: May 10, 2019 – Radio Golf (2005)
Synopsis: Set in 1990 Pittsburgh, this play concluded Wilson’s
Century Cycle and is the last play he completed before his death. The
home of Aunt Ester (the setting of the cycle’s first play Gem of the
Ocean) is threatened with demolition that will make way for real estate
development in the depressed area. Investors include Harmond Wilks, who
wants to increase his chance of becoming the city’s first black mayor.
History and legacy challenge personal aspirations and ideas of progress.
Bryer, Jackson R. and Hartig, Mary C., eds. Conversations with August Wilson. Interviews and conversations that provide enlightening background on the plays.
Campbell, Mary Schmidt. An American Odyssey: The Life and Work of Romare Bearden. Bearden’s collages inspired at least two plays in the cycle.Wilson often cites Bearden’s influence.
Jones, Leroi. Blues People. One of Wilson’s major influences, along with Bearden, Borges, and the Blues itself.
Wilkerson, Isabel. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration. Places the migration to Pittsburgh and to the Hill District in historical context.
Whitaker, Mark. The Untold Story of Smoketown: The Other Great Black Renaissance. Everything you ever wanted to know about Pittsburgh. Lots of context for the plays in the cycle.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Wilson credits Muhammad with supplying the first mythology (origin myths) for black Americans.
Temple, Riley. Aunt Ester’s Children Redeemed. Short critical analyses of each play in chronological order. Recommended for the course but not required.
Bigsby, Christopher, ed. The Cambridge Companion to August Wilson. Essays on each play and on recurrent themes. All the top Wilson scholars are represented.
Shannon, Sandra. The Dramatic Vision of August Wilson. Extensive essays on the first six plays in the order written, plus an unabridged interview with August Wilson makes this volume a plus! I reference this volume often in discussions.
Snodgrass, Mary Ellen. August Wilson: A Literary Companion. A dictionary-type listing of all the characters and themes of the first nine plays (published prior to the completion of Radio Golf) along with a multi-generational timeline of all the events in the plays. Very helpful.
Radio Golf is dedicated to Benjamin Mordecai, former managing director at Yale Rep, co-director of all ten of August Wilson’s plays. Like Wilson, Mordecai died at age 60, just a few month’s before Wilson’s passing.
The play has the smallest ensemble cast of any play in the cycle with five characters. Sterling has appeared before in Two Trains Running. Harmond Wilks is the grandson of Caesar Wilks, who we remember from Gem of the Ocean, and Old Joe Barlow is the son of Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, also of Gem of the Ocean. Radio Golf is an intergenerational family play at the end of the Wilson Cycle.
Roosevelt Hicks is Harmond’s business partner and was his college roommate at Cornell. Roosevelt speaks in a loose Negro dialect most of the time (compare his language to Harmond’s more standard English), suggesting he does not come from an educated family background like Harmond obviously does. He places high value on superficial things, like golfing, and business cards, and falls prey to get rich schemes like being the minority partner in the radio station purchase and being the front man for Bernie Smith, a rich white business guy. He says that without his new business cards, people on the golf course will think he is the caddie. Roosevelt is an insecure man.
Harmond want to put his campaign office in the predominantly black Hill District, while his wife wants him to locate in the more affluent white section of Shadyside. Harmond explains, “You don’t understand. Politics is about symbolism. Black people don’t vote but they have symbolic weight (italics mine).” Harmond understands politics at its essence, while his wife is operating on the superficial transactional level.
Sterling went to high school with Harmond and his brother, Raymond. But Sterling has had a troubled life, in and out of jail and trouble. He seeks employment, yet does not have the required union certifications. His remark to Harmond and Roosevelt that they should call him back for work before the phone company cuts off his phone does not inspire confidence.
In a conversation between Roosevelt and Harmond and the end of Scene 2, Roosevelt notices something and bolts to the door, saying “Hey! Hey! Get off my car!” Could it be a cat? Could it have been the cat resurrected at the end of King Hedley II? Could it be the spirit of Aunt Ester?
Moving ahead to the end (and to keep this blog post at a reasonable length), once Harmond establishes his family connection to Old Joe Barlow and to the property at 1839 Wylie Ave. (which was illegally acquired by the property development company), he attempts to do the right thing by redrawing the plans to preserve Aunt Ester’s house intact. At the play’s end, Roosevelt turns on Harmond, and we don’t know what is about to happen to the house, whether it will be demolished or not. But Harmond has made the right and correct decision. He echoes Ma Rainey in his description of Roosevelt’s betrayal, “After he rolls over and puts his pants back on, what you got?” Roosevelt says twice he is not anybody’s whore, which indicates that he is in fact somebody’s whore.
Harmond paints warrior markings on his face, like Sterling did earlier, then exits the office. Harmond is redeemed and the spirit of Aunt Ester lives!
Joe Mott, who Old Joe mentions in Scene 4 reminiscing about his WWII battle experiences, is also the name of the black bar owner/gambler in O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh. August Wilson maybe is establishing a connection to Eugene O’Neill through one of O’Neill’s characters.
Hail! Hail! The Gangs All Here! was popular among troops in WW1 and WW2 though it had earlier antecedents. More recently, it was featured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slauterhouse-Five. I think the Vonnegut may have been the connection Wilson was making. There is a bit of irony here. Songs from other plays are steeped in blues and spirituals, yet here are two Cornell graduates singing this very Irish/Celtic show tune.
Sam Green, a grocer mentioned in the play, in real life was definitely someone Wilson would have wanted us to know about. Sam Green, enslaved in Maryland, was arrested and convicted in 1857 for having in his possession a copy of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. After much protest from the abolitionist community, Green was freed in 1862 under the condition that he leave Maryland. The family emigrated to Canada where young Sam Green Jr. had previously escaped to. After Emancipation, Green returned with his family to Baltimore and became involved with running the Centenary Biblical Institute, which later became Morgan State University.
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.
Gem of the Ocean is the penultimate play in August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, and the first play in chronological order of the ten decades covered in the series. It is Aunt Ester’s play, as she figures prominently among all the characters in the ensemble cast. We’ll come back to that, but first, let’s chat briefly about the title.
The title, Gem of the Ocean, comes from a patriotic song and unofficial national anthem written in the 1840’s by Thomas A’Becket, a British musician and long time resident of Philadelphia, at the request of David T. Shaw. Columbia Gem of the Ocean is often compared to the British song, Britannia Pride of the Ocean, which appeared a few years later, and in fact, reasonable people differ about which one came first. But that part is not important for our discussion here. What is important is that the song saw a great resurgence in the 1957 Broadway hit, The Music Man, a musical set in 1912 Iowa about a con man, Harold Hill, who convinces schools to buy marching band uniforms and instruments but who is not a musician and has no intention of teaching the bands how to perform. The play has an interesting thematic connection to O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh, also set in 1912, which also featured a con man, Theodore Hickman, aka Hickey. The Music Man won five Tony awards in 1958.
Also, in 1957, jazz musician Charles Mingus produced an album, The Clown, which included a spoken word piece by Jean Shepard featuring a seal climbing and descending a ladder playing Columbia Gem of the Ocean on a plastic trumpet.
We’ve gone far afield of the Wilson play. Aunt Ester is not a con man like Harold Hill in The Music Man or Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. But she is clearly a magician and her “ro
utine” is the play within a play she and the residents of her rooming house perform when they “take” Citizen Barlow to the mythical City of Bones. Let’s unpack this play within a play, starring Ester Tyler. (WARNING: Don’t try this at home without professional supervision).
Step 1. Aunt Ester directs Barlow to take a bath, put on clean clothes, and say a prayer. Black Mary helps him prepare the bath.
Step 2. Eli and Solly share a drink of whisky with Barlow. (Eli, Solly, and Black Mary are all “in” on it and clearly have participated in this “routine” before.
Step 3. The hypnotism begins. Citizen Barlow goes “under” at Aunt Ester’s suggestion. He goes down to the bottom of the boat. He can feel the boat rocking. Eli, Solly and Black Mary reinforce the hypnotic suggestion.
Step 4. Eli and Solly don masks and pretend to chain Barlow to the boat’s bottom. Barlow becomes convinced he is chained to the boat.
Step 5. At Aunt Ester’s suggestion, Barlow sees other faces chained in the boat’s bottom. They all have his face.
Step 6. Terror stricken, Barlow lets go of the symbolic paper boat Aunt Ester tells him he needs to enter the city. The paper the boat was made of was Aunt Ester’s Bill of Sale when she was a slave. But he still has the chain link that Solly gave him for good luck. The link is from an ankle chain that Solly kept after escaping slavery, so it serves the same symbolic purpose.
Step 7. Solly and Eli, still masked, symbolically whip and brand Barlow and throw him into a hull where he is alone. He is thirsty, but there is no water. He lapses into unconsciousness.
Step 8. Awakened by Black Mary’s voice, softly singing Twelve Gates to the City (see playlist), Barlow comes to and sees the City of Bones. Black Mary points him in the direction of the Gatekeeper (Solly in a different mask).
Step 9. Barlow, still under hypnosis, acknowledges that the Gatekeeper is Garrett Brown. He confesses to Brown that he was the one who stole the nails and seeks forgiveness.
Step 10. The Gatekeeper opens the gate allowing Barlow to enter the City of Bones. He sees the people inside with their tongues on fire.
“Finally, there was the impartation to them of a new strange power to speak in languages they had never learned. It was because they were filled with the Holy Spirit that this extraordinary gift was exhibited by them. Not only did the Spirit enable them thus to speak, but even the utterance of words depended on His divine influence–they spake “as the Spirit gave them utterance.”
Citizen Barlow’s rebirth completed, he sits down and cries. The journey ends and he emerges from the hypnotic spell. He is back at Aunt Ester’s house, his soul transformed, redeemed.
In what can arguably be called the third act of this two act play, signaled by Eli’s pronouncement, “This is a peaceful house,” Caesar gets kneecapped by Solly, who then escapes. Citizen Barlow and Black Mary form a pact for the future. Caesar arrests Aunt Mary for harboring a fugitive, then, in the next scene, shoots and kills Solly. In a symbolic gesture after Solly’s passing, Barlow places the two pennies he collected for his journey to the City of Bones in Solly’s hand to pay the ferryman.
Later he takes off his coat and puts on Solly’s coat and hat and takes Solly’s walking stick, signaling his succession as the new underground railroad conductor, smuggling blacks from post-Emancipation servitude the South.
Eli’s eulogy of Solly is one of the more stirring passages in the play:
“They laid him low. Put him in the cold ground. David and Solomon. Two kings in the cold ground. Solly never did find his freedom. He always believed he was gonna find it. The battlefield is always bloody. Blood here. Blood there. Blood over yonder. Everybody bleeding. Everybody been cut and most of them don’t even know it. But they bleeding just the same. It’s all you can do sometime just to stand up. Solly stood up and walked.
He lived in truth and he died in truth. He died on the battlefield. You live right you die right.”
postscript. Some interesting facts and anomalies in Gem of the Ocean:
Garret Brown, whose suicide resulted in Barlow’s transformation, is also the name of a filmmaker and inventor who developed the Steadicam in the 1970’s. Brown’s invention allows camera operators to film while walking without the normal shaking and jostles of a handheld camera. He also invented the SkyCam (for football games), DiveCam (following olympic divers) and MobyCam (underwater camera following olympic swimmers).
Selig bought his horse, Sally, from a Jacob Herlich, who went to New York to go into business with his brother. In real life, a Jacob Herlich joined his brother in New York in the mattress business.
Selig repeats his lines from Scene One describing his horse in the next play of the series, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, word for word.
Eliza Jackson, Solly’s sister who wrote him from Alabama, was also the name of a woman in Lancaster County, PA, who, along with her Quaker activist husband, Day Wood, ran an Underground Railroad station. (see below)
Jefferson Culpepper was the name of a caricature of a black college professor in early film versions of Our Gang.
There are two mistakes in the reproduction of William Cullen Bryant’s poem, Thanatopsis, both in the penultimate line: should be “like one who” not “like one that,” and “the drapery of his couch,” not “the drapery of his cough.”
Some found poetry from Aunt Ester:
I got a strong memory. I got a long memory. 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. I got memories go way back. I’m carrying them for a lot of folk. All the old time folks. I’m carrying their memories, and I’m carrying my own.
postscript from Facebook update:
The theater is filling up fast for the first Saturday night performance of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.
postscript. Excellent production, evidenced by prolonged standing ovation. Stephanie Berry as Aunt Ester really gave Phyllicia Rashad a run for her money. Her stage presence was sublime. Solly won my heart on the stage in a way that he never had from merely reading the text. Oooh, that walking stick! Spoiler alert: on the ride home down a rainy Wisconsin Ave we hypothesized that Solly may have been Citizen Barlow’s biological AND spiritual father.
and other matters, starting from the North Coast of California.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Who is Aunt Ester?
Aunt Ester, referred to in Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, is a central character in Gem of the Ocean. In the preface to King Hedley II, August
Wilson wrote: “Aunt Ester has emerged for me as the most significant
persona of the cycle. 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.”
There is a
symbolic dimension in her reputed age, which makes her precisely as old
as the first slaves brought from Africa to the Americas. Her home is at
1839 Wylie Avenue, a real address but one which signifies the year of
the Amistad slave rebellion. (No building currently exists at that
address, although as far as I know, what stood there before hasn’t been
But there may be an historical ancestor to the
character of Aunt Ester. The title of the play comes from the 19th
century song”Columbia, Gem of the Ocean,” which was about an actual
ship, the Columbia Rediviva, the first American ship to circumnavigate
the globe. By then, the figure of “Columbia” as a symbol of America,
and a female one (counterposed to Columbus) was well known as well.
According to the OSF guide to this season’s plays, the latest
scholarship suggests that Columbia was first used in this way by Phillis
Wheatley, an ex-slave who became the first black poet living in America
to publish a book of poems, in 1773.
I think she may also be something of a model for Ester Tyler. Both were taken from Africa and sold as slaves when young girls, both were domestic servants to white women, took their last names and stayed with them until their deaths. Both have first names with slightly unconventional spelling. There are differences, the most obvious being that Phillis Wheatley died at the age of 31. BKat5:46 PM