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.
I know this coffee’s gonna be the end of me. I’ve weathered storms, outlived a few of my best friends and my worst enemies. Each day I write a poem. Most are garbage that revisions cannot save. Still, the past fades and the future beckons – poetry to write for the living and the unborn, for those yet to come, and their tomorrows. Two pennies in my pocket, two gold coins to pay for the passage, two wings to veil my face. We are going to the City: a new level of organization, a higher plane. Y’all know what all it means. Put on your life vests. The ride is bumpy.