The session got off to a strong start. The first group meeting was well attended and people were engaged and talkative about their reading. I went back to work and gushed to my boss about how excited I was for the first meeting.
One member of our group focused our attention on the stolen bucket of nails that resulted in Garret Brown’s death early in the play. Symbolically, Jesus was executed by being “nailed” to the cross, so that is a heavy metaphor. Nails are essential to carpenters and for building construction and that makes them valuable. England was the largest producer of nails worldwide during the American Revolution and nails were rare in the colonies. People would burn old houses just to extract the nails and many people “made” their own nails at home. In fact, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “In our private pursuits it is a great advantage that every honest employment is deemed honorable. I am myself a nail maker.” Just for kicks, here is a history of nails and a video of a blacksmith making nails.
This mention of “honor” brings us to another point in our discussion. Garret Brown could swim. Eli mentions in Act 1 Scene 1 that Brown was “treading water,” suggesting that he could have saved himself, had he so chosen. Brown chose death before dishonor because he knew he was not guilty of theft. We will see that theme of a sense of honor, and of preserving and protecting that honor in subsequent plays.
We didn’t discuss Solly’s occupation, collecting and reselling dog feces, called pure. Black Mary pooh-poohed it, but Aunt Ester was a regular customer, if not a connoissuer, distinguishing between 30-day old and 60-day old pure and pure resulting from the digestion of bone only. She used it on her tomatoes, but its principal use was in the tanning industry.
There is more, and I welcome you all’s additions/comments to this blog post below. Tomorrow I begin reading my favorite play of the ten, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone.
postscript. There is a possible connection between the City of Bones and Ezekiel’s vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. Certainly, the Twelve Gates of the City of Bones is connected to the mention of Twelve Gates in the Bible.
Quite possibly because of current events, I found myself focusing early on two thoughts. First, i focused on the repetition by Eli that Aunt Esther’s house at 1839 Wylie Avenue is a peaceful house, a safe space, a place of sanctuary. Today we have sanctuary cities, whole cities that seek to provide a safe space, outside of and secure from the harm of the reach of immigration laws. Aunt Ester’s house was a sanctuary for migrants, not necessarily fleeing the long arm of immigration law, but certainly seeking to escape the reach of oppressive legal structures.
At the same time, why is Citizen Barlow allowed to stay? Because he can help Eli build a wall, a wall whose purpose it is ostensibly to keep Caesar (the Law) out. We see the wall and sanctuary as serving opposite masters. But perhaps this play gives us a different perspective on both sanctuaries and walls.
It also occurred to me that this play could be (perhaps should be) called “The Adventures of Citizen Barlow.” But to do so would perhaps detract from the development of other characters, from Black Mary who is “becoming” Aunt Ester; from Solly, who dies in spite of the contribution he makes to the “freedom” of so many Others; and from Caesar, who appears to be an unredeemable nuisance on the community, but who may, before it is all over with, may find redemption as well as “his justice.”
I was also struck by the sweetness of the courtship between Citizen Barlow and Black Mary, where Black Mary is open to Citizen Barlow’s advances, but keeps it real at every level. And I can’t ignore the thoughtfulness expressed between both Aunt Ester and Eli (platonic) and Aunt Ester and Solly (too much romance talk for two old people, perhaps).
I spoke in an earlier session about how contrived I found the visit to the “City of Bones,” about how Eli, Solly and Black Mary must have enacted this routine before, rehearsed it, worked out its flaws. I also mentioned in an earlier post the sadness of the Garret Brown obit. For me, it still evokes the same feelings of poetic sadness and regret.
A new thought this reading is the similarity between Caesar Wilks long monologue (I’ll cite the location tonight) and the Parable of the Talents (overlook me, I’m always trying to find signs and signals of redeemability in Caesar, possibly because he reminds me so much of menfolk in my family, for better or worse). We can discuss this in class.
OK. Maybe that’s enough to think about for now. Please send me your thoughts.
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
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 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feces
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.
Events of the 1900’s
In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled that separate but equal was constitutional through the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Immediately local and state laws were created and in some cases, enhanced to prohibit African-Americans from participating fully in American society. However, almost immediately, African-Americans began working to prove their worth in American society. The timeline below highlights some of the contributions as well as some tribulations faced by African-Americans between 1900 and 1909.
An estimated two-thirds of landowners in the Mississippi Delta are African-American farmers. Many had purchased land following the Civil War.
Since the end of the Civil War, an estimated 30,000 African-American men and women have been trained as teachers. The work of these educators assists the African-American population throughout the United States learn to read and write.
George H. White, the last African-American elected to Congress, leaves office.
Bert Williams and George Walker become the first African-American recording artists. They recorded with Victor Talking Machine Company.
Booker T. Washington becomes the first African-American to eat the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the White House for a meeting. At the end of the meeting, Roosevelt invited Washington to stay for dinner.
Washington publishes his autobiography, Up From Slavery.
W.E.B. Du Bois publishes The Souls of Black Folks. The collection of essays explored issues concerning racial equality and denounced Washington’s beliefs.
Maggie Lena Walker establishes the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank in Richmond, Va.
Mary McLeod Bethune establishes Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fl.
Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller becomes the nation’s first African-American psychiatrist. Fuller trained at the Royal Psychiatric Hospital at the University of Munich.