A few notes on Gem of the Ocean – 03.05.2020

Structure: Gem of the Ocean is one of two plays in the cycle to have a prologue. Why might a play have a prologue?

They say Euripides invented the prologue. He prefixed a prologue to the beginning of his plays to explain upcoming action and make it comprehensible for his audience. Other dramatists in Ancient Greece continued this tradition, making the prologue a part of the formula for writing plays. Greek prologues generally explained events that happened in time before the time depicted in the play. Roman dramatists carried the prologue to a new level, giving even greater importance to this initial part of their plays.

From Wikipedia:

“The actor reciting the prologue would appear dressed in black, a stark contrast to the elaborate costumes used during the play. The prologue removed his hat and wore no makeup. He may have carried a book, scroll, or a placard displaying the title of the play. He was introduced by three short trumpet calls, on the third of which he entered and took a position downstage. He made three bows in the current fashion of the court, and then addressed the audience.

The Elizabethan prologue was unique in incorporating aspects of both classical and medieval traditions. In the classical tradition, the prologue conformed to one of four subgenres: the sustatikos, which recommends either the play or the poet; the epitimetikos, in which a curse is given against a rival, or thanks given to the audience; dramatikos, in which the plot of the play is explained; and mixtos, which contains all of these things. In the medieval tradition, expressions of morality and modesty are seen, as well as a meta-theatrical self-consciousness, and an unabashed awareness of the financial contract engaged upon by paid actors and playwrights, and a paying audience.”

In what is perhaps a coincidence, French playwright John Racine introduced his play, Esther, a choral tragedy, with a prologue with the character Piety as its speaker. The prologue in Gem features Eli, described as Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper and a friend to Solly.

The other play in the cycle with a prologue is King Hedley II, the play set in the 1980’s where Aunt Ester dies.

Aunt Ester is featured very prominently in Gem. Of course, the setting of the play is Aunt Ester’s house, 1839 Wylie, and we know that 1839 refers to the year of the Amistad mutiny, a revolt by enslaved Africans that resulted ultimately in repatriation to Sierra Leone and, perhaps most importantly, in a crystallization of the abolitionist movement in the United States. Perhaps Wilson could have used 1831 Wylie, in homage to Nat Turner’s revolt, or 1859 Wylie, in homage to John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. The difference, perhaps, is in the success of the Armistad versus the failure of the other two. Perhaps.

Interesting that Eli opens the Prologue with the exhortation “This is a peaceful house.” It is a peaceful house every day, but Aunt Ester will only see visitors on Tuesdays. In one of the previous sessions, a group member revealed that in the Yoruba calendar, Tuesday is day three of a four day week and is devoted to the Orisha, Ogun. According to a book about the Yoruba religion, The Way of the Orisha (available online), “Tuesday belongs to Ogun and rituals for overcoming enemies or conflicts are best performed on this day.” We’d love it if Wilson intentionally aligned Aunt Ester’s Tuesday with the Yoruba Tuesday, but perhaps that is just another coincidence. Perhaps not.

Citizen Barlow has just recently arrived from down south and is basically homeless, sleeping under a bridge. Aunt Ester takes him in, gives him a room, and provides him work with Eli building a wall around back. The stated purpose of the wall is to “keep Caesar on the other side.” Caesar is a local law enforcement agent/officer, so keeping him out adds to the sanctuary nature of the house.

Early in Act Two, preparing for the trip to the City of Bones, Aunt Ester instructs Black Mary to “Go get the map.” Following a monologue with Mr. Citizen, Black Mary enters with a quilt that has a map embroidered on it. We can talk about how an embroidered quilt is a type of archive with information embedded in it. Historians have differing opinions about whether quilts were used as signaling devices for escaping slaves on the underground railroad. Interesting that Wilson decided to associate the map to the City of Bones with a quilt. It certainly could have just been a map.

One more tidbit and I am going to close out this “introduction.” William Cullen Bryant is supposed to have written at age 17 the famous poem, Thanatopsis, a portion of which appears is Act Two Scene Two and is echoed at the very end of the play. A year later, when Bryant went away to law school, his father found the poem and submitted a draft of it to the North American Review, a publication still in print. Critics doubted the authenticity of the poem, much like Wilson’s 9th grade teacher doubted his authorship of his paper on Napoleon. Later in life, critics accused Wilson of borrowing heavily from the playwright Arthur Miller, or at least emulating his style. So, as an aside, why is the partial text of Thanatopsis included in the play?

From William Cullen Bryant, Thanatopsis:

“So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave,
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.”

Session #1 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #2 notes on Gem of the Ocean

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (pre-group meeting)

Session #3 notes on Gem of the Ocean (post-group meeting)

Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

Week 9 – Gem of the Ocean

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.

Vicissitudes

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.

1901

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.

1903

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.

1904

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.

1900