Riding the Waves of History: ‘The Gem of the Ocean’

How August Wilson created the ‘mother of all the plays’ and one of the central roles in his canon.

There is much to be said about August Wilson. In him we find the rare combination of poet, playwright, philosopher, historian, humanitarian, musician and spiritual seeker. These attributes culminate in August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean, making it more than just a play. It is a hymn in praise of freedom and moral redemption, an ode to community, a song of love, a wellspring of wisdom, and a summons to critical thought and action.

In our first meeting to discuss my possible involvement with the role of Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean, August explained that Aunt Ester was mentioned in previous plays (Two Trains Running, Seven Guitars and King Hedley II), because he “had heard the characters speak of her.” Yet she did not appear in these plays because he had not yet heard her speak. One day while sitting in Eddie’s, the restaurant in Pittsburgh’s Hill District that he frequented, he finally heard her speak. He said, “She said she couldn’t talk about the water, but the water was all she talked about.” He began writing on napkins, capturing everything he heard her say. Then he picked up his cell phone, dialed his home phone and recorded his writing on the messenger service. Thinking that it could somehow be erased or lost, he proceeded to the nearest pay phone, dialed his cell number, and recorded the writing on that messenger service. “This,” he said, “was the beginning of Gem of the Ocean.” He would later refer to this masterwork as “the jewel of the cycle—the mother of all the plays.”

My first observation of August Wilson was that he was a man of purpose, specificity and deliberation. When we listen as carefully as he did, we discern meaning in every aspect of his work: The number above Aunt Ester’s door (1839) refers to the Underground Railroad; the name of the character “Solly Two Kings” conveys David, the Warrior, and Solomon, the Wise; there’s Ester, Citizen and Caesar (to explain everything would rob the reader of his or her own adventure, and that I will not do).

The time is 1904 and, as Caesar Wilks says, “Industry is what drive the country.” It is the year of the invention of the portable typewriter, the Caterpillar tractor and the tea bag. The New York subway system opens, the first tunnel beneath the Hudson River is completed, and construction begins on the Panama Canal. America, though still a young nation, has become an empire with borders extending westward to the Pacific Coast, with the purchase of Alaska from Russia, and with a military presence in Central America and in the Philippines. Forty-one years have passed since the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, 36 years since the ratification of the 14th Amendment. Booker T. Washington has dined at the White House as a guest of President Theodore Roosevelt, W.E.B. Du Bois enjoys the celebrity of his published work The Souls of Black Folk, yet a vast number of descendants of Africans in America—“the people,” as the characters of Gem call them—grapple with the question of freedom. A generation has come through slavery, another generation is born shortly after Emancipation. What does it mean to be free? Black people are denied the right to vote by the Supreme Court, as it upholds discrimination in voting registration. Jim Crow laws are in effect from Louisiana to New Hampshire. In an effort to stem the tide of black migration to Northern industrialized cities, federal authorities issue a mandate directing blacks to remain in the South and work with former slaveholders to rebuild it. As Solly says, “The people…got the law tied to their toe. Every time they try and swim the law pull them under.”

Of those who manage the trip North, many find themselves in distress. Lacking financial resources, with little or no formal education, these recently freed slaves are forced into menial labor at the lowest wages. They live in overcrowded, rundown rooming houses or beneath bridges or anywhere else they can find. Having to purchase goods and necessities from company stores owned by the mills and factories that employ them, they are unable to break the cycle of poverty and debt. Still they come. They come with hope and faith in America’s promise—Democracy: “…the same right to life…. The same right to whatever there was in life they could find useful,” says Black Mary.

Citizen Barlow is such a person. Our story begins with his desperate knock at the door of 1839 Wylie Avenue—Aunt Ester’s house. He is troubled in mind and spirit, and the people say, “Go see Aunt Ester and get your soul washed.” In entering this house of sanctuary, he will enter the experience of a new community. He will encounter a king who walks around “picking up dog shit” as he “lives [life] for the people”; a caretaker, unswerving in faith and devotion; a young woman, who, while living in this “peaceful house,” is still conflicted by unfulfilled desire and indecision; a boss man who knows “the value of family” but mistakes his role and responsibility to the people; an outsider who enjoys inclusion by virtue of his honest and respectful interaction and frequent visits; and Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old wise woman who serves as spiritual adviser to the community.

Citizen is on an adventure that is beyond his imagining. The washing of his soul is a spiritual journey that demands his full participation. Guided by the wisdom of Aunt Ester, he will relive the terror of the Middle Passage. In the dark night of his soul, he will come face to face with himself and acknowledge his past—the past that lives in his conscious memory, the past which is forgotten. Through remembrance and recognition of all that has gone before, he will “come to stand in the light” and be reborn as a “man of the people.”

To perform a masterpiece is indeed a privilege. To work with the one who has created it is a transformative experience. I watched in amazement as August worked to refine that which I considered perfection from the start. He would enter the rehearsal hall, exchange greetings with director and cast, and take his seat. As rehearsal progressed, he would close his eyes and appear to be sleeping. After a time his eyes would open, he would rise from his seat and leave the hall. Upon his return the next day, a story previously told in a page and a half of poetic monologue now was contained in a single phrase—completely. How did he do that? He wasn’t sleeping. He was listening, listening to the words, seeing the pictures they painted and feeling the rhythms produced by their combinations. He understood the power of sound and rhythm inherent in words, speech and music. He worked in alignment with that power.

As an actor, I became increasingly sensitive to these rhythms and aware of their importance. August’s characters are defined by speech—the rhythms of speech serve as emotional building blocks that support the progressive movement of the play. If a word is changed or a phrase interpolated, the rhythms are altered but never to the good.

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is like a great and mighty ship riding the waves of history. With sails at full mast, blown by the winds of clarity and tireless resolve, it surges onward toward its charted destination, the port of right understanding: “So Live!”

Phylicia Rashad is a stage, television and film actor. She received a Tony nomination in 2005 for her role as Aunt Ester in Gem of the Ocean and directed the play at Seattle Repertory Theatre this past spring.