American Shakespeare: Historical Memory and the Genius of August Wilson

August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is part of Wilson’s 10-part series American Century Cycle. The Pittsburgh playwright and poet — dazzling language, razor sharp characterizations and historical depth make his case as America’s Shakespeare — captured how history shaped modern African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. His best known work is Fences, on the 1950s, which HBO produced in 2016 starring Denzel Washington, and was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture. Washington wants to produce all ten plays.

As John Lahr wrote in a 2001 New Yorker profile:

Wilson’s work is a conscious answer to James Baldwin’s call for “a profound articulation of the Black Tradition.” He says he wanted to demonstrate that black American culture “was capable of sustaining you, so that when you left your father’s or your mother’s house you didn’t go into the world naked. You were fully clothed in manners and a way of life.”

Gem of the Ocean is being staged outdoors in its exact fictional setting, 1839 Wylie Ave, in the Hill District, on a slope rising from downtown Pittsburgh. When Wilson was born in the Hill in 1945, it had a population of over 50,000 and was known as Little Harlem. Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong hung out there with Josh Gibson and other black luminaries. Since that glittering era, the neighborhood has been tragically decimated by urban planners who knocked down homes to build a hockey arena, riots in the 1960s, and suburban flight.

On stage, the year is 1904, less than 40 years after the end of the Civil War, but this is a modern, familiar world. The mills of the three rivers are firing, pouring steel to build the bridges, roads and buildings of a booming and expanding nation. African-Americans, many of whom were born enslaved, struggle to find their way in a society bent on keeping them as second-class citizens.

You watch the show on plastic chairs lined up on a grassy hill, looking at a sturdy wooden set, and, above that, the upper deck of the South Hills rising above the Monongahela River. The wind gusts through curtains on stage. Near the end, our show was cut short by a lighting and rain.

The action takes place at the house of Aunt Ester, a recurring character in Wilson’s plays. She’s a 285-year-old good witch, protector and counsellor, born in 1619, the year the first enslaved Africans landed in the U.S.

Aunt Ester (a pun on “ancestor”) welcomes people into her home, like Citizen Barlow, a young man who’s emigrated from Klannish Alabama to look for a job and a home. Solly Two Kings is an old man who was born enslaved and became a foot soldier on the Underground Railroad, leading 62 people to freedom. But, asks Two Kings about the America he’s living in, “what good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it?”

Ester leads Citizen Barlow on a painful and cleansing dream journey, on a ship that gives the play its name, to the City of Bones, a mythical kingdom built from the remains of Africans who didn’t survive the ocean crossing. Facing truth leads to freedom, Ester advises. That scene of mystical time-travel from Pittsburgh to Africa, acted in a stiff wind under a sky of dark, gathering clouds, stunned with rich insight and love.

Meanwhile, typically for 1904, there’s labor unrest at the steel mill, which leads to further strife, and a tragic end.

History is place and people. People change, but place puts us all on equal ground, and affirms that events are connected. It’s constant, framing our efforts to understand the truth of history and love each other better.

From 1619 to 1904 to now is just one moment after another. The only thing we know for sure is that America, the place, has stayed the same. It’s a frame we need to peer through the shadows of myth and memory, at people hating and loving as they do.

John W. Miller

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