An Underrated Gem: Wilson Celebrates Memory

Let me welcome the new year by celebrating August Wilson’s underestimated, fantastic, risky achievement of Gem of the Ocean (directed with such assurance by Kenny Leon at the Walter Kerr). Any serious play needs all the help it can get nowadays and, astonishingly, Gem had its problems even getting produced in the first place. But when a drama is as fine and ambitious (and unafraid) as this one, when a play has been forged from the chains of collective memory and American history with the howl of an unforgettable blues lament, our thanks are surely due.

Last year-my, how time flies!-I wrote that Gem was my Play of the Year for the very simple reason that I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The other plays of the season have been small and narrow, fashionable in theme, and so highly polished the authors can see their faces in them. But Mr. Wilson isn’t polished. His plays aren’t “tidy.” His stories and allegories can be excessive; he can’t resist giving his eloquent characters free rein to be themselves. But I would sooner live in Mr. Wilson’s company than most other playwrights. I would sooner live in his mind and boundless imagination.

The widely admired, minimalist new play of Caryl Churchill, A Number, for example, or John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, are inconsequential little sneezes in comparison to Gem. Michael Frayn’s prestigious London import, Democracy, is frankly a bone-dry bore. But with Mr. Wilson’s new drama we are thrust into a huge, overstuffed canvas of history that counts for everything, and it breaks our heart. He’s re-imagined a world conceived in the pain of being alive and black in an America on the cusp of discovering its own definition.

Gem takes place in 1904 in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, Penn. (where Mr. Wilson was raised). It’s the ninth play of his magnificent 10-play cycle of the African-American experience, but chronologically it’s the first. It introduces us, for one fabulist thing, to Mr. Wilson’s invented folk hero, the mythical Aunt Ester. She’s a healer who cleanses lost souls, and she’s a former slave who’s said to be 285 years old.

She’s old! (And the elderly are entitled to their parables.) But the saving grace of Ester’s “lessons” are their plain-speaking common sense. “You think you supposed to know everything,” she says to a young character named Black Mary who lives with her. “Life is a mystery. Don’t you know life is a mystery? I see you still trying to figure it out. It ain’t all for you to know. It’s all an adventure. That’s all life is. But you got to trust that adventure. I’m on an adventure. I been on one since I was 9 years old …. ” Then she adds, “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.”

Mr. Wilson has been criticized by some for the kind of aphoristic folk wisdom he gives Aunt Ester and others in the play. (“If the wheel don’t turn the right way, you got to fix it.” “You live right you die right …. “) But in my limited experience of the saints, all wisdom is sublimely naïve. (“Thou shalt not kill”?)

There’s a wonderful moment that might best illustrate what I mean when Black Mary rebels against bossy, autocratic Ester for pushing her around. “I’m tired of it!” Black Mary protests. “It’s been three years now I can’t do nothing to satisfy you …. Your way ain’t always the best way. I got my own way and that’s the way I’m doing it. If I stay around here I’m doing it my own way.”

“What took you so long?” Aunt Ester responds wryly and exits the room.

Parables are always apparently simple-minded, like giggling gurus. Ester’s triumphant parable of change and identity reminds me of a traditional Sufi tale in which a needy man prays that the gate will open so that he may enter and find God. “Oh, idiot,” comes a weary voice. “Is the gate closed?”

But too much has been made of Mr. Wilson’s so-called flippant aphorisms. They aren’t spouted and sprayed round the play to dress it up in significant “meaning.” There’s significance enough in his memory play “drowning in sorrow and grief.” (And as always with Mr. Wilson, the superb storyteller, there’s good humor.) The sayings aren’t meant to be “read” out of context, but acted very much in context. They aren’t self-consciously “literary,” but honestly felt. If we isolate “You live right you die right,” it goes mundanely for little or nothing. But when we understand that it comes at the close of a burning eulogy for an honorable man, a black activist and former slave who in turn saved hundreds from slavery, it is all unpretentiously of a piece.

“Solly never did find his freedom,” the grieving Eli says of him in tribute. “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.”

Solly Two Kings, as he was known, stood up to walk in the bloody path where men hunted down men and still do. His hard life was strong and truthful. But he never found freedom.

Gem is about so much-including a hundred stories told by its natural poets in the Kingdom of the Lost. It’s about a certain folkloric wisdom and the magic of faith. It’s about surviving in a siege of prejudice. It’s even about the laughter and grace of people who have nothing left to lose. But more than any of this, Gem is an epic poem about the necessity of memory.

“You know about the Civil War?” Solly asks a young man named Citizen Barlow, and the question itself staggered me. History hasn’t yet become history in the play. It is still alive and essential. “That was white people fighting and killing each other like you ain’t never seen,” Sol explains. “I don’t think you can even imagine that …. “

Citizen Barlow, who has come to Aunt Ester’s to be cleansed and saved for having caused the death of an innocent, proud man, has no past and he has no future. Citizen is like the man who is dying and already dead. He’s a free man who’s still enslaved by the local mill and a future without hope.

Ester, who takes to him, helps him rediscover his past and find salvation. In the most extraordinary scene in the play-an astonishing scene and right of passage by any standards-Aunt Ester makes a paper boat from her slave’s bill of sale and what follows is an exorcism of the past, a laying on of hands, and psychic re-enactment of the slave ships and the mythical underwater kingdom of the drowned known as the City of Bones. In the course of the dark ceremony, Citizen finds his sense of self and manhood, becoming free.

Who else but August Wilson is even thinking this way-let alone writing and risking the magic stage realism of ritual and biblical incantation?

I’m reluctant to criticize Phylicia Rashad’s Ester, and perhaps it’s my biased notion of the mythical heroine that she ought to be earthier and more honestly vulgar than her refinement suggests. Aunt Ester isn’t ancient, exactly, but ageless. She’s beyond age. For all her virtues, however, the glamorous Ms. Rashad acts old-adopting a serious tremor in a hand, an actor’s trick, I’m afraid, last seen when Christopher Plummer used it shamelessly for his doddery Lear.

The rest of the ensemble are outstanding, with particularly fine contributions from Anthony Chisolm as Solly Two Kings, Lisa Gay Hamilton’s Black Mary and John Earl Jelks as Citizen Barlow. Rubin Santiago-Hudson’s swaggering Caesar, the Uncle Tom who lives by the white man’s rules and loses his soul, was my choice as Actor of the Year. When you see him, you’ll know why.

“You know who’s fault it is,” Caesar says when order breaks down at the mill. “I’ll tell you whose fault it is. It’s Abraham Lincoln’s fault. He ain’t had no idea what he was doing. He didn’t know like I know. Some of these niggers was better off in slavery. They don’t know how to act otherwise. You try and do something nice for niggers and it’ll backfire on you every time …. “

When at the end of Gem of the Ocean, the newly free Citizen Barlow appears to set off into the unknown, he puts on the coat that belonged to Solly. It’s like the ragged coat of a griot or a shaman.

“So live,” goes the last words of the play.

Citizen takes Solly’s stick, too, which has the notches of all the slaves he helped to be free, and as he exits he takes with him bottles of kerosene from under the sink.

This is too much to bear. The fire, the fire next time.