Book Review: “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson

Haunted, resigned, but stiffened with a fierce vein of resistance, August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” is a short play but certainly not a small one.

All of the action takes place in the house of Aunt Esther. She’s a mystic and healer in a Black neighborhood in Pittsburgh sometime after the turn of the last century. It’s a racist place and a violent one too, particularly after a Black worker is accused of stealing a bucket of nails and drowns in the local river, refusing to leave the water while insisting he didn’t commit the crime.

There’s trouble in the aftermath of the drowning, but the frustration that pours forth is deeply rooted, stretching all the way back to slavery and its oppressive aftermath. As peddler Rutherford Selig shares, “They talking about keeping the colored out of Pennsylvania. Say, ‘What do we need them for?’ One man say they ought to send them back down South. I come on past the general store in Ranking and they was talking about, ‘Why can’t we have slavery again?’ One man said ’cause of the law. And somebody said change the law. The man asked him, ‘Would you fight another war?’ And he said, ‘Hell yeah.’ I was surprised when he said that but then I wasn’t too surprised.”

As the play reveals, slavery isn’t past, even in the new century. That’s literally embodied in the character of Aunt Esther, who recalls her tragic journey over the Atlantic and shares at one point that she’s nearly 300 years old. It’s also present in Solly Two Kings, a former Underground Railroad conductor who finds himself gearing up for one last trip to Alabama after his sister writes a letter saying that “the times are terrible here the most anybody remember since bondage.”

In a lean two acts, Wilson does a powerful job connecting past brutality to presents, both in the play’s timeline and in our own. Things have changed some in Pittsburgh; a Black man, Caesar Wilks, is the local constable, charging outrageous rents and shooting boys for stealing a loaf of bread. He gets to speak his mind in the play too. He’s hardened and complicit; but he’s had his own wounds, including a stint on the “county farm.”

Still, Caesar takes the trouble in town personally, knowing that whatever status he’s scraped out relies on his own willingness to enforce the norms of a cruel and racist society. In claiming his place, he’s assumed those same qualities. At one point he rants, “Want to blame me. You know whose fault it is. 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 n***ers was better off in slavery. They don’t know how to act otherwise.”

“Gem of the Ocean” is stuffed with high emotion–protest, anger, guilt. This intensity is nicely balanced with a lively humor, though. There are moments where characters share a meal around a table and crack jokes. “Beans, beans, the musical fruit” even makes an appearance.

But while the humor adds a welcome lightness and humanity to the play, it can’t persist for long before it too is dragged under the weight of time and tragedy. The latter is still too fresh–and too often refreshed–to be set aside for long.

As Solly Two Kings sums up, “I used to be called Uncle Alfred back in slavery. I ran into one fellow called me Uncle Alfred. I told him say, ‘Uncle Alfred dead.’ He say, ‘I’m looking at you.’ I told him, ‘You looking at Two Kings. That’s David and Solomon.’ He must have had something in his ear cause all he heard is Solomon. He say, ‘I’m gonna call you Solly.’ The people been calling me Solly ever since. But my name is Two Kings. Some people call me Solomon and some people call me David. I answer to either one. I don’t know which one God gonna call me. If he call me Uncle Alfred then we got a big fight.”