Monday, February 08, 2016

26th Annual Celebration of African Americans and Their Poetry at the West Oakland Branch Library

Mama Ayanna
Thamsanqa Hlatywayo & Iya Halifu Osumare pour libations
Sister Najeebah Jaja

The 26th Annual African American Celebration through Poetry was bright and lovely. For a winter day, it was down right too pleasant to be real, but conjurers work this kind of literal magic-- whether this is the words of Avotcja calling sweet mangos from the sky goddesses or Andre La Mont Wilson's decision to not accepting the sentencing-- He's a black dude who is not taking a bullet, even for liberty. Nope Crispus Attucks, the America you gave your life for, has treated your bloodline shamefully.

Sister Najeebah Jaja read from The Riper the Berry a story about choices, one's black boys need reminding of, while Ericka Andrews encouraged us with dance and affirmation. The best we can be is ourselves. Monique Carter admonished us to "Stop the Violence," use words, love one another, be tolerant, mistakes do not have to be deadly. Descaro Hester is a master of the metaphors, especially sports illustrated (smile). 

Focus had us the ball park, while "The Fight," had us ducking and dodging blows, perhaps landing a few, but not nearly enough to claim victory. When one' foe is oneself, there is no winning.

When I arrived the African American Quilters Association loaned us two lovely quilts to beautify the room. Dr. Marcus Penn's photos from Ghana and Paradise Free Ja Love's original artwork, umbrella's with #blacklivematter decorated the stage and Brother Renaldo Ricketts's shared his lovely paintings.
Audience members listen attentively
Tracee Coltes
Andre La Mont Wilson
Katabazi


Tracee Coltes's "Black Lives Matter" and James Cagney's "The Road to Revival," for Maya Angelou; "Know Your Divinity," and "You Have the Right" . . . spoke directly to issues of power and the need for redistribution.

When Katabazi (Douglas Coleman) introduced Claude McKay's poem, "If We Must Die," he said that Winston Churchill recited this poem to encourage Congress to join Britain in fighting Germany (1941); in another account, the recitation was to encourage Britons in their defense of democracy (1940) and justice in WW2. (This event, unfortunately, never happened). The poem was written in 1919 in response to the Red Scare. 

Katabazi's original work "Blood Run" and "Emancipation" spoke to the ground we are planted in. Nonetheless, it is a rallying cry and call to action. Sometimes life is not worth living if it means submitting to such indignities Black people have suffered since the disease of white supremacy and racial dominance has become the rule of law across the lands.

It was great to have Brother McCutchen back with a stroll down history's multi-lane highway: "Still Standing, Still Rolling." Perhaps part of this longevity is attributable to our ability as Paradise says, "The Unplug from the Matrix." His "Black Names Matter" was another new contribution to one of just a few present whose presence goes back 26 years: Paradise (helped me organize the first few readings and always supported the program over the years), Gene Howell who both participated, brought his sons, co-hosted (with Wanda) a writing workshop for a few years at the library and then took the workshop to Barnes and Nobel's Bookstore in Jack London Square. He shared favorites like Coffee. I remember when he wrote that one.

Dr. Halifu Osumare blessed us with a libation while our brother Tamsaqe played drums. It was pretty awesome. Later she returned with a poetry medley. Each selection had a introductory story. Many of the pieces celebrated black womanhood.

Yes, this last reading was like old times, where the work is wonderful and so is the company. 


Dr. Ayodele Nzinga's selection from "Cotton" and "The Horse Eaters" used cut to the bone imagery. Out people are survivors.

Avotcja

Charles Allensworth

Mama Ayana, Willie Francis, Charles Allensworth


Monique Carter

Iya Osumare, Marcus and his girlfriend

Paradise Free Ja Love

Paradise surrounded by his work

Charles Curtis Blackwell & Gene Howell, Jr. 

Audience appreciates the work

Zakiyyah and Bryant Duo

Ayodele Nzinga, Ph.D. 

Faithful supports listen attentively

James Cagney

Descaro Hester

Wanda, Portia, Rochelle

Audience supporters

Andre La Mont Wilson is front page news

Renaldo Ricketts

Leroy Franklin Moore

Ericka Andrews

Bilaliyah and her daughter, Brianna

Audience

Steve D. McCutchen

Iya Halifu Osumare, Ph.D. 
Gene Howell, Jr. 

Marcus and his girlfriend

Audience member

Dr. Penn shares

Student and Teacher, Chowadi & Halifu

Audience and Poets

Audience

Audience

Friends Reflect

Dr. Penn shares
Audience

Zakiyyah G.E. Caphart and Bryant Bolling duet, poetry and original music is always wonderful and this year the selections honored lives taken too soon like Mario Woods, Children and Feminine Energy.

Mama Ayanna Mashama's "Full Moon Sankofa Meditation of Ancestar Love," honored her father as she spoke stories of unmarked graves and sacred lives hidden or unmarked. We traveled with her to the southern town where her father's remains lay, a town, a site she'd never visited before. Tears came to her eyes as she shared reconnected with her departed father, like a boomarang returning home to the sender. Perhaps a homecoming pigeon is more apt a description. It sounded like a much needed familial reunion, an opportunity to reflect on family strengths and values and commitment to each other-- the blood is important.

Leroy Moore has a new book out Black Kripple Delivers Poetry and Lyrics (2016). He told us about a local hero, Joe Kapers, music producer, who is celebrated every August (since 2013) in Oakland.

Marcus L. Penn, "The Poetic Penn," shared quiet soul stilling work on themes which touched us deeply like the loss of a parent, a friend or mentor and the peace we are capable of reaching for and finding, inside.

Charles Allensworth read from an essay on Octavia Butler's Earth Seed. Butler's work calls us to re-frame the paradigm even if this means destroying the framework. sometime the absence of form gives birth to new forms.

I closed the reading with a piece I'd written for the program. It is an ode to Dr. Frances Cress Welsing, who died last month. I am still processing her departure, so I did what writers do, wrote a poem. The audience helped me with the chorus--"It's a Love Thing, Yeah! (The Whispers).

I'd like to thank the Oakland Public Library for supporting community programs, especially Susy Moorhead and her staff. I'd also like to thank Gene and Halifu for setting up before everyone arrived, to Portia for videotaping, Brianna for making hero sandwiches and helping with set up and packing her grandmother's bag at the end of the program. Thanks to Paradise for the great art! Thanks to Marcus and Renaldo too for their artwork. Thanks to the African American Quilters Association. Thanks to the Friends of the Oakland Public Library.

See everyone next year, first Saturday in February, 1-4 p.m., 1801 Adeline Street, Oakland, 510-238-7352. 

 

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

Take Two: August Wilson's "Gem of the Ocean" at Marin Theatre Company through Feb. 14, 2016

Deep Jazz: A Review of Marin Theatre Company’s “Gem of the Ocean” by August Wilson
By Wanda Sabir

When we think about improvisational art forms whether this is crazy quilts – its patterns hard to follow or teach or black music; black aesthetics articulate or mirror the lives of its people—it’s what’s in the cupboard when it’s time to eat that goes into the pot that is stirred until the brew is spicy, hot and ready to serve.



Solly Two Kings (Juney Smith), Citizen Barlow (Namir Smallwood), with his ship, the "Gem of the Ocean" and Eli (David Everett Moore), guiding Citizen towards the "City of Bones", with Aunt Ester's (Margo Hall) help. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


Art is intrinsically linked to legacy; August Wilson’s Citizen (Gem of the Ocean) learns this when he sails to the City of Bones and meets his ancestors, feels the lash – adjusts his sight so he is one with them, yet apart. He speaks to Aunt Ester about “getting his soul washed.”  Both Aunt Ester and Black Mary tell him that God is the only one who can wash souls. What Citizen is looking for is forgiveness and the community provides a ritual of atonement for the young man.

Often there is no system in place to right a wrong. Punishment does nothing for a soul who admits to harming another and wants to make it right. Arrest and imprisonment is not restorative justice. Being locked away from the consequences of one’s actions— distance, just makes it a bit easier to harm another. Perhaps this is what happens to soldiers who experience traumas. It is not natural to kill other people, so to train to do so goes against one’s spiritual inclinations. To kill another person, something has to die inside the killer too.

Jazz or the black improvisational aesthetic which is most identifiable during, but especially immediately following emancipation is a scored landscape America promised, yet did not live up too. Called “free” music, jazz was black Americas’ answer to Jim Crow and terrorism suffered from 1865 onward.  This ability to find within an art form or social order creative space, no matter how minute, to plan and strategize is in itself liberating. This is evident in Aunt Ester’s kitchen and sitting room—sheet music for the souls of black folk who come, like Citizen to shake off their shackles.

Sometimes dying is the best way to assert one’s principles, Citizen learns when he steals a bucket of nails and another man is blamed. This knowledge (that he caused an innocent man’s death) hurts his heart and so he travels to the City of Bones to get right with God, to get right with man, to apologize and seek forgiveness.

Citizen Barlow (Namir Smallwood) being comforted by Black Mary (Omoze Idehenre) and Eli (David Everett Moore), as he returns from his journey to the "City of Bones. Photo credit: Kevin Berne


  Perhaps “Gem of the Ocean” resonates so strongly today, because of its themes: community, healing, power, resiliency, sacrifice, hope.  Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon) is a man not to be crossed. He carries three links of the shackles he once wore while enslaved for good luck. He also carries these shackles so that he never forgets captivity. When Citizen, an Alabama escapee (born after slavery ended), compares what black people are suffering in Pittsburgh to slavery, both Solly Two Kings and Aunt Ester quickly inform him of his error. No matter how awful conditions post-slavery, nothing could induce either of them to willingly submit to enslavement again.

Black survival is an art form developed over years of making due with little or nothing except one’s own innate capability – not portable or transferable, one just “made do” and did that well. When Margo Hall’s “Aunt Ester,” in Marin Theatre Company’s current production of August Wilson’s “Gem,” speaks of her children as stars in the sky close but a bit of a reach, we see how she has managed to keep moving and not fall over with grief. Hall’s life as a girl child in Detroit where she knew personally Motown’s finest, certainly brings an authenticity to her character. The conjure woman still carries her bill of sale – just in case, perhaps, she’s asked about the legitimacy of her freedom. Hall like her Aunt Ester remembers when “jazz” was not free or legitimate.

Aunt Ester’s departed family is ever present, seen in her adoption of Citizen who reminds her of her son, Junebug. We see her children’s faces stitched in the skirt of her garment—causalities of trafficking: Sold, traded, exploited.  Stars, galaxies, night skies. Survival poetry. Life for black Americans is tension and release—inhale, pause, rest and rejuvenation. Such is MTC’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones. Jazz is black people, so to use this premise—jazz, to tell a story too many think they have mined of all its ore is at once incredible. It is always incredible to see this play, the only Wilson play which puts at its center a black woman, two black women – one younger and one older. These women, Aunt Ester and Black Mary, actresses, Margo Hall and Omoze Idehenre, mirror one another, the younger mentored by the elder. Similarly Citizen is mentored by Solly Two Kings, actors Namir Smallwood and Juney Smith.

Smith’s Two Kings is a fierce warrior. With his walking stick, the audience can imagine his striding through swamps, escaping or being bitten by dogs, as he helped enslaved Africans to freedom. Both he and Eli (actor David Everett Moore) help other Africans escape, and as a free people reclaim their agency. Freedom is an attitude both men possess.



Citizen Barlow (Namir Smallwood) with his ship, the "Gem of the Ocean", traveling to the "City of Bones", guided by Aunt Ester (Margo Hall). Photo credit: Kevin Berne

Aunt Ester’s house is a place where black people come to get right with themselves, to throw off shackles especially the one’s imprisoning souls. Hall’s Aunt Ester at 200 is a bit frail, but feisty; however, Black Mary is up for the challenge.  Idehenre’s character, has a stillness about her, a deep pool of water men have drowned in. While she cooks, cleans, haggles with Selig, loves her brother, and flirts with Citizen, she is looking for a man with something to offer for keeps.

The State of the Union hasn’t changed much from the proclamation Lincoln uttered 150 years ago to now for some Americans, the Americans descended from those captives aboard “Gem”—the slave ship Africans sailed on. Another read is that the people – black people, are the true “gems of the ocean.” This nation was divided even after a war which decimated the southern economy.  Solly Two Kings says of the battle, it was never about justice for the black man, still isn’t. Many white folks would fight the war again, he heard many say, if the outcome would make things the same as it was for the south.

Two Kings utters these words Wilson wrote before the shooting last July at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church— Denmark Vesey’s church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The playwright wrote these words before Karen Branan published,“The Family Tree: a Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth,” a book on kinship lynchings, and  Kidada E. Williams, Ph.D., published, “They Left Great Marks on Me,
African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.”

Black people fled to the north and west, but there was no freedom there according to Berkeley resident and activist, Oscar C. Wright, (93) in Growing Up Black in America Vol. 1: 1923-1965 (2015) and Genocide: Locked out by Design (2015). Wright is also the subject of Michael Lange’s last film, “Not for Sale: The Story of Oscar C. Wright” (2016).

While Solly Two Kings freed enslaved Africans, Caesar Wilks (sheriff) wanted to free himself, even if this meant he lost his soul in return. Tyee J. Tilghman’s Caesar talks to his sister Black Mary about how he was forced to compromise his values to be accepted by white people. Given a badge and a gun, he was policing black people for white people. Just a glorified overseer, it is strange Caesar, who is very sharp, missed the fact that he was being used. He was eating his own magic bread. Wilson named this character correctly. A leader among men, Caesar’s hubris is part of his undoing, the other is misplaced loyalties and his refusal to listen. Tilgman and Idehenre’s interaction leads to a crescendo where the cards fall and Caesar lies on the bottom of the heap—he’s not a bad man, similar to Kemetic god “Set,” (Seth) who kills Ausar, (Osiris) the king. Caesar/Set just is too full of himself.

1839[1] Wylie Avenue, Aunt Ester’s house is the center or nexus of the story. Aunt Ester (actress Margo Hall), is about 231 years old and has felt enslavements’ inequities. Her home is not just a safe house, it is also a sanctuary, where Black Mary finds solace from a world pressing in, seeking but not succeeding to decimate her soul. Citizen Bartlow is troubled and seeks Aunt Ester’s help to wash his soul. In Ifa, the soul is one’s ori which is one’s head. Smallwood’s troubled character needs his “ori” cleansed. Citizen is worried, his heart is heavy and he hopes Aunt Ester can give him the tools to make his life right once again. At Aunt Ester’s house we meet actor David Everett Moore’s Eli, who is Esu-Elegba, the god of the crossroads, the many paths by which one travels reach one’s destiny. To enter Aunt Ester’s house, a guest has to go through him. He is the door. Then there are Aunt Ester’s friends, Solly Two Kings and a white trader or peddler, Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones).

Director Daniel Alexander Jones use of improvisation aesthetics called “theatrical jazz,” a place where recently liberated black folks escaping the south for northern cities like Pittsburgh carve a place for themselves.

In Alabama and elsewhere roads are closed and black people have to create alternative escape routes. The Underground Railroad was still operational in 1904. Solly Two Kings speaks of another journey south to rescue his sister. White folks were more than determined to re-enslave its legally emancipated citizens. MTC’s production features composer Kevin Carnes’s original soundtrack, while Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, dramaturg, looks at how the psychic space surrounding black bodies then and now is tight. Designed to constrict and confine, seize and possess black souls, the fact that Citizen finds an open window at Aunt Ester’s house is an anomaly. Who left the window open? Did Eli as Esu anticipate his coming?

Tilghman’s Caesar Wilks struggles ideologically – where are the windows, doors, spaces –legal spaces he is welcomed? Once inside the stratified system of racial dominance or white supremacy, what aspects of his blackness does he have to let go? How does the lawman maintain a functional connection to black community when white society anoints him with white not black power? Which master will he serve becomes the feather in the scale weighed against his heart.

The actors walk across the stage and freeze in an opening montage creating a visual fresco as they move then freeze. It is as if they are dancing to in elaborate game of “Mother May I?” or caught by the Snow Queen’s wand (smile).  The visual frames allow the audience to observe the characters as they wordlessly introduce themselves—the montage a prelude, each rotation or turning another angle of the tuning fork. Moments later, I look over my shoulder and there is Citizen Bartlow (actor Namir Smallwood) standing next to me in the aisle. He is waiting for Tuesday, the day Eli tells him to return to speak to Aunt Ester. Later on, Rutherford Selig passes me on his way out the door. My seat is situated in a busy thoroughfare.

Claudia Rankin says in “Citizen, An American Lyric,” to Citizen Bartlow: “You like to think memory goes back though remembering was never recommended. Forget all that, the world says. The world’s had a lot of practice. No one should adhere to the facts that contribute to narrative, the facts that create lives. To your mind, feelings are what create a person, something unwilling, something wild vandalizing whatever the skull holds. Those sensations form a someone. The headaches begin then. . .” (61). It is this headache which makes Citizen look for the woman who “washes souls.” It is what takes him to the City of Bones. Memory of the man drowning makes Citizen seek absolution and forgiveness.

“The world is right.” Rankin continues. “You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world stored in you. Who did what to whom on which day? (63). It is not only the journey which frees Citizen, it is also the ceremony, its preparation, and ultimately the community which frees his soul, washes it clean.  Wellness is communal. The people at 1869 Wylie embrace Citizen. They provide him with spiritual shelter, and prepare him for his journey—the rudder is faith in himself, his people and God, ‘cause the ship is not always in his command.

Props like chairs hang from a wall, where they inhale and exhale, a visible levitation between multiple dimensions, while benches become cooling boards, staffs totems, dog feces called “pure,” a delicacy. We hear saxophones wail and basses hum as African rhythms heat the ground and confuse the hounds chasing Solly Two Kings as he carries the enslaved over into Jordan (Canada). In the kitchen area there is an altar—bottle jars or houses for spirit beings or souls traveling through the 1869 way station. (Remember, Aunt Ester’s is a safe house.) There are bells and sacred medicinal stones, as well as pipe joints reinforced with black leather. The textured set is also alive as water swims in the walls where shadows move as Aunt Ester rocks, Citizen climbs through a window or Black Mary makes up a bed.

The ancestors stitched in Aunt Ester and Solly Two King’s garments are living sacraments. Children who have died too soon to violence then and now, Emmett Till and Oscar Grant, Mike Brown and Aiyani Mo’Nay Stanley Jones – Aunt Ester’s Junebug alive in Citizen Bartlow’s young face.  Margo Hall’s eyes hold Namir Smallwood’s Citizen close. He joins Aunt Ester’s familial constellation.

“Gem of the Ocean” is a story of memory and triumph, faith and courage. The body politic that is “black bodies” since 1904 and now remains polemic, which is why “Gem of the Ocean” is so resonant January – February 2016. What does the warrior medicine woman Aunt Ester represent for her people? What does she leave with Black Betty to prepare her descendants whom we meet in Wilson’s Radio Golf?  The older and younger women’s relationship is proof of a game plan. Our ancestors left us with a legacy. Perhaps this is why at Aunt Ester’s house there is laughter, song and dance. We witness Namir’s Citizen dancing juba in a ring shout, while Idehenre’s Black Mary holds her skirt as she stomps her heels.

Citizen learns as he prepares for his trip to the City of Bones, one first has to believe. He is not a citizen of this nation, rather he is a citizen of something much greater. Solly Two Kings tells him that when his mother named him Citizen, “[s]he put a heavy load on you. It’s hard being a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get that. And time you get it you be surprised how heavy it is. . . . The people think they in freedom. That’s all my daddy talked about. He died and never did have it. I say I got it but what is it? I’m still trying to find out. It ain’t never been nothing but trouble. . . .You got to fight to make it mean something. All it mean is you got a long row to hoe and ain’t got no plow. Ain’t got no seed. Ain’t got no mule. What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it? I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.” Listen to a recent Wanda’s Picks Radio interview with Omoze Idehenre, David Everett Moore, and Tyee J. Tilghman: http://tobtr.com/8189113

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, closes Feb. 14, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. Use the code DATENIGHT to get buy 1 ticket and get 1 free ticket to bring a friend. The short link to the ticketing site is: http://bit.ly/AWGemTix










[1] 1839, July 2, is the year the Amistad slaving ship on its way to Cuba was taken over by Africans, its leader, Joseph Cinqué, a 26 year old Mende man from Sierra Leone: http://www.historynet.com/slave-mutiny-on-the-amistad.htm The case which would reach the US Supreme Courth, would be the most important case regarding African American human rights until Dred Scott ruling in 1857. 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Deep Jazz: A Review of MTC’s Gem of the Ocean by Wanda Sabir









When we think about improvisational art forms whether this is crazy quilts – its patterns hard to follow or teach or black music, black aesthetics articulate or mirror the lives of its people—it’s what’s in the cupboard when it’s time to eat that goes into the pot that is stirred until the brew is spicy, hot and ready to serve. 


Art is intrinsically linked to legacy; August Wilson’s Citizen (
Gem of the Ocean) learns this when he sails to the City of Bones and meets his ancestors, feels the lash – adjusts his sight so he is one with them, yet apart. He speaks to Aunt Ester about “getting his soul washed.”  Both Aunt Ester and Black Mary tell him that God is the only one who can wash souls. What Citizen is looking for is forgiveness and the community provides a ritual of atonement for the young man. 


Often there is no system in place to right the wrong. Punishment does nothing for a soul who admits to harming another and wants to make it right. Arrest and imprisonment is not restorative justice. Being locked away from the consequences of one’s actions— distance, just makes it a bit easier to harm another. Perhaps this is what happens to soldiers who experience traumas. It is not natural to kill other people, so to train to do so goes against one’s spiritual inclinations. To kill another person, something has to die inside the killer too.

Jazz or the black improvisational aesthetic which is 
most identifiable during, but especially immediately following emancipation is a scored landscape America promised, yet did not live up too. Called “free” music, jazz was black Americas’ answer to Jim Crow and terrorism suffered from 1865 onward.  This ability to find within an art form or social order creative space, no matter how minute, to plan and strategize is in itself liberating. This is evident in Aunt Ester’s kitchen and sitting room—sheet music for the souls of black folk who come, like Citizen to shake off their shackles. 

Sometimes dying is the best way to assert one’s principles, Citizen learns when he steals a bucket of nails and another man is blamed. This knowledge (that he caused an innocent man’s death) hurts his heart and so he travels to the City of Bones to get right with God, to get right with man, to apologize and seek forgiveness.  




Perhaps Gem of the Ocean resonates so strongly today, because of its themes: community, healing, power, residency, sacrifice, hope.  Solly Two Kings (David and Solomon) is a man not to be crossed. He carries three links of the shackles he once wore (while enslaved) for good luck. He also carries these shackles so that he never forgets captivity. When Citizen, an Alabama escapee, compares what black people are suffering in Pittsburgh to slavery, both Solly Two Kings and Aunt Ester quickly inform him of his error. No matter how awful conditions post-slavery, nothing could induce either of them to willingly submit to slavery again.


Black survival is an art form developed over years of making due with little or nothing except one’s own innate capability – not portable or transferable, one just “made do” and did that well. When Aunt Ester speaks of her children as stars in the sky close but a bit of a reach, we see how she has managed to keep moving and not fall over with grief. But her departed family is ever present, seen in her adoption of Citizen who reminds her of her son, Junebug. We see her children’s faces stitched in the skirt of her garment—causalities of trafficking: Sold, traded, exploited.  Stars, galaxies, night skies. Survival poetry. Life for black Americans is tension and release—inhale, pause, rest and rejuvenation. Such is Marin Theatre Company’s Gem of the Ocean, directed by Daniel Alexander Jones. Jazz is black people, so to use this premise—jazz, to tell a story too many think they have mined of all its ore is at once incredible. It is always incredible to see this play, the only Wilson play which puts at its center a black woman, two black women – one younger and one older. These women, Aunt Ester and Black Mary mirror one another, the younger mentored by the elder, similarly Citizen is mentored by Solly Two Kings.

The state of this Union hasn’t changed much from the proclamation Lincoln uttered 150 years ago to now for some Americans.  This nation was divided then, even after a war which decimated the southern economy.  Solly Two Kings says of the battle . . . It was never about justice for the black man, still isn’t.

He utters these words Wilson wrote before the shooting last July at The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME), Denmark Vesey’s church in Charleston, South Carolina.  The playwright wrote these words before the publishing of Karen Branan’s “The Family Tree: a Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth,” a book on kinship lynchings, and  Kidada E. Williams’s “They Left Great Marks on Me, African American Testimonies of Racial Violence from Emancipation to World War I.”

Black people fled to the north and west, but there was no freedom there according to Berkeley resident and activist, Oscar C. Wright, (93) in Growing Up Black in America Vol. 1: 1923-1965 (2015) and Genocide: Locked out by Design (2015). Wright is also the subject of Michael Lange’s last film, “Not for Sale: The Story of Oscar C. Wright” (2016).

While Solly Two Kings freed enslaved Africans, Caesar Wilks (sheriff) wanted to free himself, even if this meant he lost his soul in return. He talks to his sister Black Mary about how he was forced to compromise his values to be accepted by white people. Given a badge and a gun, he was policing black people for white people. Just a glorified overseer, it is strange Caesar missed the fact that he was being used. He was eating his own magic bread. Wilson named this character correctly. A leader among men, Caesar’s hubris is part of his undoing, the other is misplaced loyalties and his refusal to listen.

1839 Wiley Avenue, Aunt Ester’s house is the center or nexus of the story. Aunt Ester (actress Margo Hall), is about 231 years old and has felt enslavements’ inequities. Her home is not just a safe house, it is also a sanctuary, where Black Mary (actress Omoze Idehenri) finds solace from a world pressing in, seeking but not succeeding to decimate her soul. Citizen Bartlow (actor Namir Smallwood) is troubled and seeks Aunt Ester’s help to wash his soul. In Ifa, the soul is one’s ori which is one’s head. Citizen needs his “ori” cleansed. He is worried, his heart is heavy and he hopes Aunt Ester can give him the tools to make his life right once again. At Aunt Ester’s house we meet Eli (actor David Everett Moore), who is Esu-Elegba, the god of the crossroads, the many paths by which one travels reach one’s destiny. To enter Aunt Ester’s house, a guest has to go through him. He is the door. Then there are Aunt Ester’s friends, Solly Two Kings (actor Juney Smith) and a white trader or peddler, Rutherford Selig (Patrick Kelly Jones).

Director Daniel Alexander Jones use of improvisation aesthetics called “theatrical jazz,” a place where recently liberated black folks escaping the south for northern cities like Pittsburgh carve a place for themselves.

In Alabama and elsewhere roads are closed and black people have to create alternative escape routes. The Underground Railroad was still operational in 1904. Solly Two Kings speaks of rescuing his sister, making another trek south to help her escape. White folks were more than determined to re-enslave its legally emancipated citizens. MTC’s production features composer Kevin Carnes’s original soundtrack, while Omi Osun Joni L. Jones, dramaturg, looks at how the psychic space surrounding black bodies then and now is tight. Designed to constrict and confine, seize and possess black souls, the fact that Citizen finds an open window at Aunt Ester’s house is an anomaly. Who left the window open?

Caesar Wilks (actor Tyee Tilghman) struggles ideologically – where are the windows, doors, spaces –legal spaces he is welcomed? Once inside the stratified system of racial dominance or white supremacy, what aspects of his blackness does he have to let go? How does law man maintain a functional connection to black community when white society anoints him with white not black power? Which master will he serve becomes the feather in the scale weighed against his heart.

The play opens with the characters creating frescos, poses where they stop and then go. I look over my shoulder and there is Citizen (actor Namir Smallwood) standing next to me in the aisle. He is waiting for Tuesday when Eli told him to return to speak to Aunt Ester. Rutherford Selig passes me on his way out the door. It is a busy thoroughfare.

Props like chairs hang from a wall, where they inhale and exhale, a visible levitation between multiple dimensions, while benches become cooling boards, staffs totems, dog feces called “pure,” a delicacy. We hear saxophones wail and basses hum as African rhythms heat the ground and confuse the hounds chasing Solly Two Kings as he carries the enslaved over into Jordan (Canada). In the kitchen area there is an altar—bottle jars or houses for spirit beings or souls passing to and fro. (Remember, Aunt Ester’s is a safe house.) There are bells and sacred medicinal stones, as well as pipe joints reinforced with black leather. The textured set is also alive as water swims in the walls where shadows move as Aunt Ester rocks, Citizen enters or Black Mary prepares a bed.

The ancestors stitched in Aunt Ester and Solly Two King’s garments are living sacraments. Children who have died too soon to violence then and now, Emmett Till and Oscar Grant, Mike Brown and Aiyani Mo’Nay Stanley Jones – Aunt Ester’s Junebug alive in Citizen Bartlow’s young face.  Her children and husband killed or sold away during enslavement. She tells Citizen often he is a part of a familial constellation.

Gem of the Ocean is a story of memory and triumph, faith and courage. The body politic that is “black bodies” since 1904 and now remains polemic, which is why Gem of the Ocean is so resonant January – February 2016. What does the warrior medicine woman Aunt Ester represent for her people? What does she leave with Black Betty to prepare her descendants whom we meet in Wilson’s Radio Golf?  There relationship is proof of a game plan. Our ancestors left us with a legacy. Perhaps this is why at Aunt Ester’s house there is laughter, song and dance. We witness Citizen dancing Juba in a ring shout. Black Mary kicks up her heels to as Africa pulses in the depths.
Citizen learns as he prepares for his trip to the City of Bones, one first has to believe. He is not a citizen of this nation, rather he is a citizen of something much greater. Solly Two Kings tells him that when his mother named him Citizen, “[s]he put a heavy load on you. It’s hard being a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get that. And time you get it you be surprised how heavy it is. . . . The people think they in freedom. That’s all my daddy talked about. He died and never did have it. I say I got it but what is it? I’m still trying to find out. It ain’t never been nothing but trouble. . . .You got to fight to make it mean something. All it mean is you got a long row to hoe and ain’t got no plow. Ain’t got no seed. Ain’t got no mule. What good is freedom if you can’t do nothing with it? I seen many a man die for freedom but he didn’t know what he was getting. If he had known he might have thought twice about it.” Listen to a recent Wanda’s Picks Radio interview with Omoze Idehenre, David Everett Moore, and Tyee J. Tilghman: http://tobtr.com/8189113

August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” directed by Daniel Alexander Jones, closes Feb. 14, at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley. For ticket discounts use code DATENIGHT to get buy 1 ticket and get 1 free ticket to bring a friend. The short link to the ticketing site is: http://bit.ly/AWGemTix