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:

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:


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