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