Gem of the Ocean

Setting:  1904
Written:  2001
Huntington Production:  2004

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  • AUNT ESTER: Her name sounds like the word “ancestor” and she is the connector between the African past and the African American present. Her name suggests both Easter, the holiest day of the Christian calendar, and the biblical character Esther, Ahasureus’ queen and the heroine of Purim, a Jewish holiday, which celebrates the saving of the Hebrew people. She is both the physical and the mystical link between present and past. Her home is a sanctuary where troubled people come to be cleansed of guilt and sorrow. Aunt Ester’s birth, approximately 285 years prior to when the play takes place, coincided with the arrival of the first shipment of African slaves in the English colonies. She is both the keeper and the transmitter of African-American memory.
  • CAESAR WILKS: Black Mary's brother, a policeman, baker and land-owner. He is the villainous constable and venal slumlord in the play. His name means dictator or autocrat, which originated from the original Roman emperor, Julius Caesar. He is reminiscent of the plantation overseers of slavery times and represents the black-face authority who acts and speaks for the white world.
  • BLACK MARY: The protégée of Aunt Ester, she is trying to learn the wisdom and ways of the old woman. While supervising Ester’s house, she serves her and washes her feet in a ritual reminiscent of the self-abasement of Mary, sister of Martha, at Bethany during the last days of Christ.
  • CITIZEN BARLOW: The seeker and confessor in the play. A migrant from Alabama, his intent is to work in a factory, but he steals a bucket of nails which results in an innocent man drowning to avoid false arrest. He insists on seeing Aunt Ester to confess his sin of black-upon-black violence. His mother named him Citizen “after freedom came,” but Solly Two Kings reminds him that to truly be a Citizen, he’ll have to fight to uphold freedom when it becomes a heavy load.
  • ELI: Aunt Ester’s companion, bears the name of an Old Testament priest and mentor to young Samuel. As such, he is steady, reliable and maintains peace and security in Aunt Ester’s house. He was Solly's comrade in his efforts on the Underground Railroad and for The Union Army.
  • SOLLY TWO KINGS: A sixty-seven-year-old former slave and conductor on the Underground Railroad whose earlier name was Uncle Alfred. After slavery he changed his name to David and Solomon, two Biblical kings. A friend and suitor to Aunt Ester, he makes a career of gathering up dog excrement, which he calls "pure", for manure.

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Act I Prologue:  Gem of the Ocean opens late at night at 1839 Wylie Avenue in 1904.  Eli prepares to head to bed when there is a violent knock at the door.  It is a young man named Citizen Barlow, demanding to see Aunt Ester, an old woman with a magical reputation for washing people’s souls.  Eli tells him that Aunt Ester won’t see anyone until Tuesday, which agitates Citizen.  He tries to push by Eli, but Aunt Ester emerges, and calmly tells Citizen to return on Tuesday. 

Scene 1:  A day later, Citizen Barlow is outside of the house, apparently prepared to stand there waiting until Tuesday comes.  Rutherford Selig, a white peddler, arrives to sell his wares, but also brings news that the mill upriver has been shut down for the funeral of a man named Garret Brown.  Brown was accused of stealing a bucket of nails but claimed he did not do it.  Caesar Wilks, Black Mary’s brother and the local constable, chased Brown, who jumped in the river and stayed in until he drowned. 

Solly arrives and confirms that no one is going to work, but instead are heading over to the church for the funeral.  Despite Black Mary’s objections, Solly brings in his basket of what he refers to as “pure.”  Pure is dog excrement, which Solly collects and sells as manure.  Eli asks Solly for help building a stone wall on the side of the house.  Eli hopes the wall will “keep Caesar on the other side.”  Black Mary and Solly agree that Caesar is just doing his job and that he’s good at it.  Solly takes out at letter from his sister, Eliza Jackson, which Black Mary reads aloud for him.  Eliza reports that times are tough for colored people down South in Alabama.  Solly says that he plans to go down there to help his sister and that a man named Jefferson Culpepper will accompany him.

Aunt Ester enters and inspects Solly’s pure and purchases some.  Black Mary heads out to do the shopping but Aunt Ester and Solly know she is really going to visit a man named Percy Saunders.  Aunt Ester reveals to Solly that she had a dream about Black Mary before she knew her and then Black Mary showed up at her front door the next day.  Aunt Ester had a dream last night that Solly was going to Alabama and Solly confirms that it’s true.  Solly and Eli head out to attend Garret Brown’s funeral.

Scene 2:  Citizen crawls into Aunt Ester’s house through a window.  He is hungry and stands in the kitchen devouring a piece of bread and looking for more food.  When Aunt Ester finds him there, Citizen claims that he “ain’t no robber” and that even though Aunt Ester said he had to come back on Tuesday, he cannot wait that long.  Aunt Ester says that Citizen reminds her of her son, Junebug, who was a rascal who caused her trouble.  They discuss Garret Brown’s determination to maintain his innocence by staying in the water, choosing to die innocent rather than live guilty.  Citizen explains that he is only recently arrived in Pittsburgh from Alabama.  The journey was difficult because all of the roads were closed to colored people so he had to sneak out.  He got a job working at the mill but the money he was being paid working at the mill was not enough to cover his room and board, and as a result he became indebted to the people at the mill.  Citizen confesses that before he could go to another city, he killed a man and is now full of despair and needs Aunt Ester’s help.  Aunt Ester comforts Citizen and decides that he will stay and help Eli build the wall.

Scene 3:  Eli and Black Mary discuss Citizen’s arrival.  They are skeptical of Aunt Ester’s explanation that he simply knocked on the door and she opened it.  Solly enters and reports that people at the mill are rioting and refusing to work.  The police arrested as many people as possible, but there are plans to continue the strike the next day.  Solly also says that he will have to make his trip to Alabama alone because Jefferson Culpepper has consumption and is likely to die soon.  He dictates a return letter to his sister, which Black Mary writes for him and signs, “Your brother, Two Kings,” at Solly’s request.  Solly explains to Citizen that he changed his name from Uncle Alfred (the name given to him as a slave) to Two Kings (for David and Solomon) because the government was looking for him for being a runaway.  Citizen says his mother gave him his name after freedom came and Solly notes that in doing so, Citizen’s mother has put a heavy load on him—“It’s hard to be a citizen.  You gonna have to fight to get that.”  Solly and Citizen reminisce about their respective homes in Alabama and their reasons for leaving.  As Black Mary sets out lunch, she and Solly debate God’s contradictory statements in the Bible:  “God say different things,” Solly says.  “Say, ‘I will smite my enemies.’  Then he tell you to ‘turn the other cheek.’”

Caesar enters in an agitated state and Eli tries to remind him that “this a peaceful house.”  Caesar is up in arms about the mill worker strike and claims that if “they don’t go to work tomorrow there gonna be hell to pay.”  He claims that Eli is wasting his time trying to build a wall and that is Citizen needs a job he should either go to the mill or move on to Philadelphia.  Caesar warns Citizen to stay away from Black Mary and warns everyone to keep an eye on Citizen.  Caesar claims that the mill workers are ungrateful for the opportunity the mill provides them and that if they continue striking, they will all end up in jail for loitering and not paying their rent.  He believes that the black community will disintegrate and fall into poverty, for which he blames Abraham Lincoln, and says that some of them were “better off in slavery.”

Caesar mocks Solly for his work collecting dog excrement and puts down Black Mary for working as a washerwoman in Aunt Ester’s house.  He tries to convince her to return to work for him in his bakery but she refuses, saying accusing Caesar of cheating his customers and his tenants by overcharging them.  Black Mary has not forgotten when Caesar shot a boy for stealing a loaf of bread, but Caesar claims he was justified and that the law is everything.  As a black man he has had to play the hand that was dealt to him.  Years ago, he put down a riot started by a troublemaker, and as a result, was made constable of the Third Ward.  He tries to convince Black Mary that blood is thicker than water and that she should not turn her back on him, who is her family.  “You give up on family and you ain’t got nothing left.”

Scene 4:  Black Mary confronts Citizen about coming in through the window and he admits that he was desperate to have his soul washed.  He asks her to come to his room later that night, saying that she is “too young a woman not to have a man.”  Black Mary tells him that if she does, it will not change anything for either of them.  She says that men use women up and are so focused on their own needs that they can’t see women’s needs.  But Citizen, she says, does not even know what he needs and is blinded by it.  They kiss, and in the end, she agrees to go to his room.

Scene 5:  Black Mary washes Aunt Ester’s feet.  Aunt Ester recounts how she came to have the name “Ester Tyler” and that she is now 285 years old.  She says that Black Mary will need to make up her mind about whether she wants to be her successor, and sends Black Mary to send Citizen down to talk.  When Citizen enters, Aunt Ester asks him what he had done.  Citizen admits that he stole a bucket of nails, the same bucket of nails Garret Brown was accused of stealing.  When Brown was accused and jumped in the river, Citizen remained silent.  He is filled with guilt over Brown’s death.  Aunt Ester compares Citizen’s choice to Peter’s denial of Christ in the Bible and wonders if Citizen will take a chance for redemption if it is handed to him.  She decides she will help him and take him to the City of Bones, but first he must do something.  He must go upriver and find two pennies lying side by side on the ground.  When he finds them, he must pick them up and bring them back to Aunt Ester.  He must also go to see a man name Jilson Grant, who will give him something.  After Citizen leaves, Black Mary asks Aunt Ester why he needs the two pennies and Aunt Ester explains:  “That’s only to give him something to do.  He think there a power in them two pennies.  He think when he find them all his trouble will be over.  But he need to think that before he can come face to face with himself.  Ain’t nothing special about the two pennies.  Only thing special about them is he think they special.”

A moment later, Eli bursts in, shouting that the mill is on fire.

Act II Scene 1:  The next day, Selig sits in the kitchen with Black Mary, telling her that all the way to Philadelphia, people are talking about the mill fire.  There is rumor that the army may be called in if the police cannot handle the situation.  Eli enters saying that it doesn’t look like the fire at the mill can be put out. 

Citizen returns to the house with the two pennies, but without finding Jilson Grant.  On a quilt made to look like a map, Aunt Ester shows Citizen the location of a city made of bones that is the home of the thousands of people who never made it across the water.  She folds her bill of sale from when she was sold as a slave into a small boat and tells Citizen that he will take a ride on the boat.  She says that it will take him to the City of Bones if he believes it can.  Aunt Ester says that she will guide Citizen to the City of Bones that night to wash his soul, but first they must both prepare for the journey.

Scene 2:  Black Mary and Eli make preparations for Citizen’s journey.  Solly arrives, prepared for his trip to Alabama.  He tells Citizen that mill has been burning so long because of the tin inside.  He gives Citizen a piece of chain that he carries for good luck.  When Solly was a slave, this chain used to be around his ankle.  He tells Citizen how he became a conductor on the Underground Railroad and explains that the sixty-two notches on his walking stick symbolize the sixty-two people he carried to freedom.  He and Eli tell stories about working together to help the Union army and taking escaped slaves on secret routes to Canada.  Solly, Eli, and Citizen drink some whiskey as Solly and Eli continue to reflect on the Civil War and their view that Emancipation did not turn out to be exactly what it was promised to be. 

Aunt Ester persuades Solly to take Citizen to the City of Bones before leaving to see his sister in Alabama.  She hands Citizen the paper boat and tells him its name is the Gem of the Ocean.  Aunt Ester begins to describe the boat as Black Mary, Solly, and Eli sing, and within moments, Citizen feels he is on the Gem of the Ocean.  Solly and Eli wear European masks and symbolically chain Citizen in the boat.  Citizen experiences whippings and brandings on his symbolic journey and soon finds himself at the Twelve Gates to the city.  He uses his two pennies to pay the gatekeeper but is horrified to discover that the gatekeeper is Garret Brown, the man who jumped in the river.  Aunt Ester tells Citizen he must accept responsibility or else he will never be right with himself.  Citizen says, “It was me.  I done it.  My name is Citizen Barlow.  I stole a bucket of nails,” and the gate opens.  He sees the people in the city with their tongues on fire, as described by Aunt Ester.  Moments later, he is returned to Aunt Ester’s home, and the others celebrate Citizen’s renewal and absolution.

Caesar arrives, accusing Solly of setting the mill on fire.  Solly whacks Caesar’s knee with his walking stick and runs out.  Caesar declares that he will get justice.

Scene 3:  Black Mary tells Citizen that it does not matter whether Solly actually burned down the mill or not.  If Caesar catches him, Caesar will kill him.  Citizen notices Black Mary’s blue dress and tells a story about a girl he once met at a dance who wore a blue dress.  They spent the night together but when he woke up the next morning, she was crying and could not stop.  Black Mary says that you have to be right with yourself before you can be right with anybody else.

Aunt Ester sends Citizen to find Rutherford Selig and bring him to the house.  She criticizes Black Mary for having the fire too high and Black Mary claims that she cannot do everything exactly as Aunt Ester wants her to.  If she is going to stay around, she is going to do things her own way.  Aunt Ester asks, “What took you so long?”

Scene 4:  Citizen returns with Selig, who reports that all of the roads are blocked off because of the search for whoever burned down the mill.  Aunt Ester asks Selig to take Solly downriver.  Solly exclaims that he burned down the mill because freedom has a high price.  Citizen says he will go with Solly.  Aunt Ester sends Solly out the back door just before Caesar arrives.  Selig says goodbye to Black Mary and Eli, and leaves.  Caesar has a warrant but Aunt Ester shows him her piece of paper:  her bill of sale.  Caesar says he wouldn’t give 10 cents for the piece of paper, so Aunt Ester counters that his piece of paper, his warrant for Solly’s arrest, is not worth anything either.  Black Mary argues that 1839 Wylie Avenue is a house of sanctuary for those wanting redeption, as described in the Bible.  But Caesar says that the law is above all else and arrests Aunt Ester for aiding Solly’s escape and interfering with his arrest.

Scene 5:  Eli and Black Mary arrive home with Aunt Ester, having bailed her out of jail.  Citizen enters a few moments later, reporting that Caesar has shot Solly.  Citizen and Selig bring Solly into the house, and Aunt Ester and Black Mary try to stop his bleeding, but they are unsuccessful.  Citizen places his two pennies in Solly’s lifeless hands so he can pay the gatekeeper.  Eli’s eulogy is interrupted by Caesar’s arrival.  Citizen hides as Caesar enters looking for him.  Black Mary disowns Caesar and he leaves.  Citizen puts on Solly’s coat and hat, takes his walking stick, and exits.

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