“Often did I think many of the inhabitants of the deep much happier than myself. Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehension and my opinion of the cruelty of whites.”
– an African slave quoted in the PBS documentary “Africans in America,” speaking of the Middle Passage.
“The people made a kingdom out of nothing. They were the people that didn’t make it across the water, They sat down right there. They say, ‘Let’s make a kingdom. Let’s make a city of bones.’’’
– from August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean.
THE NUMBERS MAY VARY among different historical accounts, but in all cases they are sobering. According to a piece published not long ago by National Geographic, the slave trade between Africa and the Americas from the early 1500s through 1866 involved more than 36,000 voyages, each a months-long journey across the Atlantic. “Of the more than 10 million captives forced onto ships, an average one in eight died during the voyage.”
The travails of those captives, once they landed in Bahia or Barbados or South Carolina, understandably is what most people think of when considering the subject of slavery. But the loss of well more than a million lives, through disease, malnourishment, mistreatment and (albeit rarely) suicide is the story of the Middle Passage – so called because it was the second voyage in a tripartite trade of commodities, so to speak, from Europe to Africa to the Americas and back again. It is the submerged part, if you will, of slavery’s long, dark legacy.
August Wilson, however, transformed it into a shimmering image of spiritual redemption, of enduring strength and hope beyond hope. That great Atlantic graveyard represents, in Wilson’s cultural cosmology, a vital link to a sustaining past. It is, as his greatest play has it, the Gem of the Ocean.
Of Wilson’s plays, Fences and The Piano Lesson are the most honored (both won the Pulitzer and the Drama Desk award; Fences also earned a Tony award for Best Play). Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom was his Broadway breakthrough and one of the three Wilson plays that’s been made into a major film. And among Wilson aficionados, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone also has its ardent admirers. For me, though, the brightest gem is Gem.
Portland Center Stage presents this American masterwork in a production directed by associate artistic director Chip Miller, opening Friday on the Armory mainstage. If prior experience in the area – a 2007 version at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and a Portland Playhouse production (at the World Trade Center Theater) in 2011 – is any guide, this should be memorable.
Gem may find its heart beneath the waters, but its action takes place in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Wilson himself grew up, and the setting for all of his epic 10-play chronicle of 20th-century African-American life – with the exception of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, written before the grand project was fully conceived. The plays don’t form a single continuous narrative; instead, each is set in a different decade and conveys something of the tenor of its time and the shifting surface of what Wilson seems to view as an ongoing existential crisis for his culture. Though it was the next to last play that Wilson wrote (he finished the cycle-concluding Radio Golf in 2005, the same year he died of liver cancer), Gem is our chronological starting point.
It is 1904, and a young man in distress knocks urgently on the door of the house of Aunt Ester, “a very old, yet vital, spiritual advisor for the community.”
How old? Well, by her own reckoning, she’s 285. This makes her a starting point, of sorts, for Wilson’s layers of historical symbolism. That age would put her birth year at 1619, the year the first Africans were brought to English colonies in the New World. It’s fitting, too, that what folks – blood kin or not – call her sounds so much like “ancestor,” and that the street number of her house at 1839 Wylie Avenue matches the year of a famed slave rebellion on the ship La Amistad (though the actress Phylicia Rashad has said that it was a reference to the year that newspapers began to refer to the Underground Railroad). Such references are left to resonate quietly, like distant echoes or the soft creaking of an old house. Other symbols sound out loud, such as the name of that young man at Aunt Ester’s door: Citizen Barlow.
“My mama named me Citizen after freedom came,” he tells one of the house’s frequent visitors, called Solly Two KIngs.
“Your mama’s trying to tell you something,” Solly replies. “She put a heavy load on you. It’s hard to be a citizen. You gonna have to fight to get that.”
A great part of Wilson’s genius lies in how comfortably the symbolic, thematic and poetic elements dovetail with the rough yet rich textures of everyday life – of food and chores, of love and family; in this play, strangely enough, even of dog shit. Wilson’s characters talk a lot – you might even say they talk a lot of shit; but they’re never talking about nothing.
The story of Gem – the framework for all those symbols and textures – is a gritty tale of working-class travail. At the nearby tin mill, a man has drowned in the river rather than surrender himself for a theft he didn’t commit. That tragedy leads to a growing conflict between workers and authorities, while from further afield comes word of racist violence and oppression in the South, “the most anybody remember since bondage,” as a letter from Solly’s sister puts it. And the threats aren’t only external: The play’s only white character is a highly sympathetic peddler, while its villain is a black constable, the brother of Aunt Ester’s protégé/housekeeper.
Against this backdrop of rising turmoil stand Citizen’s desperate uncertainty and Aunt Ester’s resilient, near-mystical wisdom. Citizen has come to the house because folks in the community have told him that Aunt Ester can wash his soul. “God the only one can wash people’s souls,” she tells him. In order to meet the challenge and fulfill the promise of his name, Citizen must undergo a ritual. Aunt Ester must lead him on a journey to the City of Bones.
Won’t you join them?
Best line I read this week
“The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution.”
– W.E.B. Du Bois, as quoted by Henry Louis Gates in an interview with The New Yorker’s David Remnick
The flattened stage
These clips aren’t from the PCS production, but offer a little look at characters and moments from “Gem.”
Fuse Theatre Ensemble always has tended toward bold programming choices, but the group is especially proud of its current season, claiming that it is the only theater in the country to produce two plays by different trans women writers in the same season. Jane Comer’s Becoming Understood premiered in November. Now comes The Queers, by Mikki Gillette. “This show marks a turning point in Portland theater history as it is the only play written by a trans woman featuring a leading ensemble of trans characters to ever receive a major production in Portland,” says a Fuse press release.
Directed by Asae Dean, The Queers, as that release describes it, “follows the trans women Lisa (a substitute teacher falsely accused of misconduct at work), Ally (who struggles with poverty and unrequited love), and Andrea (who’s at the very beginning of her transition). Their paths become entangled with Smith and Pim, a young nonbinary couple, and in this witty and daring script, activism, jealousy, financial insecurity, and suicidal ideation all ensue as the pressures of transphobia raises life’s stresses to a fever pitch.”
Though Milagro has spent decades as a vibrant center for “Hispanic works of theater, art and culture,” in the late 1980s the company cut its teeth on Greek tragedy. Which makes the company an especially fitting one to produce Marc David Pinate’s Antigone at the Border, an adaptation of the Sophocles classic, here in a modern setting near the U.S./Mexico border. You can listen to Pinate talking about the production with Dmae Lo Roberts in her Stage and Studio podcast on ArtsWatch.
The conceit used by the “live vintage radio theater” troupe Tesla City Stories is that its material comes from 1940s broadcasts about a fictional city named after the protean engineer and inventor. The company’s website lists several serials and stand-alone episodes in its repertoire – thrillers, comedies, etc. – but doesn’t appear to say what stories will be performed for this show. Guess you’ll have to turn the dial to find out.
The venturesome chamber-music collective 45th Parallel Universe presents A Giant in the Sky, a tribute to the work of the late musical-theater titan Stephen Sondheim, featuring songs from Into the Woods, Sweeney Todd, Company and other shows, in arrangements for voice, piano and string quartet. You even get two chances to catch the program: Friday in Astoria’s lovely Liberty Theater, and/or Thursday the 17th in Northeast Portland.
Corrib Theatre’s invigorating Maz & Bricks bounces between an abortion-rights argument and a rom-com, eventually braiding the two together in a celebration of the power of empathy. It’s brisk, often funny, and at moments quite touching. That is to say, recommended.
That’s all I have for now. I’ll try to do better the next time.