July 31, 2003


Opening This Week: Gem of the Ocean


Carrying Voices


August Wilson told me a secret: how to keep a character alive for centuries.


When I'd heard that Aunt Ester, a death-defying 300-year-old healer mentioned but never seen in Wilson's Two Trains Running and King Hedley II, would be the central character of his new Gem of the Ocean, opening at the Mark Taper Forum this week, I wondered how this supernatural character would fit into the naturalistic world his plays usually occupy.


"Obviously nobody can live to be 300, but her memory is kept alive--it's passed on from generation to generation," he explained. His solution, then, is to make her a sort of human talisman--an identity passed like a mantle from one "Aunt Ester" to the next. So by the time Gem opens in 1904, there have already been "about four or five Aunt Esters," and though the Ester we see (played by Phylicia Rashad), puts her age at 287, she's really "about 72 years old," said Wilson. "She has been consciously carrying the memory, the tradition of Africans." And we see that her niece Black Mary, another character in Gem, is likely to be the next anointed.


Mary's heritage, and that of her brother in Gem, the landlord/sheriff Caesar, are likely to figure in Wilson's next play--the last in his so-called "century project," in which he's dramatized African-American life in each decade of the 20th century. Much as King Hedley II and Gem have begun to employ common characters across generations, Wilson's yet-to-be-written play, about the 1990s, will be consciously conceived as a capper for the series. Though he didn't initially start out to write a 10-play series, as he nears the closing lap, Wilson admitted that he's "summing up, tying up." He also said, though, that he's grateful he didn't know this from the beginning.


"I'm glad I didn't do that all throughout--follow one family over generations," said Wilson, whose childhood in Pittsburgh's Hill District was the wellspring and setting for nearly all his writing. "That way there's an opportunity for each of the plays to be totally its own thing, as a representation of African-American life in the 20th century in different decades."


Wilson has described his writing process as essentially being buttonholed by characters who start talking to him and won't shut up. He talks back, other characters emerge, and the play's world takes shape around their dialogue. This may be why at their best Wilson's plays are distinguished less by well-made-play plotting than by their overflowing talk, which is often rapturous, profane, lyrical, harsh, and funny all at once.


It's also probably why he has started to revisit characters. When he started writing plays, he was a poet who had, by his own admission, not seen very many, so the voices that spoke to him were straight out of the Hill District. Now that he's been working with actors and directors for 25 years, and watching countless productions of his work, it's as if his stage creations are asking for some consideration, too.


The biggest mouth, Wilson said, was on Hedley, the mysterious old sandwich seller in Seven Guitars. "Hedley was my most unruly character," recalled Wilson. "I kept telling him, 'Get off the stage,' but he would threaten to tear down the theatre if he couldn't tell his story."


But it was Hedley's first name that started all the cross-referencing. While Hedley insists in Seven Guitars that he doesn't "tell nobody my name's King, 'cause it's a bad thing," when he impregnates a young Southerner named Ruby, she declares, "If it's a boy, I'm gonna name him King." Wilson had the play's other characters express his reaction: "Why you wanna put that legacy on him?" It was the ironic corrosion of that legacy, from the suggestion of African royalty to the reality of American bondage, that Wilson explored in the 1980s-set King Hedley II.


In Gem, with characters who are historically closest to slavery and emancipation, the legacy is fresher. At the play's climax, Aunt Ester "washes" the soul of a young man named Citizen by taking him on a sort of vision quest to the City of Bones, a mythical mid-Atlantic island formed by the bones of Africans lost on the Middle Passage.


"The Atlantic Ocean is the biggest unmarked graveyard in the world," Wilson said, in a chilling metaphor. "Part of what I'm doing with the City of Bones is marking it—giving it a headstone, if you will."


In his sense of responsibility to his ancestors, to preserving and telling their stories, Wilson is a little like Aunt Ester himself. But has the fiery young poet whose first play, Jitney, was about trash-talking gypsy cab drivers ever felt, as his plays and awards and significance have mounted, this memorializing mission as a burden?


"No, I've always thought it was a good thing," Wilson said. "I feel fortunate that I discovered that project. It kept me safe and gave me a goal. It kept me working."


In other words, when characters threaten to tear down the theatre if you won't tell their stories, you listen.


—Rob Kendt


"Gem of the Ocean" will be presented by the Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, Tues.-Fri. 8 p.m., Sat., 2:30 & 8 p.m., Sun. 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. July 31–Sept. 7. $31-45. (323) 628-2772.