44 pages 1 hour read

August Wilson

Gem of the Ocean

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 2003

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Summary and Study Guide


August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean premiered in 2003 and was published the same year. It is the chronologically the first installment in Wilson’s Century Cycle, a series of 10 plays that examine the experiences of Black people during the 20th century. Wilson won two Pulitzer Prizes for Century Cycle plays, the first for Fences in 1987, and the second for The Piano Lesson in 1990.

Gem of the Ocean begins in 1904 and chronicles the first decade of the 20th century, depicting the struggles of Black people to redefine themselves post-emancipation and attain economic freedom in the face of institutional racism. It engages with several themes that run through the Century Cycle and paints a complex, rich portrait both of the Black community in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, and of the broader struggles of Black communities all over the country in the period following the end of the Civil War.

This guide refers to the 2006 edition of the play published by the Theatre Communications Group.

Content Warning: This guide discusses racism, enslavement, and racialized violence, which the source text depicts. Gem of the Ocean also includes outdated and racist language, including slurs such as the n-word.

Plot Summary

Gem of the Ocean begins in 1904, four decades after the end of the Civil War, during the Great Migration of Black people from the rural South to cities in the North. Although these formerly enslaved Americans are now free, there is still widespread racism and segregation in the United States, and life for them is not easy. They are subject to oppressive Jim Crow laws in the South and exploited economically throughout the country.

The play opens in the home of Aunt Ester, Eli, and Black Mary at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s historically Black Hill District. Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old formerly enslaved woman, is the household matriarch as well as the community’s spiritual leader. She is known as a “washer” of souls for her ability to help formerly enslaved people and their children find spiritual peace. Eli, her caretaker, and Black Mary, her housekeeper, care deeply for Aunt Ester and the three of them, although unrelated by blood, are a family. Eli’s friend Solly is a frequent visitor to the house. Their relationship is longstanding; the two were conductors together on the Underground Railroad and also served as guides for the Union Army during the end of the Civil War. At the beginning of the play, Solly has plans to travel back down to Alabama, where he and Eli are from, to rescue his sister Eliza. Eliza desperately wants to leave the Jim Crow South, but local white people have set up roadblocks, hoping to prevent Black people, whom they still exploit for their labor even after emancipation, from leaving.

Two related conflicts dominate the play, the suicide of Garret Brown, a local mill worker falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails, and recent migrant Citizen Barlow’s quest for redemption and spiritual peace. Citizen seeks out Aunt Ester’s help and guidance, hoping that she will agree to “wash” his soul. Unbeknownst to everyone, Citizen was the true nail thief, and he feels a profound sense of guilt over Brown’s death. The tin mill, which employs a large Black workforce, relies on manipulative, predatory labor practices, and its workers are kept in a constant state of debt to the owners.

After Brown’s death by suicide, the situation at the mill deteriorates, and animosity between workers and the owner reaches an inflection point. The workers first strike and then riot. Caesar, a local constable and brother to Black Mary, arrests as many workers as he can. Solly, struck by the injustice of racist labor practices and moved by the workers’ plight, burns down the mill. Meanwhile, Citizen has begun preparations for his spiritual cleansing, and Aunt Ester, Black Mary, Solly, and Eli gather to assist. Aunt Ester takes Citizen on a figurative journey aboard the Gem of the Ocean, a magic ship that allows him to travel back through the history of enslaved Black people to the City of Bones, a mythical place symbolic of the afterlife, where he is able to admit his guilt to Garret Brown and recognize himself as a full-fledged member of his community. With the help of Aunt Ester, Citizen Barlow is redeemed.

Caesar, who found a witness to the mill fire and thus knows the identity of the arsonist, hunts down Solly and fatally shoots him. Because there is now no one to travel to Alabama to rescue Solly’s sister Eliza, Citizen volunteers to make the journey. Aunt Ester, Black Mary, Eli, and Solly have helped him to understand the importance of community, and he feels duty-bound to help Eliza escape the Jim Crow South.