gem of the ocean

We saw August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean at the Seattle Rep’s matinee yesterday afternoon. I was surprised – it was even more radical, though in a less contemporary setting, than Radio Golf.

Which isn’t suprising: Golf dates from 2005, Ocean from 2003, the second-to-last Wilson wrote. They bracket the African-American Cycle, Golf set in the 1990s, Ocean in the 1900s.

Yet they share a disgust with upwardly-mobile blacks who betray not only their race, but the class most blacks share with most other Americans, putting their own individual succeess ahead of everyone else’s – just like every other successful individualist in America, whatever their race or class origins.

Here the black sheriff Ceasar embodies the race and class traitor, keeping order for the white mayor in the Hill District, and renting out lodging by the week on the side himself, mercilously evicting anyone who fails to pay on time.

But let’s not dwell on him. What’s most interesting here is the change Wilson plays on Aristotelian victim-based drama. Instead of ending with an innocent victim, this play begins with one: a tin mill worker falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails, who jumps into the river and stays there proclaiming his innocence until he drowns, rather than accept the plea bargain Ceasar offers of 30 days jail time in exchange for a false confession.

While the audience’s appreciation of the tragic victim’s innocence is, in the theories I’ve studied, productive of social cohesion – there but for the grace of God go I – this truly innocent man’s self sacrifice to avoid the stigma of guilt is productive of something else entirely: social upheaval and revolution.

As the white (in this production at least) tinker Selig explains the effect, it’s like the horse thief he’s heard about as a child, who before he became a thief was falsely accused on being one. Instead of accepting his victimhood, he escaped and lived to steal many a horse afterwards – each time sending word that, while he didn’t steal the first one he was accused of stealing – he had stole the latest one.

So here, the falsely accused nail thief’s self-sacrifice begins a strike amongst the mill workers – and induces Solly Two Kings to drop his disguise as a mere dog shit collector and salesman (apparently is was used to manure roses), reveal himself as a former underground railroad conductor, and set fire to the mill himself, to free all the black former slaves and their descendants who’d sold their souls to the company store.

Like, for example, Citizen Barlow, newly arrived from Alabama, and the man who’d actually stolen the nails. Thanks to a soul washing ritual performed by the play’s presiding Sibyl and mystagogue – Aunt Ester, who I think only jokes that she’s like 300 years old, as if she were as old as slavery in the Americas, though more credulous critics seem to take her at her word – Citizen overcomes what seems his own destiny toward tragic victimhood in the classic Oedipus mode, and instead becomes purified of his inadvertent sin – catharos truly – and ready to take of the heroic task of living, and dying if the case requires it, on his own terms, out of an educated sense of his own worth as a fully moral actor.

And so he dons Solly’s cape and staff, and picks up his kerosene can, taking himself out into the night to complete the mission that Caesar’s bullet prevented Solly from fulfilling – burning down the jail to free the imprisoned strikers.

I haven’t had time to fully comprehend this yet – but I think Wilson may have invented a new kind of drama just before he died, grounded in tradictional Greek and Yoruba/African-American precedents, yet socially transformative in a way that goes beyond even Brecht.

To have this playing in the main Bagley Wright theater while Rachel Corrie is hitting the boards right next door in the Leo K, is truly amazing.

Forget the Intiman, despite the lucky improvement Native Son brought to it last season (too bad I never finished that review…): this is the American Cycle you must see in Seattle.

What are you waiting for? You still have, what – three weeks?

Posted Tuesday, April 17th, 2007 under Uncategorized.

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