Salvation in the City of Bones: Ma Rainey and Aunt Ester Sing Their Own Songs in August Wilson's Grand Cycle of Blues Dramas
Gener, Randy, American Theatre
IN GEM OF THE OCEAN, THE PENULTIMATE ENTRY IN August Wilson's decade-by-decade cycle of plays chronicling the black experience in 20th-century America, Aunt Ester embraces into her fold Citizen Barlow, a restless soul who breaks into her house through a window. A troubled man in search of salvation, Citizen has been unsuccessfully trying to claim the citizenship promised in Abraham Lincoln's 1865 proclamation on the emancipation of America's slaves. Having committed some mortal crime, he has come to see Aunt Ester ostensibly to get his soul washed. Because he reminds her of a junebug, she gives him a meal, a job and a place to stay.
Soon we find Ester and Citizen sitting in her Pittsburgh parlor and sailing, as if by magic, on a paper boat she has made out of her bill of sale as a slave. The year is 1904. It is the day before Aunt Ester turns 287 years old. The boat, a slave ship, rocks wildly as a gathering storm disturbs the waters and pounds its hull. Their destination is the City of Bones, a noble kingdom made out of nothing, located a half-mile by a half-mile in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean-- it is the city of "the just dead," the largest unmarked graveyard in the world.
"Those bones," August Wilson will tell you, "are symbolically representative of the Africans who were lost during the Middle Passage"--the voyage of slaves from Africa to the Sea Islands and other destinations--"those whose ships sank into the ocean, the Africans who never made it to America. We find out through the course of the play what it is Citizen has done, and why he did this. Aunt Ester leads him to the answer. He has to find out what his duty is, and through that he can be redeemed."
August Wilson's bluesy dramas rarely center on women, but Aunt Ester has emerged as one of three or four powerful exceptions in the epic cycle of plays he began writing in 1979. Much like the singer Ma Rainey, who doesn't arrive until almost an hour into the play that bears her name, the conjure woman Ester surfaces late as a visible or literal entity. The premiere production of Gem of the Ocean, Wilson's play for the first decade of the 20th century, runs through May 24 at Chicago's Goodman Theatre; it will then travel to Los Angeles's Mark Taper Forum, where it will run July 19-Sept. 19. In the two plays that have previously invoked her name, Aunt Ester was a mystical off-stage figure-- the distant voice of Africa.
"Aunt Ester carries the memory of all Africans, the memory of the ancestors," Wilson explains. "She embodies the wisdom and traditions of all those Africans, starting with the first one. It is a tremendous responsibility to carry all this--to remember for everyone, as well as to remember for yourself--and she's accepted the responsibilities of it, starting when she was nine years old."
Ester is first invoked as 349-year-old spiritual guru in Two Trains Running (1992), Wilson's sixth entry in the cycle, a slice-of-life drama about the threatened redevelopment of a Pittsburgh restaurant in 1969. The personification of an older African spirituality, she is discussed, along with Malcolm X and the Black Power Movement, as one of the few possible alternatives for blacks who might not want to turn to Christianity for sustenance and direction. Aunt Ester's name is once again summoned, this time in graver and more alarming tones, in King Hedley II, Wilson's tragedy, set in 1985, about the stunted lives of Hedley and other key characters from the earlier; 1940s entry Seven Guitars. In Hedley, the pack-rat griot Stool Pigeon reports that Ester is dead at 366 years old--her age being the historical equivalent of the number of years Africans have been in America. She dies--or seems to--before the cycle is even finished, before Wilson even gets around to completing his 1990s entry. "Part of the picture i n Hedley," Wilson notes, "is that the path to Aunt Ester's house is all grown over with weeds and leaves. You can hardly find the door any more. …