Gem Of The Ocean (The Century Cycle #1), by August Wilson
Here in the first play of a ten-play epic series of dramas about black life in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the playwright sets up tensions and conflicts that will reverberate through generations and play a major role in the action of the last play in the series which takes place some ninety years later. In this play the author sets up the characters and their location in a way that makes it clear that the divides that affect contemporary black society were present at the beginning in various ways. The desire to build a community safe space in the face of violence by whites and authorities (sometimes but not necessarily synonymous) is not only threatened by the criminality of behavior by the blacks but also by the reality of snitches and the lack of honor among those who can profit through betraying others. That reality makes this particular play a tragic one and starts a set of patterns that show themselves in other plays that are part of the series, showing particular focus on a few people in a somewhat small area but showing larger patterns that reverberate throughout history even to this day.
The play does not take its title from the house where most of its action takes place and where a community and sanctuary are being made, despite the difficulties presented by the characters’ situation, but rather from an inventive episode in which events are managed by some of the characters to encourage confession and unity and even a sort of psychological rebirth. The play is full of powerful scenes, including a divide between two siblings over the behavior of a brother in killing a man and disrespecting the safe status as a home, an indication that the efforts on the part of some blacks to build a better community divide just as much as they unite, and that community has often been sought or thwarted for self-centered reasons for a long time. And it is easy to imagine that this play is one that allows the saga as a whole that the author created to make a lot more sense, as there are generations of characters that appear later on in ways that allow us to recognize the persistence of the past in the present, as much as we would like to be able to create the world anew.
And it is that persistence of the past that makes this a particularly intriguing play. Slavery does not seem so very distant in this particular volume, and the realities of life for blacks in Pittsburgh was one where safety and due process of law could not be taken for granted. Indeed, one of the most shocking and final actions in this particular place concerns someone who decides to gun down someone else for a mere accusation of a crime without proof being involved, and it is probably not coincidental that this particular person does not engage in the same ritual of community that draws everyone else together despite being related to others in the circle by blood (namely his sister). Success, even on the fragile terms of early 1900’s life, was enough to threaten the harmony that existed between siblings, especially if people sought their success through committing violence against other blacks whose behavior was benefiting or serving the interests of the community as a whole. This particular play and the last one, Radio Golf, are especially close in their insights that among the easiest ways to financial success for many blacks is to betray the interests of their own community. The enemy to community harmony is always within as well as without.