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August Wilson speaks softly (for a revolutionary)

His 'Gem of the Ocean' delves into the struggle to move forward in the face of racism

By Iris FangerCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 8, 2004

A tiny paper boat called Gem of the Ocean serves as the central metaphor in August Wilson's new play. It provides the link that reconnects its African-American characters to the essence of their tradition.

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"Gem of the Ocean," onstage in Boston and opening in New York next month, is the ninth installment of Wilson's 10-play cycle about the evolution of black life in 20th-century America, with a play for each decade.

The "captain" of the Gem is Aunt Ester, a 285-year-old matriarch who was born in 1619, when a Dutch ship carrying 20 Africans docked in Jamestown, Va. The little boat is made from the bill of sale that marked her as a slave.

Wilson, who often mixes fantasy into the naturalistic settings of his plays, explains how he rationalized the mythologic element of Aunt Ester's age. He says if even one character in the play believed she could get to be that old, then the idea would work.

Aunt Ester is the pivotal character in "Gem of the Ocean." She was an important offstage presence in two plays about later decades, "Two Trains Running" and "King Hedley II." Here, she comes to vibrant life in the person of Phylicia Rashad, who is sure to be a leading contender for the 2005 Tony award for Best Actress. Rashad won the 2004 Tony for her role in the revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," but she is best known as Clair Huxtable on TV's "The Cosby Show."

At a coffee break between rehearsals in Boston, Wilson talked about the memorable characters in his plays.

"None of them are based on anyone I know. They more or less present themselves. They're all me, every part of my personality," he says. Speaking about the scope of the plays, he adds, "I don't know why I hopped around in time. I picked whatever decade seemed right. It's fortunate that I ended up with the first one and the last one because it gives me an opportunity to tie the plays together."

"Gem of the Ocean" is set in 1904. The date is significant because at that time many blacks in their 40s had been born into slavery. Thus, this play links the years before Emancipation to the 20th century. Wilson is finishing the final play, "Radio Golf," to bring the cycle into the 1990s.

"What I find interesting is that no matter what decade the play is in, the characters' relationship to society as a whole - which has been a difficult relationship - is still pretty much the same. The problems are the same. The actors say that. They are rehearsing in 2004 a play about 1904. You don't get a real sense of progress," he says.

A softspoken man, Wilson hardly fits the picture of a revolutionary, even though the central theme he delivers throughout the cycle is one of disappointment, if not downright pessimism, about how racism has prevented blacks from grabbing hold of the American dream.

His characters, though, are robust and exuberant, filled with a life force that gives them courage to hope and believe in better times ahead. Wilson always juxtaposes a character who is compelled to remember the past, like Aunt Ester, against a character who is willing to assimilate into white culture. (In "Gem," that man is Caesar, the constable, ruling the black community by the white man's laws.)