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.
"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.)
"Gem of the Ocean" takes place in Aunt Ester's house, at 1839 Wylie Avenue, in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The area was settled when blacks came flooding north for jobs before the turn of the 20th century. Wilson was born in the area in 1945 and spent his first 30 years there.
He began as a poet but also started a theater, Black Horizons on the Hill (1968-78). "We started that with the idea of using theater as a tool to politicize the community, to raise the consciousness of the people, part of the Black Power movement," he says.
In 1978, Wilson moved to Minneapolis, where he worked as a scriptwriter for the drama troupe at the Science Museum. After winning a playwriting fellowship in 1980, he came into his own as a dramatist, translating his poetry into richly evocative dialogue.
Aunt Ester embodies the entire history of African-Americans in America, and her story threads its way from first play to last in Wilson's cycle. No doubt her Pittsburgh address will become as famous a theatrical locale as Thornton Wilder's Grover's Corners, N.H.
Wilder viewed his invented small town as a repository of the hopes and dreams of the American pioneers who had finally come home. Wilson has made Aunt Ester's house into both a sanctuary for the wanderers and a spiritual altar for the aspirations and memories of blacks.
In Wilson's last play in the cycle, "Radio Golf," this idea comes full circle. It's the 1990s, and Aunt Ester's old house on Wylie Avenue has been abandoned. Two black businessmen want to redevelop the land on which it sits.
"It's all about whether they tear down the house, about whether they destroy tradition," Wilson says.
"Gem of the Ocean" begins when Citizen Barlow bangs on the door of Aunt Ester's home. He demands entrance because he's been told that she "washes people's souls." Aunt Ester takes him in.
The multiple plot lines revolve around the death of a man wrongly accused of stealing a bucket of nails from the mill. His suicide underlines the meager living of the blacks working at menial jobs, and the lack of opportunities for their advancement nearly 40 years after Emancipation.
The character Solly, who is Aunt Ester's suitor and fellow activist, speaks these lines to ask what freedom has brought: "What does it mean? It means you got a long row to hoe and ain't got no plow. Ain't got no seed. Ain't got no mule. What good is freedom if you can't do nothing with it?"
"What Caesar says is, 'Freedom costs.' You have to be willing to pay the price," Wilson says, echoing his basic theme. "In other words, how do you get the tools for a productive life? The avenues to those tools are blocked. And then you look up in 2004, and you still don't have the tools for a productive life, for the most part. You have to claim it," he says.
• "Gem of the Ocean" is at the Huntington Theatre Company in Boston through Oct. 30. It opens at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York on Nov. 4. "Radio Golf" is scheduled to première at the Yale Repertory Theatre in spring 2005.