Gem of the Ocean (August Wilson’s Century Cycle, 1 of 10)

August Wilson’s Century Cycle > Spoiler-free scene breakdown.

  • Premiere: 2003
  • Setting: Aunt Ester’s parlor, 1839 Wylie, Pittsburgh. 1904.

Prologue (late at night)

Troubled Citizen Barlow arrives, seeking Aunt Ester. Eli (handyman and “gatekeeper”) tells him to come back Tuesday. Citizen tries to push past him; they tussle, upsetting a lamp. Ester picks up Citizen’s hat and hands it to him, gently telling him to come back Tuesday.

Act I.1 (next morning)

Eli tells Black Mary (Ester’s housekeeper and “protègè”) the man, wearing “clodhoppers” (work boots that mark him as a recent arrival from the south) is still out there waiting. White peddler Selig brings Eli rocks (for a wall) and a can of kerosene; sells frying pan and dustpan to Black Mary, and also brings news that a man named Garret Brown jumped in the river; he wouldn’t come out because Caesar (local constable, Mary’s brother) accused him of stealing a bag of nails. The man insisted he was innocent, and drowned rather than let himself be arrested. Solly, former conductor on the Underground Railroad, now collecting and selling dog feces, brings a letter from his sister, who describes racist violence down South. Solly and Ester flirt; she seems interested in him, but in no rush. Eli discusses attending Brown’s funeral with Solly.

I.2.  (not sure how much time passed… it’s not Tuesday yet…)

Citizen breaks into the house, steals food. Ester offers him food, compares him to her son “Junebug.” She expresses sympathy for the lonely man who died in the river because he was falsely accused of theft. Citizen describes how he is recently arrived from Alabama, and got himself into debt working in the local mill, and came because his soul is troubled. Exhausted, Citizen falls asleep. Ester sings a lullaby. When Mary returns, she tells her to make up the spare room — Citizen will help build Eli’s wall.

I.3. (not sure how much time passed)

Eli and Mary discuss Citizen’s unconventional entrance; he’s now working on the rocks. Solly brings news of riot at the mill, as workers strike and police start arresting. Very sad obituary of Garret Brown, born of slave parents, died “in the midst of a life of usefulness.” Solly dictates letter to his sister, telling her he will come and bring her North. Sparks between Citizen and Black Mary. Solly gives his backstory, and Citizen notes Solly’s walking stick remind him of his own father’s stick. Mary serves the men a meal; Caesar enters; Mary serves him, too. Caesar spots Citizen as a newcomer, and bullies him. He gives him a quarter and tells him to invest it. Citizen rejects the quarter.) Caesar gives his backstory, which includes ingratiating himself to the local white authorities by dominating his fellow Blacks. Mary keeps Caesar at arm’s length, while Caesar insists he’s doing it all for family.

I.4. (time passed?)

Ester casually nitpicks Mary’s housekeeping duties while discussing Citizen. When they are alone together, Mary accuses Citizen of breaking in. They flirt, Mary first resisting, then coming on strong, which forces Citizen to back off; then she agrees to visit his room tonight.

I.5. (time passed?)

Aunt Ester shares some of her backstory, saying she is 285 years old. Citizen reveals the reason why he went to seek her. Ester sends Citizen on a quest, and we learn from Eli that Citizen’s actions are affecting the community at large.

Act II.1 (state directions specify the next day… which suggests all of Act 1 happened in the same 24-hr period?)

Selig tells Black Mary that local events at the mill are being discussed all the way to Philadelphia. Selig and Eli praise Citizen’s work on the wall.

Citizen returns from his quest, partly successful. Ester prepares to send Citizen on a symbolic journey to the City of Bones, honoring ancestors who died after being sold into Slavery, while being transported to America. Citizen will use a paper boat made from Ester’s “Bill of Sale.”


Solly helps prepare Citizen, giving him iron from the chain that used to be around his ankle; Solly says the 62 notches on his walking stick represent people he carried through the Underground Railroad. He and Eli discuss their adventures together on the railroad. Solly recites W.C. Bryant poetry.
Eli, Mary, and Solly help Ester in a ritual that represents Citizen’s ancestors’ journey from Africa to America. They’ve clearly done this before, and they improvise based on Citizen’s reactions. He seems hypnotized, fully enveloped in the illusion (but Wilson makes it clear the magic is theatrical, so that we the audience are witness and participant, just like Citizen).

Just after Citizen’s journey finishes, Caesar arrives to arrest Solly; Solly’s reaction is significant (I won’t spoil it).


Citizen and Mary develop their relationship. Instead of stalking and sparring with each other, they discuss loss and past relationships. This scene is not just driven by hormones; here they are interacting as whole people.

Ester sends Citizen on a more practical quest — this time, to find Selig. She then turns to nitpicking Mary’s housekeeping. (This is an important scene for Mary’s character arc, and helps us understand Ester as well.)


Selig returns; Ester has arranged to use him (a white man) to help Solly evade Caesar. Citizen and Black Mary part ways with a promise that perhaps when they meet again, Citizen will be right with himself, and they will be right for each other. Caesar returns and confronts Aunt Ester, saying “I’m just doing my job.”


The final action resolves. There’s a confrontation over family; another ritual (during which Selig seems to be silent); and a passing of the torch (so to speak).