By Jeff C
This summer let Aunt Ester take you on a trip to the City of Bones.
From Aug 24 through Sept 2, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company will present GEM OF THE OCEAN by August Wilson, directed by Andrea Frye, performed outdoors at 1839 Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, the actual address of the mysterious Ester Tyler. Halfprice previews begin August 16th. Tickets are available online at www. pghplaywrights.org/gem.
It is 1904, forty-one years after Emancipation. Mr Citizen Barlow is a young man of African descent who had been born into “freedom” in Alabama. He had risked his life getting to Pittsburgh. “I had to sneak out. Say they didn’t want anybody to leave. Say we had to stay there and work…. I almost got caught a couple of times.” He and some companions he met along the back roads found jobs quickly at the mill and part of a room to rent at the boarding house. Only the job didn’t turn out to pay as well as had been promised, and the mill subtracted his expenses out of his pay before he got it.
As hard as he had worked and as frugal as he had lived, in less than four weeks he actually owed the company money. “I told the people at the mill I was gonna get another job. They said I couldn’t do that ‘cause I still owed them and they was gonna get the police on me. I was the TMC gave Dr. Lucius Walker, Jr. the Thomas Merton Award for his work in Central America during the IranContra wars, Rev. Tom joined the InterReligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), IFCO is the only African-American led foundation in the United States that supports selfdetermining community organization in Native American, Afro-American, and Latino development projects, like Pastors for Peace, and the Palestine Humanitarian Flotilla. He later became the President of the national board for IFCO/Pastors for Peace and helped gonna go to another city, but before I had a chance I killed a man. I don’t know… I feel like I got a hole inside me…. The people say go see Aunt Ester. This is 1839 Wylie Avenue, ain’t it? I ain’t going nowhere till I see Aunt Ester.”
The people say Aunt Ester is 285 years old. The people say Aunt Ester can wash souls. Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s assistant, tells Barlow, “God’s the only one who can wash your soul.” But Ester Tyler does agree to help him.
“Take a look at this map, Mister Citizen. See right there…that’s a city. It’s only organize the U.S.-Cuba Friendshipment Caravans, which brought many people from Pittsburgh, especially young people,s to see Cuba for themselves and experience the value of revolutionary engagement in nation building. Being a person of color, he had to navigate the fundamental institutional racism, with its segregation, injustice and indignities that devastated his community. For 29 years, he pastured Monumental Baptist Church in the Hill District as a safe haven for all progressive causes. His church never half a mile by half a mile but that’s a city. It’s made of bones. Pearly white bones. All the buildings and everything is made of bones. I seen it. I been there, Mister Citizen…. You want to go there, Mister Citizen? I can take you there if you want to go. That’s the center of the world. In time it will all come to light. The people made a kingdom out of nothing. They sat down right there. They said, ‘Let’s make a kingdom. Let’s make a city of bones.’”
August Wilson’s City of Bones is unique in literature. It is a strange, troubling and beautiful place. It embodies allusions to more familiar images like the Heavenly Jerusalem of the Apocalypse andEzekiel’s Vision of the Valley of Dry Bones. But its clearest reference is to those who lost their lives on slave ships during the Middle Passage from Africa to the New World.
Clearly the City of Bones represents that dark and foreboding place towhich we do not want to go. When we do go there, we come face to face with uncomfortable truths about ourselves– truths that may have seemed unbearable to face previously. Sometimes, though, such encounters can be liberating, lifegiving and transformational on a level that is rarely seen.
Such is the experience for young Mr Barlow, but if you are an older person of European ancestry like me, you might be tempted to think, “The City of Bones is for Black People, not for me. It can’t do anything for me.” Well, there you’d be wrong. August Wilson has said that he wrote his plays for everyone to enjoy, including White people.
White Supremacy is not simply an issue for African Americans. It affects all of us whether we realize it or not. That is why James Baldwin famously said, “I am not your n*****.” The very thing we fear in the Black stranger is our projection onto them of the monstrous ways that WE WHITE PEOPLE have treated them. Yes. We White folk are in need of liberation from our Whiteness. In part that means confronting our own complicity with White Supremacy, a challenging and uncomfortable task to be sure, yet so rewarding.
Like Citizen Barlow, we too can have our own City of Bones experience. Luckily, the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is preparing a boat for us right now, for all of us.
If you close your eyes for a moment, you just might hear the voice of Aunt Ester speaking to you, “Do YOU want to go to the City of Bones? I can take you there if you want to go. Life’s an adventure. So live!”
Jeff C is a fundraiser, a writer and an advocate