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Gem of the Ocean Plot Summary

By Kamilah Bush, PCS Literary Manager

Please note, this summary contains spoilers.

Gem of the Ocean takes place in 1904 in Pittsburgh's Hill District. The Hill is home to the city’s Black community, many of whom were formerly enslaved or children of those who survived slavery and migrated North to escape poverty, discrimination and danger in the south. The play is set in the home of Aunt Ester's, the community’s spiritual leader who is believed to be 285 years old and to have the power to “wash people’s souls.” Aunt Ester lives at 1839 Wylie Avenue with her mentee Black Mary, and her protector, Eli. The house is frequently visited by Solly Two Kings, a formerly enslaved man who helped many escape to freedom, and a white traveling salesman, Rutherford Selig.

Citizen Barlow, a migrant from Alabama, hears of Aunt Ester’s powers and seeks her out in hopes to be healed of guilt that weighs on him. At the local mill, a man named Garrett Brown had been falsely accused of stealing a bucket of nails. While pleading his innocence, he had drowned in the river rather than allowing the town’s lawman, Caesar, to arrest him. The town sees Garrett Brown as a martyr, and the people begin to strike at the mill. It falls to Caesar (Black Mary’s brother) to restore peace, but before he can do so, a riot begins and the mill is set on fire. Citizen confesses to Aunt Ester that he had stolen the nails in an act of protest against the poor conditions for him and other Black workers at the mill. He feels responsible for Garret Brown’s death and hopes that Aunt Ester can help free him from the shame he is carrying.

Aunt Ester performs a ritual that transports Citizen to the City of Bones — a city built at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, and a place where he can confront his guilt and be granted forgiveness. The celebration at the end of the ritual is interrupted by Caesar who accuses Solly of setting the mill on fire. Fearing the repercussions of Solly‘s actions, Aunt Ester sends Citizen to find Rutherford Selig to help smuggle Solly away. Solly, Selig, and Citizen slip away just as Caesar arrives to arrest Aunt Ester for aiding a fugitive before going after Solly. Citizen returns with news that Caesar has shot Solly. Citizen and Selig bring the wounded Solly in, and Aunt Ester and Black Mary sing a hymn over him. Solly dies. Caesar then comes back, this time to arrest Citizen for his participation in Solly‘s escape. Black Mary denounces her brother, cutting all ties with him due to his lack of empathy for others. Without saying a word, Caesar leaves. Citizen then takes Solly‘s walking stick and coat and leaves to continue Solly‘s work, bringing his people to freedom.

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