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Connection to Ancestry in August Wilson’s Plays


Connection to ancestry is a very important aspect of our society. By connecting with the past, individuals get insights concerning the factors that led to their existence and their descendants. In addition, connection to ancestry is instrumental as it enlightens one on the issues that their descendants experienced during their lifetime. By studying and understanding the connection with past makers of society, people improve their knowledge of the factors that shaped their lives, make corrections, and avert future problems. Therefore the paper analyses the three plays that are done by August Wilson, which are Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey Black Bottom and examines their relationship with the theme of connection to ancestry.

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Analysis of the Plays

Gem of the Ocean

Gem of the Ocean is a play that reflects the experiences of African Americans, who lived in the 20th century. The name of the play ‘Gem of the Ocean’ represents the vessel that ferried people to the city of bones. In the play, there is a leader Aunt Ester Tyler, who upholds discipline and ensures that the culture of African Americans receives the requisite respect from the citizens living in the region of Hill District of Pittsburgh. The roles that she plays are evident when a man, Citizen Barlow, comes in for support and cleansing. According to Shannon (2016), during the process, Aunt Ester helps the man identify his background, his ancestry, and realize the scale of his wrongdoings. All through the play, Aunt Ester helps individuals, who come to her for support get the knowledge on their background and the provisions of culture, which dictated the lifestyles of their ancestors. The fact that Ester is old places her in a better position to lead and show the way to other Black Americans, who lived at the time.

The play is very practical in demonstrating the experiences of African Americans and the challenges they went through. It is evident in the play that the whites demeaned and victimized Africans. For instance, the play has a number of killings executed by police officers, who include Ceaser Wikes (Bryer & Hartig, 2010). The problems that African Americans experience also become lucid when a man drowns after the wrong accusation for a crime that he did not commit. The aftermath of drowning sparks a strike from African Americans, who feel that the state does not accord them fair treatment. The play is instrumental as it brings to the fore the experiences that the African Americans of the 20 century went through as they tried to acquire the present freedom. Using characters like Ester, Solly Two Kings, and Citizen Barlow, it demonstrates the issues surrounding the history of America.

Joe Turner Come and Gone

Joe Turner Come and Gone is the second play in the series of plays done by August Wilson. The play denotes the history of the American people, who lived in the 1900s. Apparently, Wilson uses black characters in his cast to demonstrate the history of the African Americans, who moved from the south to the north in pursuit of jobs. In the play, there are several African Americans, who migrate to the north in the aftermath of freedom from slavery. For instance, Jeremy, who in the play, works as a casual laborer by constructing roads outside the city. By using black characters in the cast, Wilson tries to elucidate the past challenges and experiences of African American descendants, brought into the united states as slaves. In the words of Wimbush and Rodman (2012), the cast has only one white character, Relig who plays the role of unity by peddling products between blacks and whites. According to the play, African Americans moved to the north to look for jobs after attaining their freedom.

Apparently, the title ‘Joe Turner Come and Gone’ is a derivative of Wilson’s line from one of his blue songs. In addition, the name Joe Turner appears in the play as a white man, who abducts and uses slaves for a period of about seven years. The case of Loomis, who from the onset of the play is searching for his wife and finds her as the play ends, is a good example that demonstrates the atrocities of Turner (Bigsby, 2000). It is important to aver that the play is one of those plays, which help all individuals regardless of their backgrounds, races, and places of origin understand the essence of good association and fair treatment. After acquiring freedom from slavery, blacks started their journey in pursuit of new life and jobs. However, it dawned on them that their assumption of getting good jobs in places such as the north would not materialize because employers were reluctant to hire blacks. Instead, most of the employers hired poor whites in place of blacks.

Ma Rainey Black Bottom

Ma Rainey Black Bottom is another play done by Wilson, which depicts the early lives of African Americans. In the play, Wilson uses black musicians and expresses their suffering in the hands of white producers. All through the play, it is evident that African American singers experience several challenges when they try producing their songs. Uniquely, the play is one that did not utilize the Pittsburgh set but was set in the city of Chicago. According to Nunes (2008), the play is core in presenting the issues that revolved around the lives of African Americans, who lived in the 20th century and culminates when one of the musicians, Levee murders his colleague Toledo. The play is very practical as it helps boost the understanding of individuals on aspects that affected the past citizens of the United States.

In effect, the play uses characters like Ma, Toledo, Cutler, Levee, and Irvin, who is the manager. Notably, there is a difference of interest in the band, a factor that catalyzes problems and leads to the death of Toledo. When Levee, disagrees with Ma and thereafter with his producer to be, he stabs Toledo and cuts short his future dream of becoming a band owner. From the context of the play, it is clear that the African American communities have issues with the production of their music. Bloom (2002), states that white producers disregarded African American music in spite of the quality. Fundamentally, unlike other plays such as Joe Turner Come and Gone and The Gem of the Ocean, Wilson uses music in Ma Rainey Black Bottom to demonstrate the history of African Americans in the United States.

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Relationship to the Theme

Fundamentally, the three plays of Wilson August are very elementary in connecting modern Americans with their history. The plays, which comprise Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey Black Bottom, help several individuals from the United States and around the globe to understand the ancestry and background of African Americans. Furthermore, the various features demonstrated by the plays give individuals the essence of knowing how their ancestors lived in the past. The role of the plays is integral in connecting people with their ancestry. Remarkably, individuals, who need to understand the experiences, cultures, and religious inclinations of the African American ancestors cannot overlook the role that the plays have in the field (Shannon, 2016). Some of the areas that the plays cover in connecting African Americans with their ancestry include culture, religion, leadership, and unity.

Culture and Religion

To demonstrate a clear connection with the ancestry of African Americans and the United States as a whole, Wilson uses cultural events in his plays. The cultural events and activities are core in helping the individuals of the modern United States understand the past as well as how their descendants lived and interacted. For instance, in the play Joe Turner Come and Gone, some of the actors sing a cultural song, Juba, which makes Loomis hallucinate (Wimbush & Rodman, 2012). The use of cultural events, songs, and activities in the plays help African Americans, who live in contemporary societies connect with their past and relate with their descendants in an advanced manner. It is imperative to understand that the plays can show the way for the United States as it gives a preview on the events that happened. From the events, which took place, the country can make necessary corrections and incorporate ethical practices in their dynamic cultures.

Leadership and Unity

Leadership and unity is another aspect evident in the plays Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner Come and Gone, and Ma Rainey Black Bottom. From the plays, one can see the roles executed by the state and the society as well. In the play Gem of the Ocean, Aunt Ester Tyler is a leader, who ensures that the African Americans in Pittsburgh Hill behave in a way that conforms to cultural provisions (Shannon, 2016). Moreover, the plays give viewers a clear picture of the kind of leadership that prevailed at the time in the United States. From the plays, it is evident that the leadership of the time oppressed the blacks and treated the whites fairly.

The demonstrations of leadership are one that helps the societies of the united states understand the challenges that their ancestors went through as they struggled to develop the modern system of governance. In addition, the plays also demonstrate unity amongst the African Americans, who lived during the time. In Joe Turner Come and Gone, individuals such as Seth Holly, Molly, Jeremy, and Bynum live in a boarding house as one large family (Bigsby, 2000). By living together as a large family, the play is practical in asserting the issue of unity as expressed by African American descendants.


August Wilson is one of the individuals, who produced plays that are important in connecting people with their past. The plays, which comprise a cycle of about 10 plays, are useful in studying and understanding the past lives of African Americans, who lived as slaves in the United States. To clarify the relationship of his plays with experiences and challenges of African Americans, Wilson uses events and activities in order to create a picture of what took place at the time in the minds of modern citizens. It is critical to explain that the plays can help heal the wounds of individuals, who have experienced racial discrimination. Moreover, it can help the country develop systems of governance that facilitate healthy and fair treatment of all the citizens.


Shannon, S. (2016). August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle: Critical perspectives on the plays. North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers.

Bryer, J., & Hartig, M. (2010). The Facts on File companion to American drama. New York: Facts on File.

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Wimbush, V., & Rodman, R. (2012). African Americans and the Bible: Sacred texts and social textures. Oregon: Wipe & Stock.

Bigsby, C. (2000). Modern American drama, 1945-2000. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Nunes, Z. (2008). Cannibal democracy: Race and representation in the literature of the Americas. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Bloom, H. (2002). August Wilson. New York: Chelsea House Publishers.

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