When Rajnii Eddins, a 26-year-old African-American poet, was in the backseat of the police car on his way to the King County Jail, he said the policeman who put on his handcuffs, "a Samoan brother named Officer Atofau," turned an unexpected shade of conciliatory. Eddins said Atofau seemed a little sorry, saying something like: "I don't know why we had to bring you in." It was a weirdly complicated moment in a weirdly complicated story: A "Samoan brother," who arrested a young black man, not apologizing, not exactly, but cautiously empathizing, hinting, maybe, at how the legal answer to a problem isn't always the best answer.
As was reported in last week's issue of The Stranger, Eddins was arrested near Rainier Beach High School, where he was hired to direct a student play. Eddins said he was asking officers about another student they had arrested when they turned around and arrested him, saying: "You're going to jail for interfering." (The police report said Eddins ignored their questions and seemed like "a serious threat.")
Six days later, an opening-night audience at the Seattle Rep watched a similar scene in the second act of Gem of the Ocean, the first installment of August Wilson's 10-play cycle.
It is 1904 in Pittsburgh and Aunt Ester (a neighborhood sage, 287 years old, who came to America on a slave ship) is stonewalling a black sheriff named Caesar who is trying to arrest her friend, Solly Two Kings. Sheriff Caesar turns around and arrests her: "I thank you but I ain't got time for no tea... I got a warrant here for the arrest of Ester Tyler for interfering with the administration of justice."
Whether Wilson is writing about 1904, 1924, or 1994, his stories seem like they could have happened six days ago. He's a Thucydides of African Americana. His histories read like prophecy.
Sadly, the production as a whole is not so great. It was Wilson's penultimate play, but it sometimes feels like an immature one. An example is the long monologue in which Caesar tells the story of his rise to power from criminal to lawman: "Niggers got mad at me. Said I must have thought I was a white man 'cause I got hold to a little something. They been mad at me ever since." It's a good story, but onstage, it feels transparently expository, artless, and clunky. Director Phylicia Rashad makes things worse by moving the monologue earlier in the play than it appears in the script, causing Caesar to tell his autobiography to his own sister, which doesn't make any sense. Some of the actors are hard to understand, others are mannered, the production sometimes feels unfocused and slow.
But Wilson's oracular light shines through in Caesar and Aunt Ester, from the confusing culture gap between Africans and African Americans to the queasy politics surrounding cops of color. "The law is supposed to make everything right," opines Solly Two Kings.