This house is sanctuary.
Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.
--Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes were Watching God
Gripped by the maelstrom of chaos enveloping African Americans, North and South, for decades after the conclusion of the Civil War, the community surrounding 1839 Wylie Place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District struggles to create moral order in August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean. The play takes place in 1904, 39 years after the close of the Civil War and 27 years after President Hayes’ withdrawal of federal troops from the South marked the wholesale abandonment of Reconstruction. As the curtain rises on Wilson’s extended study of African-American life in the twentieth century, his attention is a beat ahead of the typical Civil War hagiography that traces emancipation. Wilson wants to explore the opacity of the legal system created by a white power structure and left essentially unmodified by the Reconstruction amendments. To do so, he focuses on African-American life in the North in the early years of the twentieth century.
The “law” is personified by the aptly-named Caesar, an African-American man whom Pittsburgh’s white power structure employs as sheriff; seeing himself as the “boss man,” he interprets the law as he sees fit. For him, “the law” is central and all must obey it; he remains unconcerned by—indeed, unaware of—the possibility that his overzealous enforcement of the law might result in injustice and oppression. The other half of the play’s double consciousness of the law is personified by the denizens of 1839 Wylie, who regard Caesar’s law as a foreign imposition that does not reflect their moral or ethical commitments. Two central scenes in the play illustrate the sharp contrast that Wilson draws between Caesar’s “rule of law” and 1839 Wylie’s ethic of interdependence: Caesar’s confrontation with the community in Act One and his arrest of Aunt Ester in Act Two. Together, the scenes contribute to an extended meditation on the meaning of freedom to a people still formally overconstrained by the law, symbolized by the “peaceful house” constantly resisting the ever-present danger of eviction and arrest that those outside it face.
I. Caesar: “People don’t understand the law is everything”
Caesar, the local constable who tyrannizes over the Hill District, is both of the community and sharply set apart from it. Brother to Black Mary, who lives with Aunt Ester and is her spiritual heir, Caesar is unable to understand why the People will not submit to the “law.” Blind to the fundamental injustice to which the Hill District community is subjected, Caesar is ultimately ejected by his sister, for whom moral justice finally overwhelms blood ties. As the puppet of the white power structure in Pittsburgh, Caesar mindlessly enforces a rule of law as a means of social control rather than justice.
Wilson uses the structure of Act One’s central scene to dramatize Caesar’s isolation and moral bankruptcy. The scene begins with Solly bringing Eli and Black Mary the news of the mill riots that followed upon Garret Brown’s death. As the stage direction indicates “life continues,” Eli announces that Citizen is building a wall at the back of 1839 and must stay until it is completed. Solly requests Black Mary’s help with writing a letter to his sister in Alabama; he plans to travel south and rescue her from the desperate poverty and forced labor that constitute “freedom” there. By the time Caesar enters, Citizen, Eli, Solly, and Black Mary are in the kitchen. In the course of the scene, Caesar drives every character save his sister Black Mary out of 1839, concentrating attention on his self-inflicted separation from the mores of the community and, ultimately, from his own family.
In response to Eli’s usual greeting, “This a peaceful house,” Caesar’s first words are “These niggers gone crazy!” (I.iii, 30). In reporting the riot, Caesar characterizes the African-American mill workers as “animals,” blaming the “chaos and confusion” of the riot on them and insisting that they must return to work, as “the mill losing money” (30). Commanded by “downtown” (the white power structure) to stop the riot, Caesar insists that “they don’t go to work tomorrow there gonna be hell to pay” (30). His attention suddenly drawn to Citizen, Caesar ridicules his desire to “get his soul washed” and implies that Aunt Ester may be selling moonshine. Because he sees no separation between the power of “downtown” and the interior of 1839, Caesar responds to Eli’s explanation that Citizen is helping to build a wall with ridicule, missing the symbolic barrier that the wall would erect against the “law” that he represents.
Caesar’s further treatment of Citizen is emblematic of the “rule of law” that he enforces. Citizen becomes Everyman—or at least “every black man”—to Caesar, whose first direct address to Citizen following an inquiry about his origins is a veiled accusation and a direct threat: “I don’t want to catch you stealing nothing. I catch you stealing something I’m gonna put you in jail.” (31) Caesar commands Citizen to get some shoes and, discovering that he has no job as of yet, commands him to go to the mill (currently full of workers rioting over the death of a comrade, in addition to countless injustices) and “tell them I sent you.” (31) Alternatively, Citizen should go to Philadelphia, as Pittsburgh is “too crowded” and “too many niggers breed trouble.” (31) Caesar threatens Citizen with arrest again, this time warning him that if he doesn’t get a job and lacks a visible means of support, he’ll go to jail. Feeling generous, Caesar offers Citizen a place to stay, but threatens that if the rent isn’t paid Citizen will have to move on (at which point, given the earlier threat, he will be arrested for lacking a visible means of support).
Caesar’s tyranny is best illustrated by his self-identification as the “boss man.” The string of commands and threats that he fires at Citizen—without knowing anything about him—demonstrates his investment in control of the black community, which he attempts to exercise via threats, intimidation, and contempt. When Citizen finally shoves Caesar’s proffered quarter back across the table, refusing his “advice” and insisting on his own independence, Caesar’s response is to put Citizen on his “list,” again insisting that he is the “boss man” and anyone in the neighborhood could confirm as much. (32) Eli again responds to Caesar’s bluster by announcing the building of the wall. Though Caesar is impervious to its significance, the implication is clear. While Caesar may be the “boss man” downtown, 1839 Wylie will resist his hegemony by means of a wall built by a new type of Citizen. At Eli’s announcement, Citizen exits.
Caesar then prompts the departure of Solly and Eli with a long tirade about the mill riot. He finally addresses the death of Garret Brown, insisting that the “damn fool…ain’t had enough sense to save himself.” (33) Caesar easily assumes that Brown was guilty and exonerates himself of any responsibility by insisting that he must “keep order”—defined here as forcing the people back to work at the mill. If the mill were closed, argues Caesar, “the city would be in chaos. The city needs that tin.” (33-34) In Caesar’s eyes, the mill is the key benefactor of the African-American community, but they are incapable of understanding its beneficence. The reason is clear enough to him: “Some of these niggers was better off in slavery,” but unfortunately this fact escaped Abraham Lincoln’s notice (34). This comment is too much for Solly and Eli, who both exit—Eli reinforcing the barrier between 1839 and Caesar’s rule by commenting “Let me get on back to that wall.” (35)
Only Black Mary is left, so Caesar begins an attack on her, complaining of his embarrassment that his sister is a “washerwoman” for the likes of Aunt Ester (35). Their exchange reveals that Caesar has overcharged rent, which he calls “good value for my services”; cheated his customers by overcharging for “magic bread,” which he calls “giving the people hope” (“eat half as much to get twice as full”); and once shot an unarmed boy dead for stealing a loaf of bread, which he justifies by insisting that stealing is against the law and “people don’t understand the law is everything”:
What is it not? People think the law is supposed to serve them. But anybody can see you serve it. There ain’t nothing above the law. That’s what I try and tell these niggers. Everything come under the law. You got to respect the law. Unless you dead. (36)
Caesar has reified the rule of law and given it a status above the moral law. The rigidity of his interpretation and application of the law reveals a fundamental weakness in the rule of law tradition: disregard of individual situations and people can lead to injustice under the law, making “legal” the shooting of an unarmed boy for stealing bread. Rigid interpretation of the letter of the law leaves its spirit open to violation. The rates that Caesar charges for rent and bread may be facially legal, but they violate the moral law that would require honesty and fairness of him—particularly when dealing with a community to whom only restricted choices are available (the Hill District’s African Americans cannot live wherever in Pittsburgh they choose, for example).
Despite Caesar’s rationalizations, Black Mary rejects his approach to law enforcement. For that rejection, Caesar lashes out at her, insisting that family is important and she should not turn from him: “you can’t sit in judgment over people. That’s God’s job.” (38). Though Caesar, the “boss man,” sits in judgment over every person in the Hill District on the basis of the rule of law, he rejects Black Mary’s judgment of him on the basis of the moral law. Caesar sees no conflict between enforcing the law as a constable and participating in a family structure as an individual free from others’ judgment. But for Black Mary, the moral law should rule both spheres, and by the end of the play she is unable to accept her brother’s actions.
II. 1839 Wylie: “I have given unto the master of that abode a place above the law”
As the tool of Pittsburgh’s white power structure, Caesar enforces a code of law that attempts to keep the Hill District community under rigid social control. His administration of “justice” is more like a reign of terror; his power to evict, arrest, and accuse seems both unlimited and unaffected by the demands of compassion or morality. Wilson highlights Caesar’s inhumanity by contrasting it sharply to Aunt Ester’s code of moral law and natural rights, which dominates 1839 Wylie as the symbolic center of Pittsburgh’s black community. In this house, an unjust law is no law at all, whatever its authority in the eyes of its enforcers. Aunt Ester’s code is no less demanding, but at its center lie the moral exigencies of communal interdependence and fidelity to the past rather than obedience to a legal code divorced from the realities of those it governs.
Caesar and Aunt Ester form the polar opposites at the heart of the play, but they do not confront each other until the fourth scene of Act Two when Caesar arrives at 1839 Wylie with a warrant for Aunt Ester’s arrest. In response, Aunt Ester produces her own “piece of paper”—the bill of sale that formerly marked her as a slave and more recently was folded into the ship that took Citizen to the City of Bones. The confrontation between them outlines the vast differences between what Robert Cover would call the contrasting “legal orders” according to which they both live.
The scene opens with Solly’s acknowledgment that he burned down the mill. Solly and Citizen leave 1839 just before Caesar arrives with the warrant for Aunt Ester’s arrest. The battle of words between them centers on two pairs of objects symbolic of two legal orders: Aunt Ester’s bill of sale and Caesar’s arrest warrant; and Black Mary’s Bible and Caesar’s Pennsylvania penal code. Aunt Ester keeps her bill of sale because it reminds her that “you can put the law on paper but that don’t make it right” (78). Caesar, missing Aunt Ester’s point, rejects the bill of sale as evidence brought forward from “slavery times” and insists that he is now the custodian of the law. Neither completely engages the other’s point; their conflict over “pieces of paper” highlights the greater contrast between the legal orders by which they live.
For Aunt Ester, the bill of sale signifies the natural law that makes her intrinsically free (“The law say I needed a piece of paper to say I was a free woman. But I didn’t need no piece of paper to tell me that.” (78)). But Caesar, finding history in the form of a slavery-era bill of sale irrelevant, focuses only on the present moment, within which he has been given the authority symbolized by the arrest warrant. When Aunt Ester is thus faced with the temporal law, Black Mary reverts to the natural or moral law in her defense by claiming that 1839 Wylie is a place of sanctuary, selecting a Bible quote referencing a “place above the law” to support her point. When Caesar wields the Penal Code in response, Aunt Ester succumbs to the greater authority of his legal order in the temporal world and allows him to arrest her. Within the moral universe of the play, however, Aunt Ester unquestionably retains her authority.
Wilson’s meditation on the meaning of law to African Americans in the early twentieth century could be recast as a conflict between the letter and the spirit of the law. Caesar adheres to the letter of the law as dictated by Pittsburgh’s white ruling elite. In the process, his focus on personal power distorts whatever notions of fairness and justice were originally present. Aunt Ester pursues the things of the spirit, most importantly self-ownership and self-determination, forged via a spiritual connection to the past in the form of the City of Bones. Freedom, in her moral universe, means neither a piece of paper nor an empty proclamation, but rather the ability and the strength to stand in the light and act as the judge of your own soul. And that, Wilson argues, is a gift that the rule of law will forever be unable to convey.
 The Amistad revolt took place in 1839, leading to the creation of the abolitionist Amistad Committee, which became the American Missionary Association. The AMA founded hundreds of schools in the South after the Civil War, eventually helping to lay the foundations for the Civil Rights Movement. Constance Kathryn Zaytoun, Gem of the Ocean. Theatre Journal 57.4 (2005): 715-717.
 August Wilson, Gem of the Ocean. New York: Theater Communications Group, 2006. Chronologically the first play in Wilson’s ten-play cycle tracing the arc of African-American life through the twentieth century, Gem is the second-to-last written. This edition of the play, the first published commercially, is not numbered by line; therefore, references will be provided in the text by act, scene, and page number. Where act and scene are not indicated, they are the same as the previous parenthetical reference.
 Martin Luther King, “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” Like Dr. King, Aunt Ester demonstrates her willingness to nevertheless pay the price for disobeying even unjust laws.
 She has been accused of aiding and abetting Solly in his defiance of the law. The name “Alfred Jackson” was Solly’s name “back in slavery,” and Caesar uses it in preference to Two Kings on the warrant (27, 79). The choice of name is apropos of the legal order under which Aunt Ester is arrested; Caesar uses the name given to Solly by the white power structure (i.e. Southern slaveowners), whereas Solly himself prefers “Two Kings” (27).
 Robert Cover tells us that a legal civilization exists within a normative universe that it also helps to create. In turn, the normative universe coheres because of the “interpretive commitments” that “determine what law means and what law shall be.” Two legal orders adhering to the same rules and patterns will differ fundamentally if such rules and patterns are respected and trusted in one order and rejected as unjust in the other. Robert Cover, Nomos and Narrative, 97 Harv. L. Rev. 4, 6 (1983).
 “A place of refuge shall be given unto you and whosoever seeketh counsel therein shall he be made also clean, for I have given unto the master of that abode a place above the law, for the law is a punisher of men, and I seeketh their redemption.” (79) Interestingly, I haven’t been able to locate the biblical source of this quotation. Either the search engines I’ve used are inaccurate/incomplete, I’m searching the wrong version, or Black Mary made the quote up. The last possibility would indicate that Black Mary intends to demonstrate Caesar’s ignorance of the Bible; as Caesar says himself, the Penal Code is his Bible (79).
 “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” Matthew 22:21 (KJV).
 “For the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” 2 Corinthians 3:6 (KJV).