(Spoiler alert! Please only read on if you would like to know more about the play in advance of seeing it in person.)
In 1904 Pittsburgh, 285-year-old Aunt Ester is a spiritual advisor and former slave living with her protégé Black Mary and gatekeeper Eli. Late one night, a man named Citizen Barlow arrives seeking guidance from Aunt Ester. Though he is told to come back Tuesday, Citizen remains standing across from Aunt Ester’s home through the early morning hours.
Rutherford Selig, a traveling peddler, arrives and asks Eli why there’s a crowd gathering near the church. Eli explains that a funeral is being held for a mill worker named Garret Brown. After being accused of stealing a bucket of nails, Brown jumped into the river and drowned to escape Caesar, the constable and self-proclaimed “boss man” who blamed him for the theft. Caesar also happens to be Black Mary’s sister, though the siblings’ relationship is strained.
Solly Two Kings, a former Underground Railroad conductor and suitor of Aunt Ester’s, shares a letter from his sister in Alabama. She is increasingly concerned about the racist violence and lynching there. Solly makes plans to travel south and rescue her.
Impatient to be seen by Aunt Ester, Citizen sneaks into the house through the window. He tells Aunt Ester about his troubles. Aunt Ester comforts Citizen and allows him to stay and work at her home.
Meanwhile, the mill employees are rioting and refusing to work, making Caesar furious.
Eventually, Citizen his confesses the secret to Aunt Ester. She agrees to help Citizen redeem himself by leading him to “the City of Bones,” but first, he needs to go upriver and find two pennies lying side-by-side.
When Citizen returns with the two pennies, Aunt Ester shows him a map of the City of Bones, which she says is the home of millions of enslaved Africans who did not survive the voyage to America. Aunt Ester folds a sheet of paper into the shape of a boat and tells Citizen he will sail on it to the City of Bones, where his soul will be washed. Citizen doesn’t understand how he can possibly sail on a small piece of paper, but Aunt Ester insists that if Citizens believes the boat will take him there, it will.
Eli, Black Mary, Aunt Ester, and Citizen all prepare for the journey to the City of Bones. Solly stops in to say goodbye before he leaves for Alabama, but Aunt Ester asks him to stay and help Citizen first. Aunt Ester describes the boat, the Gem of the Ocean, while Black Mary, Eli, and Solly begin singing. Citizen becomes terrified and throws away the paper boat. Suddenly a “storm” comes up and Citizen is symbolically branded, whipped, and left with no water. Alone, Citizen “remembers” and sings an African Lullaby his mother used to sing to comfort him.
Miraculously, Citizen arrives at the City of Bones. He approaches one of the Twelve Gates and realizes that the gatekeeper is Garret Brown, the mill worker who drowned. Citizen finally confronts the truth of his actions, and his soul is washed. When it’s over, he finds himself back in Aunt Ester’s house.
Just as the group celebrates Citizen’s journey, Caesar arrives and blames Solly for a fire at the mill. Soon after, a confession is made, a life is lost, and the lives of everyone at Aunt Ester’s house are forever changed…