Below is a synopsis of the show. You've been warned.
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 begs to see Aunt Ester for guidance. Upon being told he can’t see her that night, he stands across from Aunt Ester’s home through the morning, desperate for her help.
When the traveling peddler Rutherford Selig asks Eli about a group of people standing near the church, Eli explains that a funeral is being held for a mill worker named Garret Brown. Brown jumped in the river and drowned while being chased by Caesar the constable, who is also Black Mary’s brother. Caesar accused Brown of stealing a bucket of nails, but Brown insisted he did not do it.
Solly Two Kings, a former Underground Railroad conductor who is courting Aunt Ester, shares a letter from his sister in Alabama, who is increasingly concerned about the racist violence and lynching there. Solly wants to go down to Alabama to rescue her.
Still waiting to be seen by Aunt Ester, Citizen sneaks into her house through the window, telling her he can’t wait for her to “wash his soul.” He tells her 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.
Citizen confesses the secret that has been weighing on his soul to Aunt Ester. Aunt Ester decides to help Citizen redeem himself by leading him to “the City of Bones.” She tells Citizen that first, he needs to go up the river to find two pennies lying side-by-side.
The next morning, Citizen returns with the two pennies. Aunt Ester shows Citizen a quilt map with the location of the City of Bones, which Aunt Ester says is the home of thousands of enslaved Africans who did not survive the voyage to America. She folds the bill of sale from when she was sold as a slave into a boat and tells Citizen that he will sail on it to the Ccity so he can wash his soul. Citizen, unsurprisingly, doesn’t understand how he would 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, and Citizen prepare for their journey to the City of Bones, and Solly prepares for his to Alabama, but Aunt Ester asks Solly to help Citizen on his journey first. Aunt Ester describes the paper boat, the Gem of the Ocean, while Black Mary, Eli, and Solly begin singing. Citizen suddenly feels as though he is chained onto the ship and is being whipped. After the boat lands at the Twelve Gates, Citizen goes to a gatekeeper to give him the pennies for entry. Citizen realizes that the gatekeeper is Garret Brown, the mill worker who drowned. Overwhelmed, Citizen begins to cry and confesses to Brown his secret.
Citizen returns to Aunt Ester’s home with a cleansed soul. Just as the group celebrates Citizen’s journey, Caesar arrives to blame 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…