"Gem of the Ocean" Delivers Laughter, Tears and Redemption, Navigating the Rough Waters of African-American History
August Wilson, who died of liver cancer on October 2, once recalled: "Growing up in my mother's house at 1727 Bedford Ave. in Pittsburgh, Pa., I learned the language, the eating habits, the religious beliefs, the notions of common sense, attitudes towards sex, concepts of beauty and justice, and the responses to pleasure and pain that my mother had learned from her mother, and which you could trace back to the first African who set foot on the continent. It is this culture that stands solidly on those shores today as a testament to the resiliency of the African-American spirit."
Those memories, the cultural history that helped to create that world and the resilient African-American spirit all flower forth in Mr. Wilson's Gem of the Ocean (2003), currently playing in a powerful, moving production at McCarter's Matthews Theatre. Mr. Wilson's rich specificity of detail recreates the fascinating and dangerous world of Pittsburgh's Hill District in 1904. His characters, unforgettable in their passions and colorful individuality, speak of their pasts and their dreams for the future in a vernacular raised to a noble and stirring dignity in the face of the racist oppression that surrounds them.
Gem of the Ocean is the next to last play written by Mr. Wilson, but the first chronologically of his cycle of ten plays, each set in a different decade of the twentieth century. Slavery is still a living memory for the older generation of characters here, and the struggles to emerge from its legacy and achieve genuine freedom continue to overshadow the lives of all the figures in the play.
Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), who at 285 years old spans the history of Africans on this continent since their arrival on the first slave ship, still carries with her the bill of sale that designated her as a piece of property. Solly Two Kings (John Amos) holds on to the chain link that reminds him of his enslavement before Emancipation and his walking stick with 62 notches for the 62 slaves he led to freedom as an Underground Railroad conductor.
Though they have left the South, the characters here continue to suffer from oppressive working conditions and laws that discriminate and drag them down. "It's a war and you always on the battlefield," says Eli (Chuck Patterson), Solly's former partner on the Underground Railroad and currently Aunt Ester's caretaker. As Solly later declares, "Freedom got a high price."
These characters are realistic, distinctive, and down to earth, but at the same time mythical in their grandeur and larger than life in their symbolic significance. Aunt Ester, mentioned in other Wilson plays but appearing for the first time in Gem, is vibrantly brought to life here by Ms. Rashad, who played this role in last season's Broadway production.
Aunt Ester is an icon, and at the same time she could be your grandmother. A finger on her left hand is palsied, the aching of her joints is palpable as she moves, she loses her temper easily at minor annoyances, and the memories of her lost children plague her. Yet she retains that sparkle in her eye, that startling humor and that power to rise to any occasion, to take care of her own and do what must be done.
John Amos' Solly is the other mythical figure in the play. Still a large and powerful presence in his old age, Solly, with long white hair and beard, striped vest, orange bandanna and walking stick, continues to fight for freedom. He's a wandering sage, still on the road, still on the battleground after fifty years. In the first act of the play he prepares to travel south to rescue his sister from her indentured slavery in Alabama and bring her north to freedom. But along with his heroic proportions, he might, at the same time, remind you of a wayward uncle. He flirts shamelessly with Aunt Ester, reflects openly on his wide assortment of lady friends and, for a living, collects dog droppings and sells them as "pure" for fertilizer and for softening shoe leather.
These are wonderful characters, Mr. Wilson's best, richly rendered here by two consummate performers, and the rest of the cast lends dynamic, focused, high-energy support.
Set in the cavernous sitting room and kitchen of Aunt Ester's house and sanctuary (vividly and evocatively created here in Michael Carnahan's superb design), Gem is an engrossing story of seven different characters. Most immediately, however, it is the story of the education and redemption of young Citizen Barlow (Russell Hornsby), who has committed a crime and comes to Aunt Ester to have "his soul washed."
With help from Solly, Eli, and Black Mary (Roslyn Ruff), Aunt Ester takes Citizen on a spiritual journey of penance and salvation to the City of Bones. He is transformed, cleansed and finally ready to take on the mantle, both literally and figuratively, of Solly as a leader in the ongoing struggle for freedom.
Mary too becomes a compelling character in her conflict-ridden apprenticeship as washerwoman and also spiritual heir to Aunt Ester's legacy. The potentially romantic relationship between Mary and Citizen lends yet another engaging element to the rich plot material.
The character of Caesar (Keith Randolph Smith), Mary's brother and the local constable, provides the greatest conflict in the play. He has embraced the law and the values of the white man's world and does not hesitate to enforce that law no matter what the cost to the lives and well-being of others or to his own soul. With authoritative bravado and determination, Mr. Smith presents a striking and articulate figure as spokesman for the law, and an intriguingly complex character portrayal. Raynor Scheine's Rutherford Selig, convincing and sharp as a white traveling peddler and frequent visitor to the house, fills out the cast.
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who played Caesar in the Broadway production, has directed Gem with focus, energy, and appropriately brisk pacing. There is some looseness in structure, exacerbated perhaps by the sometimes ponderous though often poetical and inspiring speechmaking. A certain lack of dramatic tension requires some patience early on the compulsion to get one's soul washed doesn't necessarily keep the spectators on the edges of their seats during the rather long first of two acts, but the stakes and the tension rise rapidly after intermission. Mr. Santiago-Hudson, who debuted his autobiographical Lackawanna Blues at McCarter four years ago, and his sterling cast give vibrant life to August Wilson's brilliant language, winning characters, and high drama.
Mr. Carnahan's set, with lighting by Jane Cox, is detailed, slightly off kilter, and highly effective in creating the aura of the place, the times, and the people of this world of a century ago. Fabulous music by Bill Sims, Jr. and Broderick Santiago classical, ragtime, blues, harmonica, African drums conjures up the spirit of this journey of the Gem of the Ocean before the lights even rise on the opening scene, and helps to establish the shifting moods between scenes throughout the evening.
Mr. Wilson's plays also including Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1985) and The Piano Lesson (1987) among other masterpieces explore a wide spectrum of African-American life throughout the twentieth century. "I've lived a blessed life. I'm ready," Mr. Wilson said when announcing in August that he had been diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. McCarter Theatre's stirring production of Gem of the Ocean is a fitting tribute to the memory of this playwright who, in the span of little more than twenty years, so memorably raised the cultural consciousness of his audiences.
Gem of the Ocean runs through October 30 at McCarter's Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton. For show times and tickets call (609) 258-2787 or visit www.mccarter.org.