Although it was one of the last plays he wrote, Gem of the Ocean falls first chronologically in August Wilson’s 10 plays about the black experience in 20th century America. It’s not his best — Fences and The Piano Lesson both won Pulitzers — but Penumbra Theatre puts on a solid interpretation at the Guthrie.
Wilson typically keeps the action contained in one location: the setting for Gem of the Ocean is the parlor of a 285-year-old "soul cleanser," Aunt Ester (Marvette Knight), in 1904 Pittsburgh. Aunt Ester imparts the wisdom of a woman who has experienced almost 250 years of slavery and survived the Civil War. At the play’s climax, Ester’s parlor is transformed — through blue lighting, stark shadows, and befitting sound — into a slave ship, the Gem of the Ocean. She leads a young man, Citizen Barlow (Cedric Mays), through a mystical experience to the City of Bones, where he confronts slavery, the man who died for his own crime, and, ultimately, freedom. The scene reflects the play’s theme as articulated by Ester: "What use do we make of our freedom?"
Unfortunately, the journey to the City of Bones has nearly as much gimmick as it does depth. Mays is convincing as he is shackled supernaturally to the slave deck of the Gem of the Ocean and as he faces the consequences of his past crime. But the device of this magical voyage accomplishes little that could not have been achieved in "reality."
Wilson is a master at using more realistic, and more convincing, devices as the central conflict of a narrative. In The Piano Lesson, it’s a piano, co-owned by a brother and sister, carved with the faces of two ancestors. The sister never wants to depart with the piano, and her brother, eager to buy land, wants to sell it — a conflict of preservation of history versus moving on. In the first scene of Fences, a character tries to conceal a watermelon, a device that Wilson uses to reverse the racist connotation of the watermelon-loving minstrel. The Gem of the Ocean does not approach this level of subtle but powerful symbolism.
Director Lou Bellamy, founder and artistic director of Penumbra Theatre, is well positioned to bring Gem of the Ocean to the
stage. He won an Obie Award in 2007 for directing Wilson’s Two Trains
Running in New York City, and he directed Penumbra’s production of The Piano Lesson earlier this year. His comprehensive understanding of Wilson’s work is apparent on the stage. The characters are eccentric without going over the top, and the conversations they have in Aunt Ester’s parlor are truly engaging.
Black Mary (Austene Van), who lives with Aunt Ester, is a jilted woman who nevertheless remains compassionate. Eli (Abdul Salaam el Razzac), who also lives with Ester, is agitated with Citizen in the first scene, but he eventually employs him to build a wall. Eli remains calm and relaxed throughout the rest of the show, saying, "This is a peaceful home," when people stop by to visit. He has frequent, long conversations with Solly Two Kings (James Craven), a man who once helped with the Underground Railroad and now sells dog poop as fuel, about the black community’s difficult adaptation from slavery to free society.
Black Mary’s brother, Caeser (T. Mychael Rambo), is an Uncle Tom character who one can’t help but be angry with (and even sympathize with him a bit) for his deplorable decisions as an enforcer of the law. The only remaining character, Rutherford Selig (Terry Hempleman), is a white salesperson who fills only a minor role in the plot.
Knight plays a lively almost-300-year-old, but because Ester is such a
mystical figure, and because Wilson reveals in King Hedley II that she
lives to be 366 — hence she has almost a century of life remaining in Gem of the Ocean — her youthful portrayal of an elderly woman is not distracting.
Citizen’s transformation from a nervous young man in the first act to a
confident man who confronts his demons could have been more delicate, but this lies more in how the play is written than how the character was acted.
The play, about personal redemption, justice and the law, and the meaning of freedom, is not a must-see, but it is a strong production.
Performances will run through May 18 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie. There will be post-play discussions following the May 3 & May 14 matinees.