August Wilson has more than once been favorably compared by drama critics to Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill.
I would call “Gem of the Ocean” powerful, complex and sacramental.
Chronologically, it is the first segment of 10 plays in Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle — one for each decade of the 20th century— depicting the lives of black people in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood. This one is set in 1904.
A young black man, Citizen Barlow, recently up from Alabama, seeks shelter and solace from an elderly woman known as a soul cleanser, a wise woman in the community, who keeps the history, mythic memories and values of her people. She was once a slave herself and describes her age as 285 — covering the time slavery legally existed in America.
Citizen steals a bucket of nails to compensate for pay he was denied and then watches as an innocent man is hunted down for the crime. This man jumps in the river and purposefully drowns himself rather than be caught. Horrified and ashamed, Citizen needs the absolution and redemption he hopes for through Aunt Ester.
'It is about being accepting of others, their faults, vulnerabilities and human-ness; and recognizing the value and possibility of contribution for each life — and how to help them to "stand in the light,"' said Lisa Gaye Dixon, who portrays the 'mystical' 285-year-old matriarch Aunt Ester, a former slave brought over on the 'middle passage.'
I call it a scene of mystical imagination or magical realism — an experience of sacrament — that Aunt Ester provides. She describes it as a visit to the City of Bones in the Atlantic, the Middle Passage where many slaves died during the long, brutal transport. She herself was on a ship called “Gem of the Ocean” and survived. She shows Citizen a paper boat of it and invites him to take the journey.
The setting of the humble house is brilliantly transformed by swirling kaleidoscopic patterns, African drum beats, lapping ocean waves and gospel singing. Seven dancers descend from the second floor of the set and weave a mesmerizing dance; they are garbed as skeletons, waving illuminated neon-fire streamers. The smell and wispy fog of incense pervade.
The role of Aunt Ester seems made for Lisa Gaye Dixon. She gives a full, rich portrayal; she simply is this matriarch of time, place and race. I found myself charmed by the music she lent to her lines with the simple up-lilt “hmm” she added to many phrases. A “specialist of powerful prayers” is an apt epithet. ”Super-performer” is another.
Ester delivers wise observations, many of them related to her Christian faith. She refers to Christ when she explains how the wrongly accused nail thief would rather “die innocent than live guilty.” She addresses the denial of Christ three times by Peter. Also raised is the apparent contradiction of “turning the other cheek” and “smiting the enemy.”
Dixon’s fellow actors echo her superbly. Nathan Ramsey as Solly Two Kings gives majestic dignity to this activist on the Underground Railroad, who helped 62 slaves to freedom in Canada, yet now earns a living by collecting and selling dog manure.
Charence Higgins is attractive and reliable as Black Mary, Aunt Ester’s housekeeper. She capably becomes saucy or perky, adding to the humor also present in the play. Danny Yoerges as Rutherford Selig the peddler joins her as does Latrel Crawford as Eli. J’Laney Jenkins as Citizen Barlow is just the right blend of sensitivity, hesitation and bravery.
Brandon Burditt plays Caesar Wilks, the ultimate “Boss Man” by his own definition. He clearly represents the legal law and love of “collateral money.” He simply cannot fathom that there might be higher laws to be obeyed with compassion and sacrifice. Sanctuary is specifically shown as one such higher law. Handsome and dapper, Burditt is very well cast physically; he conveys arrogant self-confidence in mien and speech.
Anyone liking a wealth of spiritual and moral themes will find them aplenty in this play. Historic injustice, family blood-bond loyalty and the formation of conscience are several.
The production, too, is first rate, with special notice to be given to the UI Department of Dance for the sinuous, underwater dance of bones. Scenic, sound and lighting designers Linda Buchanan, Hayat Dominguez and Robert Perry, respectively, achieve outstanding effects.
I must say, however, that I found the play too long. Could not the director have cut dialogue in the first act? Surely! The great climax was in Act 2 — the liturgical descent into the cleansing City of Bones. The final striking of Solly’s great stick did not occur until almost 11 p.m.