Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Lynnie Godfrey as Aunt Ester (Photo: Scott Suchman)
Gem of the Ocean reminds us why August Wilson is considered by some to be the Shakespeare of our time. Beautifully mounted at Arena Stage, it is nothing short of an epic. Issues involving Honesty, Redemption, Forgiveness, Self-love, Faith, Life, and Death — all spin around in an oceanic swirl, commanding attention and are sure to leave a gut-wrenching impact.
Once you get past the artifice of a 285 year-old Aunt Ester (yes, that was a stretch for me, too), you can sit back and let Wilson’s language and ideas have their way with you. Aunt Ester represents the ancient, mystical matriarch referred to in many of Wilson’s works. Now, in this earliest (1904) of Wilson’s 20th century series, we finally get to see what all the fuss was about. Aunt Ester is the faith healer of souls, keeper of history, community anchor, spiritual mother, collective conscience and consciousness, bridging from African roots across the Diaspora to the current black experience. Yes, I know it sounds heady, but Wilson pulls it off through exquisite character development and masterful story telling.
With emancipation only forty years before, blacks were still adjusting to the ramifications of freedom. Pittsburgh was a destination for many slaves escaping the ravished and vanquished South. In short order, Wilson sets the characters and plot in motion as each deals with life’s conditions and choices. The entry of a new migrant, appropriately named “Citizen” in honor of Emancipation and can represent “everyman,” brings reminders of the old south – with his “clodhopper boots,” and his furtive and insecure manner. Beautifully played by Jimonn Cole, Citizen portrays a fresh and sweet innocence beneath a survivor’s tough exterior. He seeks out Aunt Ester for her reputation of “cleansing souls” and begs her to help him deal with an awful guilt.
Life is not easy for these newly freed slaves, especially as the South reels in the brutal aftermath of Reconstruction and the rampant Klan. Solly Two Kings, also wonderfully named and perfectly rendered by Joseph Marcell, was, in his younger years, a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He learns of the mounting horrors from his sister’s letters, and realizes that he must make the 800 mile trek south to rescue her.
Joseph Marcell as Solly Two Kings (Photo: Scott Suchman
In my mind, this play stands out among all of the other Wilson dramas in depicting an evolving sense of self, identity, and even self-love needed to build character. In one scene, Citizen attempts to seduce Black Mary, a feisty Pascale Armand portraying a young woman who has moved into the house to assist and be companion to Aunt Ester because that’s the only place she has felt such peace. Black Mary submits passively to his aggressive behavior asking him poignantly what he will have in his hands when he’s through, what will be able to offer once he climbs off her. Citizen can’t help but retreat in the midst of such piercing analysis. We see that some of Aunt Ester’s insight and wisdom is rubbing off on the next generation.
Wilson meticulously defines all the characters in Act I, which is a challenge. Yes, they are beautifully rendered and robust with layered characteristics and intentions but when some of the stories seem more like speeches, the moments drag. It’s here where Director Paulette Randall shows why Arena executives went through hell and high water to recruit her from London, where she directed the play last year. She moves the characters along the pitched, sloped and concave set, designed by the amazing Scott Bradley, and orchestrates a full force ensemble. With the characters set and in motion, the second act speeds along, driven by suspense, a daring escape and a hunt for a fugitive from so called “justice” chased by Caesar, darkly played by LeLand Gantt. The stakes intensify even more when Citizen undergoes the cleansing ritual invoking the slave ship, the “Gem of the Ocean” traveling to the City of Bones. The set, a marvelous construction of a deck afloat a cavernous ship becomes lit from beneath the floor boards, (light design by Allen Lee Hughes), and with the swirling colors, and the sounds of ocean splashing and planks creaking, the audience, too, is magically transported onto the slave vessel where we bare witness to the countless souls who perished in the Middle Passage. This is theater at its finest.
Wilson recognizes that we can all use help escaping from the various chains of emotional slavery that oppress, maim and kill us, and that, for me, is the most powerful message in Gem of the Ocean. Having just seen Jitney at Ford’s Theatre several days before, I felt like I was swirling in the fertile mind of August Wilson, and having a glorious time. This production of Gem of the Ocean with its confluence of top-notch creative teams and a stunning acting ensemble tackling a challenging work will be hard to beat.
(Run time: approx; 3 hours) Gem of the Ocean, Through March 18 at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. SW. Call 202-488-3300. Showtimes: Tuesday, Wednesday and Sunday at 7:30 pm; Thurs-Sat at 8 pm ; Sat & Sunday 2 pm matinee. Tickets: $47 – $66. Available online or by calling 202-488-3300.