It could take you considerable time to discover where August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean is heading in the current production by Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. However, once it gets fully underway, it moves dramatically and imaginatively, thanks to Mark Clayton Southers’ direction and convincing, solid performing by the cast.
The play looks most like a well-developed melodrama heightened by fantasy, an affectionate portrait of post-Civil War black people struggling to live in a society as repressive as in the days of slavery, while those deep issues hover in the background
Just to make sure you know, this is Wilson’s ninth of ten plays, the one occurring longest ago in each decade of the 20th Century. The year is 1904, although not identified as such in the program book. The setting is the Hill District.
The heart of the play seems to be about finding and honoring roots, about dealing with whom you are and where you are in time and place. At the center is young, misplaced Citizen Barlow. Having fled oppressive racism in Alabama, he wants protection and redemption after being responsible for a man’s death. He feels that the he can get both from aged Aunt Ester. She has an enduring reputation for wisdom, power and magic.
Aunt Ester has live-in help, including Black Mary whose brother Caesar is a constable, enforcing white men’s laws. A frequent visitor is Solly Two Kings, a former guide on the Underground Railroad. Solly wants to go to Alabama to rescue his sister, suffering under the same racism Citizen Barlow escaped.
Not much seemed to happen in the long first act at the preview performance June 1st. That went on for nearly an hour and a half. In it, everyone talks at length about who and what they are, typical August Wilson material in which colorful dialogue dominates, as if for its own sake. Critics praising Wilson often speak of his rich language but that didn’t come across when I saw it. In fact, given that these people speak the vernacular of the period and place, some phrases were lost on me. But I never failed to understand what was happening in the substantial and credible performances.
The second act comes to life when the characters more clearly relate to and need each other, becoming the cause for action, discovery, revelation, tragedy and transformation. This is where Wilson’s most imaginative and special ideas appear. Aunt Ester navigates Citizen Barlow’s trance-like voyage into racial memory aboard a slave ship, whose name is the play’s title. Wilson also effectively makes a symbolic connection between Citizen’s guilt over a man’s drowning and his desire to be washed clean of his sin. Southers staged this part of the play exceptionally well, for example, making use of startlingly vivid masks.
Alan Bomar Jones’ version of Solly Two Kings made him always compellingly genuine and dynamic. And Jonathan Berry gave Citizen Barlow appealing vulnerability and underlying strength. Wali Jamal’s Caesar clearly conveyed troubling menace. Chrystal Bates played Aunt Ester believably aged, but I found her reliance on song-like cadences and inflections diminished understanding the essence of her speeches.
To set the scene, sound designer Mark Whitehead has chosen compelling recordings of what sound like enduring work songs, field hollers and communal gospel gatherings. As always, director Southers designed a realistic set which enhances the feeling of truth, creatively supplemented by his well-chosen, life-like props.
Once again Southers and his company give vitality and depth to a Wilson play, honoring the often brilliant, always fascinating Pittsburgh playwright.
Gem of the Ocean continues through June 24th at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre, 937 Liberty Avenue, downtown. 412/377-7803- PGHPlaywrights.com