Court Theatre’s lyrical production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean” was both a history lesson and profoundly moving. In most of the plays of the Pittsburgh cycle that I’ve seen, the characters are dealing the best they can. In “Gem of the Ocean”, bigotry and echoes of the Civil War overlay ordinary life. I give it 4 Spotlights.
Here’s a curious factoid – “Gem of the Ocean” is the first play in August Wilson’s Pittsburgh cycle but it’s the last one in the cycle he wrote. It premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 2003. Another factoid, the Goodman is to date, the only theater in America to have produced all ten plays in the cycle.
Eli (A. C. Smith) lives with and protects Aunt Ester (Jacqueline Williams), whose house is known as a sanctuary, from people seeking her services as a ‘washer of souls’. Black Mary (Tyla Abercrumbie), who moved in five years ago, generally takes care of the house and Aunt Ester. Rutherford Selig (Steve Schine) is an itinerant peddler trusted by Aunt Ester and Black Mary.
Citizen Barlow (Jerod Hayes) left Alabama looking for a better life, but the only work he can find in Pittsburgh is in the mill, Since the mill bosses underpay the workers, then overcharge them for food and a place to sleep, the workers end up owing the mill more than they can earn. Even though Eli told him Aunt Ester wouldn’t see him until Tuesday, Citizen hangs around outside.
The villain in “Gem of the Ocean” would be Black Mary’s brother, Caesar Wilks (David Alan Anderson), who is a narrow, self-righteous policeman who believes in shooting first and asking questions later. He’s angry because the Negro mill workers are agitated and refusing to work because a man who was accused of stealing a barrel of nails from the mill threw himself in the river insisting he was innocent, and drowned.
Solly Two Kings (Alfred H. Wilson) is a good friend to Eli who happens to be sweet on Aunt Ester. He was a slave who escaped and got all the way to Canada but just couldn’t stay there. When he returned to America, he became a conductor on the underground railroad. For me, the scene when Solly and Eli shared a flask with Citizen and reminisced about those times, became one of the most powerful moments in the play.
In preparation for his soul washing, Aunt Ester sets Citizen to find two pennies lying side by side and bring them to her. When he can’t find the piece of iron he needs, Solly lends him a link of the chain which had been around his ankle when he was a slave. Aunt Ester she folds a piece of paper into a boat which she tells Citizen to hold onto, no matter what happens. With the help of Black Mary, Eli and Solly, Aunt Ester takes him to the Gem of the Ocean for his journey to the “City of Bones”.
I think Jacqueline Williams gives a tour de force performance. She ranged from looking so tired you’d think she carried the burden of the universe to looking so strong and powerful she could take on anyone.
Be prepared, “Gem of the Ocean” is a long play, nearly 3 hours. I heard a few rumblings from people in the audience who just didn’t seem to want to sit that long. One reason it’s running so long – each scene change is marked by a fade to black and 2-3 minutes of drum music. The music choice makes sense after seeing the second act, sans scene or costume changes, but it could be a bit shorter.
“Gem of the Ocean” runs through October 11th at the Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm; Fridays at 8:00; Saturdays at 3:00 and 8:00; and Sundays at 2:30 and 7:30. Running time is 2 hours, 50 minutes with an intermission. Tickets range from $45-$65. Parking is free in the adjacent garage. FYI (773) 753-4472 or www.courttheatre.org.
To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-up and click at “Gem of the Ocean”