MUST SEETheatre Reviews

Gem of the Ocean

By August Wilsongem-of-the-ocean-7631

Directed by Ron OJ Parson

Produced by Court Theatre, Chicago

Following Goodman Theatre’s amazing production of Two Trains Running earlier this year, the commemorations on the tenth anniversary of August Wilson’s death continue with an equally outstanding production of his second-to-last play, Gem of the Ocean, by Court Theatre. It features some familiar faces. As always, Wilson generously distributed his poetic narratives and ruminations to his actors, who relish the chance to speak such deep thoughts in plays that allow them to merge with their ancestors’ experiences. But while Two Trains Running was a mostly realistic play with a few references to the unseen mystical Aunt Ester, and other Wilson plays, such as The Piano Lesson, are explicitly magical, Gem of the Ocean is an ambiguous borderland. Both introspective and keenly engaged with the problems of the world when it is set in 1904, when it was written in 2003, and today in 2015, the play shows that to fix what influences you, you first have to understand, and come to terms with, yourself.

Jerod Haynes, Tyla Abercrumbie, David Alan Anderson
Jerod Haynes, Tyla Abercrumbie, and David Alan Anderson. Photos by Michael Brosilow.

In the middle of the night, a young man, called Citizen Barlow (Jerod Haynes) bangs on the door of Aunt Ester’s Pittsburgh home. “This is a peaceful house,” Eli (A.C. Smith), the groundskeeper admonishes him. That’s why Citizen has come; he has done something terrible, and people told him Aunt Ester’s house was a place of sanctuary and absolution. That’s true, Eli says, but he’ll have to wait until Tuesday. Aunt Ester (Jacqueline Williams) is roused from bed, and is sympathetic to Citizen, but agrees that despite being a homebody, she’s booked until next week. There is lots of trouble in Pittsburgh which directly impacts the people regularly passing through her house. A strike is brewing at the mill, a man recently drowned himself after being wrongly accused of stealing nails, people are being evicted immediately for missing just a week’s worth of rent, and the black neighborhoods are a powder keg. In the middle of all of it is a black man named Caesar (David Alan Anderson), high-ranking policeman, predatory slumlord, bakery owner who is supplied by the mill, and brother of Aunt Ester’s cook, Black Mary (Tyla Abercrumbie). He stops by frequently.

Of course, things can always get worse. Also orbiting Aunt Ester is Solly Two Kings (Alfred H. Wilson), an underground railroad conductor-turned-dog turd peddler, whose sister writes him from Alabama to say it has become a full-blown police state. Though advanced in years, Solly hopes to make one last trip to rescue her, possibly with the assistance of Selig (a gamely supporting Steve Schine), a white man who peddles more indoors-friendly wares. It turns out that Citizen, who has obsessively waited to see Aunt Ester, just came from Alabama, only to nearly wind up trapped in Pittsburgh’s exploitative economy. He killed somebody escaping it, he says, which is why he wants absolution. While working for Aunt Ester, he tries striking up a romance with Black Mary. But she warns him that they both must resolve the inner turmoil and guilt before they are able to love each other. For that, Citizen must go, with his new friends’ guidance, to the City of the Bones, the spiritual resting place at the bottom of the ocean for those who were murdered during the passage from Africa.

Jacqueline Williams, Tyla Abercrumbie, A.C. Smith. Alfred Wilson, Jerod Haynes (seated)
Jacqueline Williams, Tyla Abercrumbie, Jerod Haynes (seated), A.C. Smith, and Alfred H. Wilson

Gem of the Ocean starts slowly, and takes a long time setting up all the characters and power dynamics. Though Wilson’s monologues are long, the scenes are short, and are punctuated by canned drumming, designed by Christopher Kriz. If there is a flaw in this production, it’s that the effect does not build, but mainly that’s because Wilson couldn’t pass up the chance to use the chronologically first installment of his century cycle for world-building, as well as social commentary. After the first forty minutes, I was wondering when the plot would start. However, to director Ron OJ Parson and his cast’s credit, the exposition and character moments we get instead, are fascinating. Scenic designer Jack Magraw and muralist Dorian Sylvain have supplied Aunt Ester with a home both massive and comfortable. Since the kitchen flows undivided into the living areas, conversation often turns to and takes place over food, allowing for intimacy and fellowship among the characters, except Caesar, who’s the guest from Hell.

Steve Schine, A.C. Smith, and Tyla Abercrumbie

A smug, condescending bully, Caesar’s easy to hate, but Anderson delivers a monologue in which he describes his origins in such a way that his resilience and tenacity, at least, are impossible not to admire. His problem, the other characters say, is that he thinks he’s the only person in the world who’s not stupid. He’ll harangue people for not following the law, describe how he defied it when it was in his interest to do so and upholds it now that his position has changed, and still expects to be regarded as a moral authority. He provides Abercrumbie and Haynes with a strong opponent to play off of during their journey to making peace with themselves, as they’re both sympathetic and confused, though based on Abercrumbie’s performance, I’m not sure why Eli and Solly think Black Mary’s like her brother. She seems proud, temperamental, and a little disdainful, but never selfish. Haynes shows Citizen’s great vulnerability, but also his sense of justice and empathy. Smith and Wilson are perfect as old heroes who still have some fight left in them, with Wilson totally believable as a gold-hearted stubborn eccentric, and Smith employing his rich, resonating voice for a famous poem about musical fruit, which could alone enshrines this production in the audiences’ hearts forever.

Jacqueline Williams, Alfred Wilson
Jacqueline Williams and Alfred Wilson

The biggest hero of Court’s Gem of the Ocean is Jacqueline Williams, who stepped in at the last minute after the actress who played Aunt Ester during rehearsals had a medical issue. Just as Aunt Ester instantly forges a warm, close relationship with Citizen, Williams has a strong bond of trust with the rest of the cast. Only shaky on a few of her hundreds of lines, Williams’ Aunt Ester is not only a repository of wisdom (and unsolicited cooking advice), but quick-witted and crafty. Whether she is magical is debatable: other plays say she’s hundreds of years old, but she says Ester was not her original name, and she has been trying to convince Black Mary to succeed her. When she sends Citizen on a quest, she says it’s just to build his confidence, and there is no real power in the objects he’s searching for, but the awe-inspiring projections, sound, and lighting during his voyage on the Gem of the Ocean share some, but not all, of his experience with the objective audience. The ambiguity of her nature is tied to the philosophical questions the characters grapple with: what does it mean to be free? What would they do with power? Not be like Caesar, surely. But what can an individual do to overturn pervasive racial injustice? Aunt Ester’s advice is that it’s impossible to understand everything. Rather than try to figure it all out, appreciate life’s mysteries, and when you’ve learned life’s value, you can do good.

Highly Recommended

Jacob Davis

This show has been Jeff recommended.

Playing at Court Theatre, 5535 South Ellis Avenue, Chicago. Tickets are $45-65; to order, call 773-753-4472 or visit Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 3:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm through October 11. Running time is three hours, with one intermission.