With an excellent cast and Wilson’s spell-binding dialogue, this engrossing exploration of the black experience in 1904, after the “freeing of the slaves” in the Civil War, is a must-see. Gem of the Ocean is down-home kitchen drama and also a magical/mystical exploration of the heart of a people given freedom that is less than free.
Into Aunt Ester’s kitchen through an open window comes a young black man, Citizen, who has been waiting two days to see her. He is in torment and needs to “wash his soul.” Aunt Ester is the one to perform this “exorcism,” since she’s reputed to be more than 200 years old. She shares her house with Black Mary (who came one day for work as a washerwoman and just stayed.) Citizen has come North looking for work in a Pittsburgh factory, only to find low wages which are all eaten up for room and board…leaving him simply another kind of slave. (Keith Arthur Bolden as Citizen; Tene Carter Miller as Black Mary.)
Aunt Ester (Juanita Jennings — what a great voice) recognizes his torment and invites him to stay and help Eli (Jeris Lee Poindexter) to build a wall. Entering from time to time is Solly Two Kings, who is sweet on Aunt Ester, and the white peddler Selig (Stephen Marshall). All loving-kindness and memories and tea and biscuits — the only harsh intrusion is Caesar (Rodney Gardiner), Black Mary’s brother who represents the black man who fought back tooth, nail, and soul to survive, and finally joined the “other side” and became a black oppressor of his “brothers.”
These characters are down-home folk but also archetypes. Aunt Ester is ancient wisdom; Citizen and Black Mary the new generation. While the northern “freed slaves” suffer under this unfair economic burden, Solly’s sister represents the freed slave who stayed behind but “locked in under pain of death” and made to keep working for nothing wages.
On a reality level, something terrible has happened at the factory. A worker is accused of stealing a bucket of nails. He’s jumped in the river and, rather than face his accusers, he chooses to drown. This is the scene that drove Citzen to Aunt Ester.
It’s worth seeing the play for the magical scene when Aunt Ester finally decides to wash Citizen’s soul, to take him to the “land of bones” and exorcise his terrible guilt.
The problem of Gem of the Ocean, if you haven’t seen August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson and Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, is that usually his characters are real and the pain they suffer is real. Gem of the Ocean’s possibly overlong monologues are filled with philosophy, history, great observations, and the characters, albeit real, are also symbolic. It’s just a different kind of play: part history lesson, part philosophical observation, part just dinner table conversation. I wish the speeches had been somehow spoken twice or slower so that I could have soaked up all the good stuff, but as it’s played, the pacing is good, so just catch what you can.
This period in history and these characters, in a way, represent my grandparents and your great-great grandparents, if they came from the “old country” and found themselves the butt of discrimination. For Citizen, it was a new slavery in a factory in Pittsburgh. For the Irish, it was “Paddy on the railway.” For the Jews, it was the peddler’s world, as he aspired for a little store while living in the New York railroad-flat-tenement, working long, hard hours to climb a rung on the ladder to the American good life.
In a moving moment, Eli asks, “We got freedom but what’s it for?” It was for all of us, I guess, down here a couple or three or four generations later.
August Wilson died a few years ago. He was a “gem” of American theater. Catch all of his plays, if you can. But at least sample Gem of the Ocean — a really great evening of theater.
Playing through November 13
5060 Fountain Avenue
Los Angeles, California