The recent death of August Wilson, one of America’s most distinguished writers of dramatic literature, brings an added dimension to our consideration of his penultimate play, "Gem of the Ocean." It is the ninth in his 10-play cycle dramatizing the experience of African-Americans decade by decade during the 20th century. This also marks the first time that the McCarter Theater has presented one of Wilson’s plays. It’s a theatrical experience not to miss.
This brilliant "Gem of the Ocean" is set in 1904 in the now familiar (from past Wilson plays) Hill District in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Wilson’s ability to create memorable characters and evoke a time and place remains as constant as his gift for telling a compelling story. In this drama, he brings the legacy of former slaves into bold relief.
"Gem" is the first chronologically of the series that includes (stated in order of the decade in which they are set) "Joe Turner’s Come and Gone," "Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom," "The Piano Lesson," "Seven Guitars," "Fences," "Two Trains Running," "Jitney," "King Hedley II," and "Radio Golf" (to be produced this spring on Broadway).
Ruben Santiago-Hudson, who McCarter Theater audiences know from his autobiographical play, "Lackawanna Blues," makes his McCarter directorial debut helming the play in which he was a member of the original Broadway cast.
Those unfamiliar with Wilson’s almost larger-than-life plays will have no difficulty being transported by a story as supernaturally and mystically driven as it is grittily and humorously realized. Under Santiago-Hudson’s scrupulously
sensitive direction, an excellent cast has been assembled. The bonus with this production is the presence of Phylicia Rashad, who is re-creating her role in the original production and for which she was nominated for a Tony Award (and should have won).
If the Broadway production was charged with eerie atmospherics and performances that seemed to be energized by lightning rods, Santiago-Hudson’s staging suggests a more naturalistic, earthy, no less valid vision of a play that exists in two worlds. What a treat it must be for these fine actors to inhabit characters who will resonate with illuminating specificity long after we have left the theater.
The play’s central character is Aunt Ester (Rashad), previously referred to in Wilson’s "Two Trains Running" and "King Hedley II." Born during the year the first slaves arrived in America, and now at the incredibly ripe old age of 285, Aunt Ester exists both as a symbol of the African-American past and as a most formidable enabler in the present. For those distressed and dislocated souls in search of a cultural identity and for those in need of a spiritual healing, Aunt Ester fulfills a mighty mission. Despite the otherworldly resonance that pervades the house she lives in, Aunt Ester maintains a modicum of normalcy and keeps to a rigid schedule.
A deeply troubled Citizen Barlow (Russell Hornsby) seeks out Aunt Ester for help and sanctuary after committing a crime. It appears that Barlow has allowed his crime to be pinned on another man, who then drowned himself rather than be falsely convicted. Aunt Ester undertakes the formidable task of helping Citizen "wash his soul," as she tells him, "You’re on an adventure, Mr. Citizen. You signed up for it and didn’t even know it." This ritual of redemption, grandly fantastical in its theatricality, is a stunner and a highlight in a play that is filled with the eloquence of earthy vernacular and the magic of unearthly experiences.
Transfixed by Aunt Ester’s channeling, Barlow makes his metaphysical journey to the bottom of the ocean. This scene, Shamanistic in its ritualism, enhanced by the lighting artistry of Jane Cox, is mesmerizing. Barlow metaphysically enters the gated City of Bones, constructed by the skeletons of slaves who perished on their way from Africa to America.
Aunt Ester may be old and getting tired, but she takes her mission seriously. Among those in Aunt Ester’s inner circle are loyal Eli (Chuck Patterson); Aunt Ester’s housekeeper, Black Mary (Roslyn Ruff); and Solly Two Kings (John Amos), a former slave and now a member of the Underground Railroad. Both Solly and Citizen are being pursued by Black Mary’s brother the local constable Caesar (Keith Randolph Smith), who has no qualms about bringing the fugitives to justice.
Rashad, a Tony winner for her impressively restrained performance as Lena Younger in the 2003 Broadway revival of "A Raisin in the Sun," is giving, perhaps, an even more subtly enhanced performance than the astonishing one she originally gave in this demanding role. She brings Aunt Ester’s age and pronounced physical disability into sharp relief even as she empowers the mission of this supernatural woman with an awesome display of inner strength as well as a feisty spirit.
Hornsby is memorable as the tormented Citizen, who makes the transition to a man finally set free when he becomes one with the spirits of those who preceded him. Ruff is compelling as Black Mary. Amos, who many will recognize as Admiral Percy Fitzwallace, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on "The West Wing," gives a towering performance as the exuberant and cunning Solly Two Kings. With his wild white wig and groovy getup, Amos bears a startling resemblance to African-American abolitionist Frederick Douglass. There are virtually flawless performances from Smith, as the cynical and heartless Caesar; and Patterson, as Eli, Aunt Ester’s loyal old friend.
The production is impressive. Michael Carnahan’s sprawling setting that is the parlor of Aunt Ester’s house is dominated by a stairway with steps that reach rather too infinitely into the rafters. Karen Perry’s seriously period costumes, the sound (Garth Hemphill), and the music (Bill Sims, Jr. and Broderick Santiago) contribute to the innumerable pleasures of this major New Jersey theater event.
Gem of the Ocean, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Through October 30. $30 to $40. 609-258-2787.