New York City Theater
"The Gem of the Ocean"
Walter Kerr Theatre, Manhattan
Playwright August Wilson is certainly at the top of his form, as he continues with his "decades" series on the lives of black families in the Hill district of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
"The Gem of the Ocean," his latest and ninth offering, is earliest in time. The year is 1904, and many of Wilson's older characters still recall living in slavery. In fact, the issues of slavery and its aftermath dominate the scene. Although Aunt Ester owns the crumbling mansion (which she inherited from her white mistress), she has clear memories of being bought and sold as a child. Though Wilson's blacks are "free," they continue to be the victims of discrimination and violence. "They never made emancipation what they said it was…they wave the law on one end and hit you with a billy club with the other," says one of the characters.
Wilson has the amazing ability to combine soaring poetry, gritty realism, and magical moments. And though Wilson stops to give each of his characters strong monologues, the action never stops. The tightly-knit story unfolds in Aunt Ester's house at 1839 Wylie Avenue and features an assemblage of blacks--some living there, others invited in, others just dropping by. Aunt Esta (brilliantly played by Phylicia Rashad) rules her domain with an iron hand, with tough love, one might say. She comes across as a remarkable character, one of Wilson's most memorable-part judge, part earth mother, part shaman. Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), a youth from Alabama, thinks he has committed a crime and comes to Aunt Ester to have his "soul washed" (a skill for which she is famous).
Others on hand are two old cronies (Anthony Chisolm and Eugene Lee), activists in the underground railroad during the slavery era. And Black Mary (the gifted Lisagay Hamilton), who cooks and cleans for Aunt Ester, ultimately provides the love interest.
But it is director Kenny Leon who takes these performers with this material and welds them into a brilliant, flawless ensemble. Given all these elements, "The Gem of the Ocean" turns out to be the best-and undoubtedly most significant-play of this season.
-- Irene Backalenick
Dec. 11, 2004