It’s a daunting task to review a production as nearly perfect as the current ArtsCenter Stage presentation of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean. The play, although not the first written (it premiered in 2003) in Wilson’s magnificent 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, begins the stories that cover African-American life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District through the 10 decades of the 20th century. Several of its characters, including the ancient Aunt Ester, were born in slavery, and the main concern of the play is freedom — what it is and is not; how to get it, how to keep it; and how to “live and die in truth.” As a piece of writing, it is beautiful almost beyond describing: robust, musical, rich in color and shading. Its cadences and repetitions build like those of the best jazz, spiraling around a motif with the hard glitter of change and the lush continuity of remembrance.
It’s a big play in every sense. Two full acts barely contain its life. Wilson (who received many awards for various parts of the full cycle, including two Pulitzers) is so successful at working with big ideas and concerns because they are the natural concerns of his large-scaled and magnificently detailed characters, who live in a world where metaphor and reality are not strangers, and where now includes all of the past. Their landscape is strewn with boulders; they are set about with ambushes, and rivers of blood. It’s a world in which a conjure woman can wash souls and cast out scoundrels from her house of peace and sanctuary at 1839 Wylie Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA. It’s 1904 — 110 years ago by the calendar, but not too distant from 2014.
The ArtsCenter production is directed by John Rogers Harris. His timing of the dialogue and action is faultless, but more importantly, he lets love and tragedy fill the room at their own pace. Harris has cast a powerful ensemble of actors as the seven characters, and Wilson’s words pour forth as if from their own minds. No one spouts speeches, or declaims, or breaks the fourth wall. We observe and empathize looking into a world of which we are not part. It is complete in itself.
Among the actors, first mention must go to Malcolm Green, called in very late in the process to play Eli (replacing Gil Faison, who had to withdraw due to a death in his family), who is essentially Aunt Ester’s gatekeeper. He is also building a wall, a stone wall (not a fence), around the house. Green is still an undergraduate theatre major at NCCU, but here he’s an old man, annealed in the fires of war and reconstruction. He was particularly moving as he told of his days conducting on the Underground Railroad, along with Solly Two Kings.
Thomasi McDonald may have been born to play Solly Two Kings. He was fantastic as the former slave who escaped to freedom in Canada, only to turn right around and bring out others. His slave name was Uncle Alfred, but he named himself after two kings, David and Solomon, but someone promptly called him Solly, so Solly Two Kings he became. Two Kings can’t read, and he collects dogshit to sell as manure for a living, but his soul is large, and knows not compromise. McDonald was in danger of running away with the show every time he opened his mouth — but the others were right there with him, raising the acting to rising plateaus of greatness.
Gem of the Ocean begins with young Citizen Barlow, recently escaped from Alabama, beating on Aunt Ester’s door, desperate to get his soul washed. Jade Arnold, fresh from his triumphant portrayal of Mozart in Leviathan’s production of Amadeus, nearly tore my heart out as Citizen. He’s suffering because he killed a man. He didn’t mean to, didn’t begin to foresee the effects of an action he took to even a personal score, an action that ultimately sets off riot, fire and more killing. Aunt Ester takes him on a healing spiritual journey to the City of Bones and almost can’t bring him back, because he has let go of the boat — a folded paper boat she’s given him — that links him to his ancestors and his history. He retrieves the boat just in time, and returns to the present with a context for all his troubles. The struggles and emotions in this scene are very powerful.
Sherida McMullan beautifully portrayed Black Mary, who turned up at Aunt Ester’s one day a few years back and is now a conjure woman in training, as well as cook, laundress, and hostess in the house of peace. Her performance was nuanced, much being conveyed by expression and gesture, and her speaking was so natural one often felt like an eavesdropper rather than an audience member. Black Mary’s half-brother, Caesar Wilks, is played here by the powerful Phillip Bernard Smith. Caesar is a tragic figure who doesn’t know he’s tragic, or that he’s erased his moral center — he thinks he’s a success, powerful and righteous. Smith was more than equal to the task, and particularly eloquent and vicious in Caesar’s longest speech.
Juanda LaJoyce Holley gave a majestic performance as Aunt Ester, the wise woman at the center of it all. She’s a magnificently tall woman, with a lovely voice and the sweetest smile. Her Ester connected to all the fundamental powers of the universe; she conjured her character so that the character could conjure up the truth of the past and apply to it the balm of love. But she — actor and character — also exemplified the particular magic of the drama, whose skilled practitioners can take us on spiritual journeys towards understanding.
The one white guy in the play is an itinerant tinker and peddler, Rutherford Selig. He’s a friend and frequent visitor, and serves to demonstrate that not all white people are bad news to black people. The part is small, but key to the culminating action, and is admirably filled by the always-interesting John Murphy.
The technical side of this production is as strong as the cast. James Carnahan and Tracy Broome have made a fine set and filled it well. I had a couple of quibbles with Elizabeth Droessler’s lighting in the more dramatic moments, but overall it’s very good. Marissa Erickson’s costuming is first-rate, and tells a great deal about the characters. Caesar Wilks’ oversized white-man suit, pooling around his heels, spoke very clearly. In addition, Zachary Corsa and Denny Wilkerson Corsa have created a wonderful sound design, replete with the blues. This show will be on every year’s-best list in numerous categories.
Gem of the Ocean repeats May 15-18. Advance reservations are suggested, as the house size has been reduced by the expanded stage. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.