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Goodman’s ‘Gem of the Ocean’: Finding hope for a Black generation in backwave of slavery

Submitted by on Feb 20, 2022 – 11:11 am

Old friends Aunt Ester (Lisa Gaye Dixon) and Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams) are still full of the spice and joy of life. (Photos by Liz Lauren)

Review: ‘Gem of the Ocean’ by August Wilson, at Goodman Theatre through Feb. 27. ★★★★★
By Lawrence B. Johnson

August Wilson was in Chicago in 2003 for the run-up to Goodman Theatre’s world premiere production of “Gem of the Ocean,” the bedrock story of Wilson’s Century Cycle, a dramatized arc of the African American experience decade by decade through the 20th century. I suspect the playwright, who died in 2005 at age 60, would be profoundly content with Goodman’s revival, a keen-eyed and pitch-sensitive perspective on “Gem of the Ocean” directed by Chuck Smith.

August WIlson came to Chicago for the premiere of ‘Gem of the Ocean’ in 2003.

While the 10 plays of the Pittsburgh Cycle are set in specific decades, they were not written in the chronology they invoke. It’s something of a theater geeks parlor game to recite which play pertains to which decade and then, for the Wilson devotee championship, to toss off the order in which they were written. “Gem of the Ocean,” framed in the 1900s with the legacy of slavery still very much in the room, was written next to last. Taken as a whole, the cycle is unsurpassed as a body of work by an American playwright; the subtle rigor of Wilson’s plays combined with their unfailing lyricism might be summed up as Shakespeare meets Tennessee Williams.

“Gem of the Ocean,” like most of Wilson’s cycle, takes place in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, in the home of Aunt Ester, a community matriarch of indeterminate age but said to be 285 years old. She is respected as guru, shaman, truth-sayer and, above all else, holder of the key to the City of Bones, a mythic place, or rather a place in the mind, where sins are purged and broken souls made whole again. Lisa Gaye Dixon is Goodman’s presiding Aunt Ester, as assured and perceptive as she is wry and droll. Dixon affixes Ester as the play’s essential anchor, though “Gem of the Ocean” is not about her.

The real protagonist might be given several names: Vision, Hope, Courage, Redemption – qualities variously embodied in two characters, a man in late middle-age who knew slavery first hand and a young man who has recently suffered its bitter legacy in the deep South. The year is 1904.

In his own youth, Solly Two Kings (given conviction’s casual edge by James A. Williams) made his escape from slavery to the North, then parlayed his freedom into service with the underground railroad. That was long ago. Now he keeps body and soul together chiefly by collecting dog excrement – “pure,” he calls it – and selling the stuff to folks who use it in all manner of creative ways. Vintage “pure” is apparently great for cleaning boots.

Solly shows up regularly at Aunt Ester’s, his bag of excrement on one hand and a big walking stick in the other. While he’s not exactly the wise Shakespearean fool seen in several of Wilson’s plays, this harshly educated knockabout does brandish worldly wisdom along with a certain brash willfulness. He is, indeed, nobody’s fool. In bearing and speech and attitude, Williams captures the panache of a man who knows himself.

Aided by Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams, left) and Aunt Ester (Lisa Gaye Dixon), young Citizen Barlow (Sharif Atkins) embarks on his voyage to the City of Bones.

His opposite is the lad Citizen Barlow, who when we meet him doesn’t know himself at all. Young Barlow (Sharif Atkins in a performance of patient evolution) has just come up from Alabama, where Blacks are being openly terrorized even as they are prevented from leaving. Barlow is desperate to speak with Aunt Ester. He says he has killed a man, and he’s heard about this revered woman who might help him find absolution. And so she does, in the play’s pivotal journey to the City of Bones via a small paper boat called Gem of the Ocean. It is perhaps a figurative passage, but to Barlow’s needful mind it is quite real and perilous and healing.

Caesar (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) is the law, as he makes starkly clear to Citizen Barlow (Sharif Atkins).

But that is far from the whole story. I haven’t spoiled anything. Meet a real spoiler: the local arm of the law, the gritty, self-made Caesar, who lives by the gun and by the law as he sees it. Kelvin Roston, Jr., is magnetically dangerous as the proud, venomous Caesar, who has scrambled up a very rough path to his position in life and somewhere on that climb unburdened himself of all compassion. Roston’s extended, one might say relentless, monologue in which Caesar recounts his dauntless ascent, and all the setbacks he had to overcome, is a bizarre highlight of this production, a tale full of sound and fury signifying…Caesar.

Black Mary (Sydney Charles) soon catches the eye of new arrival Barlow (Sharif Atkins).

He has a lovely younger sister, though, called Black Mary, who gets Citizen Barlow’s attention right away. Black Mary (always addressed by both names) lives with Aunt Ester, earning her keep by doing the laundry and cooking. Sydney Charles’ gentle and wise portrayal affords an arresting moment, whether as acute observation or comic relief or both, whenever she speaks – right through a volanic outburst near the end, an eruption from the core of her humanity against a spirit she no longer recognizes as kindred.

Black Mary (Syndey Charles) drives a hard bargain with the local peddler (Gary Houston).

This is a marvelously peopled “Gem of the Ocean,” down to A.C. Smith as  Aunt Ester’s longtime friend and confidant Eli and Gary Houston as a peddler of pots and pans who figures in the play’s bleakest turn. Designer Linda Buchanan’s homey set, with its slats suggesting the hull of a boat, feels very much like another timeless character. All told, a gem indeed, and a powerful inducement to seek out the other nine plays in Wilson’s voyage across the century.

Designer Linda Buchanan’s high slatted set captures a dual aura of home and boat.

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