In its lyricism and narrative structure, reminiscent of the metaphorical “magical realism” of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “Gem of the Ocean,” August Wilson’s latest play, is the story of an African-American community less than 40 years following the Civil War. It is a timeless, and intrinsically American, story of human survival, religious faith and the intrusiveness of technological change.
The story unfolds in 1904 in Pittsburgh, a mill town with a burgeoning black community who labor under the yoke of punishing working conditions little different than slavery. Typical of communities of low-wage earners in depressed economies, illegal activities attract the community’s young men, mostly newly arrived Southerners, one generation removed from the plantation, yet struggling with the oppression that the industrialized North imposes upon them.
Such is the scene set by Wilson outside 1839 Wylie Avenue, a private home in the Hill District. Behind closed doors, Aunt Ester, whose reputed age of 285 years ties her birth to the arrival of the first slaves in Jamestown, Virginia and establishes her as the metaphorical chronology of the peculiar institution that is a cancer on the American promise of equality. To many, Ester’s home is a sanctuary, a rich embodiment of black history transferred through the generations by oral tradition and spiritual healing. Ester represents survival in her ability to cleanse souls, to restore people to their true selves and even to sunder the still insidious shackles of slavery.
Also living in the house are Black Mary, a domestic who is learning the healing arts as she serves in the home, and Eli, an assistant to Ester. Coming and going are Solly Two Kings, a former slave who collects dog manure and sells it to leatherworkers, and Caesar, Black Mary’s brother who has become “the law” and is ultimately denounced as a collaborator with racism. Then there is Citizen Barlow, the rash young man who has committed an impulsive crime, seeking cleansing from Aunt Ester.
Beneath the story of the lives of these characters is an exploration of history, both personal and collective, and of how individuals define themselves in times of radical social and economic changes. In order for Citizen Barlow to be cleansed of his crime, according to Aunt Ester, he must fully embrace his current life as well as his African heritage, which entails a ritual journey to the City of Bones on a boat called the Gem of the Ocean. Solly, who cannot change, must die, and Caesar, the traitor, must be ostracized. One might call these plot twists formulaic, and yet Wilson has infused the characters and the story with such poeticism that he validates what in other hands might be a stale literary convention.
Wilson’s script is not flawless, mostly in his second-act penchant for didacticism, bogs down the play’s momentum and comes across too much as a history lesson. Clearly, Wilson is exploring the broad, historical nuances in the African-American oral tradition, but some judicious trimming would still deliver a panoramic cultural study without threatening the play’s surface action.
Director Kenny Leon excels at balancing the different uses of idiom and dialect, and developing metaphorical characters onstage while ensuring that the equally poignant, though implicit offstage development resonates as well. As Black Mary, Lisagay Hamilton gives a smoldering and richly developed performance. Her presence is undeniable even when she is in the background. John Earl Jelks is moving as Citizen Barlow, and Ruben Santiago-Hudson tackles the unsympathetic role of Caesar with clarity, force and passion.
As Aunt Ester, the character who approaches the status of a deity, Phylicia Rashad is knowingly understated with a subtle intensity. She exudes a quiet power that when called upon in the second act exudes a spiritual depth that renders her performance a riveting powerhouse.
The play closes quickly, nearly abruptly, so that when the curtain falls, some portion of the business of a magnificent and magical journey is left unfinished. Like much of magical realism, though, the journey is infinite. The stories necessarily will finish on some random point on the circle.