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‘Gem of the Ocean’ conjures a feverish Middle Passage

“Gem of the Ocean,” now receiving a vividly acted revival at Court Theatre, was the ninth of the 10 plays penned by August Wilson for his 10-play cycle chronicling African American life in each decade of the 20th century. But while it was the next-to-last to be written, it is the cycle’s foundational work.

Though set in the North — Pittsburgh’s Hill District in 1904 — several of its characters are still directly in touch with their Southern roots and their origins in slavery. And the character of Aunt Ester, the matriarch talked about in many of Wilson’s plays, and here said to be 285 years old (an age that symbolically links her to the first group of African slaves brought to the North American colony of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619) not only possesses great healing powers. But she is capable of conjuring the Middle Passage and leading the spiritually troubled on a restorative journey to the City of Bones.

Jerod Haynes (from left), A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson in August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean,” now at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Jerod Haynes (from left), A.C. Smith and Alfred H. Wilson in August Wilson’s play “Gem of the Ocean,” now at Court Theatre. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

“Gem of the Ocean” (whose title clearly is an ironic play on the song that served as an unofficial national anthem during the Civil War era) is not the best play in Wilson’s cycle. You could easily argue that distinction belongs to “Two Trains Running,” “Seven Guitars,” “Fences,” “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone,” “The Piano Lesson,” “Jitney” or “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” But even a lesser Wilson play is masterful — full of gorgeous writing, and scenes that can take your breath away, especially when they are played by actors of the stature director Ron OJ Parson (who has directed 22 productions of Wilson’s work) has gathered on stage.

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‘GEM OF THE OCEAN’

Recommended

When: Through Oct. 11

Where: Court Theatre,

5535 S. Ellis

Tickets: $45-$65

Info: (773) 753-4472;

www.CourtTheatre.org

Run time: 2 hours and

30 minutes with one intermission

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Wilson never quite explains how Aunt Ester (Jacqueline Williams, who stepped into the hugely demanding role late in the rehearsal process, after Felicia P. Fields was forced to withdraw for health reasons, and who does a commanding job of balancing gravitas with humor) came to possess her grand home at 1839 Wylie Ave. Nevertheless, it is a place of refuge and solace for troubled souls — a place overseen by her proprietor, Eli (the enigmatic A.C. Smith), and by Black Mary (Tyla Abercrumbie, a charismatic beauty who ideally captures her character’s emotionally scarred heart). Mary boards there, and cooks and cleans for Ester, and might just be the person Ester will anoint as her “successor.”

The relative peace in the house is disturbed one night when Citizen Barlow (the finely wired and tormented Jerod Haynes) knocks on the door and refuses to rest until he meets with Ester. A clearly troubled and hungry young stranger who has just come north from rural Alabama, he is quickly drawn to Black Mary, and she is just as quickly resistant (yet drawn) to him. A later scene, in which she challenges him about what he can offer her, is one of the great moments in the play — searingly written and played with a mix of heat and sorrow.

Jacqueline Williams plays Aunt Ester and Alfred H. Wilson plays Solly Two Kings in the Court Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Jacqueline Williams plays Aunt Ester and Alfred H. Wilson plays Solly Two Kings in the Court Theatre production of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean.” (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Barlow is beset by demons he does not explain til much later. But Ester, who knows exactly how to deal with such people, prepares him for the redemption process — first by sending him on a ridiculous errand, then probing him about his true readiness and intent, and finally leading him through a mystical voyage that might set him back on the right path.

Meanwhile, Solly Two Kings (Alfred H. Wilson, perfectly tuned to play a man of experience who understands the meaning of freedom), an old friend of Ester’s and frequent visitor to her home — a man born into slavery who traveled north along the Underground Railway, and scouted for the Union Army — learns that his sister, still in the South, is terrified of the situation there. As he prepares to walk the many hundreds of miles back home to rescue her, the Hill District suffers its own upheaval as a man accused of steeling a pail of nails chooses to drown in the river rather than being falsely accused, and as a great fire breaks out in the local mill.

Lecturing all of these people is Black Mary’s brutal brother, Caesar Wilks (a stiff-backed David Alan Anderson), a police officer who began life as a criminal but emerged as a most extreme proponent of law-and-order and moneymaking. And standing on the sidelines is Rutherford Selig (Steve Schine), a white peddler who is a trusted friend of the household.

NOTE: Just days before Court Theatre’s production opened, Denzel Washington announced plans to film all 10 plays in Wilson’s cycle for HBO in the coming years. The films will, no doubt, feature many celebrities, but he would do well to tap some real stars with extensive experience in Wilson’s plays. They are right here in Chicago.