August Wilson’s epic ‘Gem of the Ocean’ unfolds in a powerful revival at Goodman Theatre
The struggles and hopes of Blacks in America across the centuries begin to unfold in the first work in August Wilson’s Century Cycle.
The view of the outside world that greets the Goodman Theatre audience at “Gem of the Ocean” is seen through the battered wooden slats at the backside of Aunt Ester’s home. The year is 1904, and that’s old Pittsburgh peeking through the gaps. But at times the outside world becomes a harrowing time out of mind, a storm-battered sea bearing a ship of human cargo, even the underwater realm of the magical City of Bones.
“Gem of the Ocean” is the first in a ten-play saga of Black Americans throughout the 20th century by the late American playwright August Wilson. These extraordinary tales are all set in a working-class Pittsburgh neighborhood known as the Hill District, where Wilson himself was born. It took the Pulitzer Prize-winning author more 30 years to complete the entire project, and although the works can certainly stand alone as individual plays, Wilson’s Century Cycle really constitutes a massive poem that charts the path of Black Americans out of the Civil War South and into the modern era.
When: Through Feb. 27
Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
Run time: 3 hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission
The oldest historical scenes, which recall the struggle of former slaves shackled to ships, are alive with the African spirit world. The stories of younger descendants are vivid each in their own way, too. Wilson’s plays were created as the episodes came to him, out of chronological order in terms of the story line. We see Black generations grab life by the fist as watermelon peddlers, musicians, athletes, numbers runners, coffee shop owners, intellectuals, cab drivers, husbands and wives — even real estate developers and mayoral aspirants. All occurring in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood over time. Catch just one of these plays, you will want to catch them all.
Director Chuck Smith sees this pitch-perfect revival of “Gem of the Ocean” as containing the first threads of this century saga, which can now be told, as Goodman intends to do, in chronological order from the standpoint of the story line. The plays didn’t come off Wilson’s pen that way, and Goodman has done the cycle before, but not as ordered here.
“Gem” is rich in the lore of slaves old enough to remember the dread passage by slave ship firsthand. Indeed, to hear the brilliant actor Lisa Gaye Dixon, as ancient Aunt Ester, conjure up the underwater City of Bones, is to hear her anchor the slaves’ brutal history in hallowed ocean ground. (Ester is said to be 285 years old.)
“Gem of the Ocean” unfolds entirely in Aunt Ester’s home. She uses her conjurer’s gift to attempt the healing of young Citizen Barlow, a desperate fellow who feels the death of another is on his shoulders. Sharif Atkins, in his Goodman debut as Citizen, is all raw energy as a crisis-causing petty thief in urgent need of redemption.
Citizen Barlow is in trouble, not that he can’t take time out to proposition stoic young housekeeper Black Mary. She is played by Sydney Charles, who endows this largely quiet, patience-worn feminine spirit with a finely honed stubborn streak. Although she delivers patent-worthy silent glares and the occasional volcanic eruption, this Mary is certainly aware of Citizen’s charms.
Meanwhile, trouble lurks in the form of Black Mary’s brother, Caesar. Kelvin Roston Jr. is stellar as the aptly named brutal and self-serving cop, flamboyantly drunk on the white man’s rules.
The sense of a flammable mix is always present in Aunt Ester’s household, but it is indeed a likable place. One of the first people we meet is Solly Two Kings (James A. Williams, in a wise and touching performance), rich in streetwise knowledge and a store of experience as a former runner for the Underground Railroad. Now Solly collects and sells dog droppings, a product he calls “pure,” with the unmistakable tone of a connoisseur, blithely ignoring the colorful comments of the home’s other denizens. Still, Solly tries to do what’s right, and that sense of honor pulls him out of safety and into danger once again.
Besides Black Mary, who’s ever-present, affable and engaging Eli (A.C. Smith) tends to Ester has her care-giver and confidant. He can hold forth at length on any topic necessary, and he is completely loyal, never more than a step or two from her side. It’s a role Smith has done before at Goodman, and plays him as a comforting bear, albeit one who can’t prevent trouble that keeps on coming.
“Gem of the Ocean” shows Black citizens establishing themselves in a North that didn’t necessarily want them, and that struggled to contain them. The playwright wasn’t born into this neighborhood until 1945, but he was born to tell this story.