“I find in being black a thing of beauty: a joy: a strength: a secret cup of gladness.”—Ossie Davis
August Wilson’s wisdom, poetry, and humor ride on top of the conversations in this deep, powerful play as he reclaims the depiction of black people that has long been distorted in American plays. This story happens nearly half a century after the end of slavery, but its effects are fresh in the minds of the characters. Set in 1904, GEM OF THE OCEAN is about a lot of things, including race, mysticism, and murder. The loss of a mill and the resultant loss of jobs is a disaster for the town.
Director James Ijames sets a preternaturally slo-mo and seemingly incongruous pace at the start of what looks like a drawing room drama. Later, the slight time-bending makes sense as the performance shifts into gear and takes us to places unimagined in the ordinary run of time and kitchens and living rooms. An outsider, Citizen Barrow, who feels great remorse about a crime, arrives to visit Aunt Ester, a wise seer who can purge him of his guilt. Born on a slave ship 285 years before (hint of the play’s time-juggling), she guides him on a magic and dire ritual journey to the center of the world using a paper miniature of her slave ship, the Gem of the Ocean.
I simply can’t imagine a better cast than this one: Zuhairah’s formidable character, Aunt Ester, dreams of the ocean, and can cleanse souls. And it’s unusual to see the very lively Akeem Davis as errant Citizen Barlow, a role which initially demands more reacting and less acting-out. Brian Anthony Wilson plays Solly Two Kings, a former slave who keeps a piece of his old ankle chain as a good luck charm. And he collects dog poop. Steven Wright is Ester’s trustworthy attendant, Eli. Danielle Lenee is Black Mary, a mostly serene, almost saintly, housekeeper. Bowman Wright plays Black Mary’s imperious and evil (white-acting) brother, Caesar. Brian McCann is Rutherford Selig, the “good” white man. All the actors are tuned in, and their dialogue rolls out, rich and resonant, as we enter their world.
A note on the staging: Rather than a traditional horizontal proscenium stage, this unusually elongated and spacious performance space extends way forward, into the audience. And it has a ceiling suspended high above the set’s wood floor. Thom Weaver’s scenic design is huge, scant, and interesting, with just a few very particular pieces of furniture. In the course of the show, lighting designer Thom Weaver and sound designer Daniel Ison do something special, achieving Wow! effects in a major transition and catharsis that I won’t divulge here. You know that this is no ordinary production when you notice the busts of black people emerging from water just below the edges of the stage, as if it were a boat, as if the black sculptures are slaves lost on their trip across the ocean to America.
GEM OF THE OCEAN is part of August Wilson’s American Century Cycle, in which he raises the consciousness of his own people and of everyone else who sees his work. Producing artistic director Terry Brennan says, “In the coming years we will continue to work our way through these remarkable plays. Six more decades. Six more magnificent stories still to explore.” And that is what GEM OF THE OCEAN is: Magnificent. I saw the play mid-run, but wish I’d seen it sooner to give anyone who reads this review a chance to get tickets and see it before it’s gone. The audience is in for a memorable ride. This is not something to be missed.
[Arden Theatre, F. Otto Haas Stage] February 28- March 31, 2019; ardentheatre.org