The opening work of August Wilson’s 10-play cycle dealing with African American life in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Gem of the Ocean is one of the last to have been written. Yet in its chaotic jumble of events as in the creative ferment of its ideas and characters, it has the feel of an exciting first play. Wilson’s delight in people—all kinds of people—and the fervor with which they express themselves is so intense that his writing always has the feel of discovery. Besides intentionally carrying over motifs and characters from one play of the cycle to another, he repeats, on a less conscious level, situations, tactics, events. But the freshness and energy that go into his dialogue, always making opportunities for an imaginative actor to seize joyfully, cover any sense of repetition with such multicolored layers of verbal dazzle that it takes digging to notice the repeats. “Everything being the same,” as that other Pennsylvania playwright, Gertrude Stein, remarked, “everything is always different.”
And so it is in August Wilson’s plays. We haven’t yet seen the end of the cycle, but certain things hold true. The play’s spiritual center, its source of stability and nurture, will be a woman, but its protagonist, only revealed by the progress of events, will turn out to be a man, preferably one resolute in his alienation from mainstream (white) society. A younger woman, whether or not she succumbs to physical affection, will be astonishingly resolute in her emotional independence. A comic character will achieve a settlement of some problem that will be overshadowed, at the end, by some general grief. Such are the white bones of dramatic structure upon which Wilson molds the melanin-pigmented flesh of his writing.
The nurturing woman who is and isn’t at the center of Gem of the Ocean is Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad), an ex-slave old enough to have survived the Middle Passage. A spiritual healer whose dreams and visions derive from African medicine rituals, Aunt Ester’s house is a magnet for the wandering and the troubled, including Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm), an elderly Underground Railroad alumnus who now earns his living collecting dog manure for sale to tanneries; Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton), a proud, unhappy young woman who has renounced her money-making, rule-book-obsessed brother Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson); Rutherford (Raynor Scheine), a hard-nosed itinerant peddler who is one of Wilson’s rare sympathetic white characters; and a recent arrival from Alabama, a young man burdened by his mother with the weighty post-slavery name of Citizen (John Earl Jelks), and by himself with the guilt for an impulsive crime that has had near-unforgivable consequences.
The time (1904) is one of general economic downturn, particularly hard on the black communities that have been swelling in Northern cities from the flood of Southern sharecroppers escaping the increasing onslaught of Jim Crow laws. Exploited and cheated like other new arrivals whose labor feeds the expanding industrial machine, Pittsburgh’s black tin-mill workers are already in a restive state when Citizen’s unwise act, heightened by an unjust accusation from Caesar, leads to a man’s death, a work stoppage, and an act of arson precipitating a riot for which several hundred are arrested. These events take place offstage; in Aunt Ester’s house, all is quiet except for the troubled souls of those who come and go. “This a house of peace” is the formula with which Aunt Ester’s factotum Eli (Eugene Lee) greets every newcomer, but before the evening has taken the winding road to its somewhat abrupt conclusion, there have been angry confrontations, arrests, threats, and drawn guns. By the middle of the play, Aunt Ester will have taken Citizen on a soul-journey to the land of the dead; by its end, an actual dead man will be laid out, and a successor will take on a wanderer’s coat and life.
The incidents crowd in on one another, sometimes in short, blackout-like scenes and sometimes in long, expansive parades of oratory and reminiscence. Europeans came to America from a post-Gutenberg print culture; Wilson’s plays are a constant reminder that Africans did not, that for African Americans the spoken word means not only social conversation and disputation but also a form of public communion that envelops prayer, philosophy, a self-defining demonstrativeness, and a repository of history. In another cycle play, a character speaks of everyone alive having a song; no Wilson play goes by without every character having at least one speech in which that song is embodied.
Given actors who can animate these colloquial jazz arias in prose, any reasonably discreet director can get astounding results. Kenny Leon’s uneven production, in which passages of smooth-flowing, detailed life alternate with joltingly stilted moments, boasts five such actors, along with three more who are strong enough to fill the arias credibly, even if their work doesn’t make your hair stand on end. The hair-raising moments come most often from Santiago-Hudson, who makes the play’s one dislikable character not only believable but passionately convincing. Hamilton, as his sister, is a tower of fierce energy even when silent; Jelks makes Citizen’s distress immediate and touching; Scheine contributes an elegant mix of crusty slyness and compassion. And Rashad wisely gives the prophetess a down-home solidity that makes her mystical talk far more real than any sibylline grandstanding could; even the moment when she produces an ancient bill of sale for herself is breathtakingly free of histrionics.