There's an extra tingle you get walking into a theatre to see a new August Wilson play. That little surge that comes with the heightened possibility that you just might be about to witness one of the great American dramas, worthy of placemen on numerous top ten lists with the likes of Long Day's Journey Into Night, Death of a Salesman, A Streetcar Named Desire and, quite often, Wilson's previous works such as Fences and The Piano Lesson.
But even his less successful ventures contribute to a grander whole; a cycle of 10 plays (nine have been completed), one for each decade of the 20th Century, dealing with aspects of the African-American experience in this country. It's a body of work with so many peaks that it will surely be remembered as one of the great achievements in American drama.
Gem of the Ocean, set in 1904, will certainly be ranked among his highest peaks. This tender, spiritual allegory mixes the first adult generation of free-born blacks (free legally, if not in actuality) with their once-enslaved elders, in a somewhat phantasmagorical story artfully mounted by director Kenny Leon in a visually and emotionally gripping whirlwind.
When the central character of the play you're watching is 287 years old you tend to keep an eye out for symbolism. Born in 1617, the year Africans were first brought to this continent in slavery, Aunt Ester, a revered character mentioned in two of Wilson's previous works, lives in a cathedral-like home in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the community which serves at the setting for most of his plays. Her street address is number 1839, the year of the Amistad revolt. As captivatingly portrayed by Phylicia Rashad, she is a woman of warm, maternal majesty. She is free Africa.
She is also regarded as a washer of souls and her crumbling mansion of a home serves as a sort of communal sanctuary, emphasized by the Gothic grandeur of David Gallo's set under Donald Holder's solemn lights. Sharp rays of the sun occasionally cut through colored curtains resembling stained glass windows. Visual references to natural elements abound; the ocean blue color of her parlor walls, the frequent flow of water from a kitchen sink and the dominance of earthy browns and fiery oranges in Constanza Romero's costume designs. The production is breathtakingly lovely.
Aunt Ester's household chores are performed by Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton) whose brother Caesar (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) serves as constable, happy to play by the white man's rules for his own benefit. (You don't exactly have to dig deep for the symbolism in this play, but that adds a folksy quality to the evening.) A frequent visitor and street philosopher is Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm), the battered but unbroken former guide on the Underground Railroad who now sells dog manure for fuel.
The slight, but potent plot involves Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks) who comes seeking sanctuary for a recent crime. A young man who has never worn chains, Barlow has led a rather aimless life, and Aunt Ester insists that the washing of the soul requires a continual connection to history. In a scene involving a bit of African ritual, a bit of earth magic and a bit of high theatrics supplied by Holder's lights and Dan Moses Schreier's sound design, she takes him on an ocean voyage aboard a ship made from her own bill of sale to experience the sacrifices of his ancestors.
The ensemble cast, including Eugene Lee and Raynor Scheine in smaller roles, is universally strong, and with this enchanting production enhancing Wilson's eloquent text, Gem of the Ocean would be a glittering jewel in any theatre season.
Photos by Carol Rosegg: Top: Phylicia Rashad, Below: (l-r) Ruben Santiago-Hudson, LisaGay Hamilton, Anthony Chisholm, Eugene Lee, John Earl Jelks