Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Gem of the Ocean
Also see Susan's review of Bricktop
Gem of the Ocean is chronologically the earliest of the 10 plays in Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle, which examines African-American life decade by decade in the twentieth century. The time is 1904, many people who were born in slavery are still active, and the subsequent generations are trying to figure out how to make their own way. As one character says: "What good is freedom if you can't do nothin' with it?"
Director Paulette Randall, known for her work with the playwright in England, ably weaves together the many strands of the play. It begins with boisterous comedy, then the tone gradually deepens to the psychic probing of the second act.
Gem of the Ocean follows the personal journey of Citizen Barlow (Jimonn Cole), a son of slaves who has fled the south to find a job in Pittsburgh. While the south at this time is a violent, restrictive place for black people, Citizen finds that the industrial north offers few opportunities except to work hard in dangerous conditions for long hours, receiving next to no money. Poverty may not literally be the same as slavery, he says, but the result is similar.
To deal with his guilt over an action he couldn't foresee, Citizen is seeking sanctuary at the home of Aunt Ester Tyler (Lynnie Godfrey), the mystical matriarch of Pittsburgh's Hill District. She says she is 285 years old, but whether or not one accepts this bit of magical realism, she does serve as a living repository for the memories of her people.
Aunt Ester shares her house with Eli (Clayton Lebouef), a former slave and Underground Railroad conductor, and Black Mary (Pascale Armand), sister of the local constable, Caesar (LeLand Gantt), who has taken advantage of his position to become a bully. Regular visitors are Solly Two Kings (Joseph Marcell), another former slave determined to help those he left behind in the south, and a white peddler, Rutherford Selig (Timmy Ray James).
The cast has no weak links. Godfrey demonstrates Aunt Ester's sense of humor and occasional temper: just because the character is a symbol doesn't mean she can't also be a real person. Gantt offers flashes of what Caesar was like before he got corrupted by power, especially in the scenes with big-hearted Armand.
Scott Bradley's non-representational set in the Fichandler stands on a swirling plank floor, flat in the middle but raked at the edges, suggesting the ocean that so many crossed in slave ships. Allen Lee Hughes' lighting design is equally effective in the realistic scenes and when the mood turns expressionistic.