Gem of the Ocean
Gem of the Ocean is at Boston's Huntington Theatre now through October 30th before heading to New York to begin previews November 4th at the Walter Kerr Theatre. This is the next to the last offering in August Wilson's 10-play cycle elucidating the African-American experience, decade by decade, in the 20th century. It's the seventh time The Huntington has been involved in the development of one of the plays.
Phylicia Rashad, LisaGay Hamilton, Ruben Santiago-Hudson
Gem of the Ocean represents the first decade of the 1900s as central character Aunt Ester (Phylicia Rashad) celebrates the 285th anniversary of her 1619 birth (a date that coincides with the arrival of the first slaves in Virginia). The setting is Ester's parlor, as functional and ageless as she is, in the heart of Pittsburgh's Hill District where Wilson himself was born and has set each of the plays in his cycle.
Aunt Ester is an offstage presence in Two Trains Running, and her death (from grief) in 1985 is remarked upon in King Hedley II. According to Wilson, even when she's not invoked, she hovers over the entire cycle as a representation of the body of wisdom and tradition that is the African-American experience.
Rashad embodies this mythical, mystical character with a welcome earthiness, at her best when she mines Wilson's writing for its humor and deftly delivers his barbed thrusts at the heart of many matters. The other major characters span the older generations, for whom slavery is a living memory, and the younger ones who are now grappling with the economic, political and social realities of the aftermath of emancipation.
The play is most interesting when Wilson places these two sensibilities in apposition to create a hearty stew bubbling with ideas about "freedom" vs. "ownership" and "civil disobedience" vs. "the law of the land."
The exchanges between Citizen Barlow (John Earl Jelks), a troubled young man seeking sanctuary and redemption in Aunt Ester's house, and Black Mary (LisaGay Hamilton), her housekeeper and spiritual trainee, bristle with excitement and possibility.
The relentless pursuit of the law by Black Mary's entrepreneurial brother Ceaser (Ruben Santiago-Hudson) also plays nicely against a counterpart of memories shared by Solly Two Kings (Anthony Chisholm) and Eli (Eugene Lee) about their work with the Underground Railway.
Less invigorating is the spiritual journey Citizen takes in the hands of Aunt Ester. Without the footnotes provided by the pre-opening publicity and some helpful program notes, I don't think I would have grasped the implications of the "city of bones" referred to by the title. Granted, you sometimes need a glossary to fully enjoy Tom Stoppard; but, in this case, the poetic elusiveness of such a central idea doesn't serve the play and makes its three hour length seem even longer.
The length is also exacerbated by the leisurely way Wilson has of spinning out a tale. This series of scenes and vignettes seem not unlike a volume of short stories, cross-pollinated by reappearing characters, that you could read in any order or even skip a few without missing the point. As enjoyable as this rich tapestry of characters and stories is, less would be more.
It is worth noting that this production has weathered the storms of its creation well. Director Kenny Leon ably stepped in for the ailing Marion McClinton a few weeks into rehearsals despite having to commute between Boston and DC where he was opening another production. And there's no evidence of ill effect from the second punch, the departure of Delroy Lindo over "creative differences" within just days of the rescheduled opening. Leon shifted Chisholm into the pivotal role of Solly (a role he'd played in the 2003 Goodman and Mark Taper productions) and brought in Lee to learn the part of Eli, Aunt Ester's handyman who's onstage much of the time.
Despite the turmoil, the result is a most harmonious execution of the first of the two bookends to Wilson's epic cycle. We look forward to Radio Golf, his 1990s play, which caps it off at Yale Repertory Theatre next spring.
Gem of the Ocean at the Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue in Boston now through October 30th. Performance times are: Tuesday - Thursday at 7:30pm (excluding October 5); Friday and Saturday at 8pm; Sundays at 7pm (excluding October 3 and 24); Saturday and Sunday at 2pm and Wednesday at 2pm (October 6 and 29 ONLY). Tickets range from $14 to $69. For tickets or information, call the Huntington Box Office at 617-266-0800 visit their website at www.huntingtontheatre.org or www.bostontheatrescene.com.