Gem of the Ocean
1904not all that long ago in terms of history, but a time when the older generations remember living under slavery. Indeed, while the abolition of slavery had made its way into the U.S. Constitution nearly 40 years earlier, freedom wasn't so firmly established that there weren't rumblings of repeal. Blacks in Southern States lived under Jim Crow laws, facing segregation and discrimination. Even in Northern States, available jobs paid wages that were insufficient to cover the costs of room and board, leaving many in a state of near servitude.
But Gem of the Ocean isn't a dry history lesson. It's about true characters, beautifully drawn, that make you feel the injustice and care about what happens to them. Take Solly Two Kings, a former slave who became a conductor on the Underground Railroad, helping many others in finding their way to freedom. But Solly has no medal to show for having risked his life and freedom for others, and no comfortable retirement either; instead, Solly makes a living by gathering and selling dog shit. This is a grown man, an honorable man, who is reduced to selling dog droppings door-to-door. But Adolphus Ward gives us a Solly who never feels like he's "reduced" to anything. He feels no shame in what he does, just as he feels no extraordinary pride for what he did. He's a good, decent man, who will still head South to help a relative who needs him. "What good is freedom," asks Solly, "if you can't do nothing with it?"
And Solly isn't the lead of the piecehe's simply one of several perfectly realized characters that inhabit this world into which we are drawn. The younger generation is represented by Citizen Barlow. He was named "Citizen" by his mother "after freedom came," but his inability to see beyond himself keeps him from being a citizen of any community. When he thinks he's wronged, he takes action. When he thinks he's wronged another, he takes action to make himself feel better. However, Keith Arthur Bolden isn't just playing the angry young man in Citizen Barlow; Bolden connects with a likeable earnestness in the character which, in some ways, makes the entire play possible.
Because the action in Gem of the Ocean begins when Citizen Barlow needs to see Aunt Ester. He's been told that Aunt Ester can cleanse souls, and he's got a soul that needs some cleansing. Aunt Ester is the spiritual glue that holds the play together. Timeless (she claims to be 285 years old, but this production gives the impression that "Aunt Ester" is more of a title than an actual name), wise, cherished and practical, Aunt Ester immediately sets the temperature of the room wherever she goes. Juanita Jennings is all this and more as Aunt Ester. She has the beloved grandmotherly quality of the character down pat, and she also has the presence to dominate every scene in which she appears.
Aunt Ester welcomes Citizen Barlow, and doesn't judge him when he says he killed a manbecause Aunt Ester's unique talent is helping people judge themselves. In the second act, the play goes a bit surreal as Aunt Ester takes Citizen Barlow on a mystical journey to heal himself. In the hands of lesser actors, or a director with less vision than Ben Bradley, Gem of the Ocean could be two different playsthe living history lesson of African Americans of different ages and economic levels trying to make their way; and the unsettling dreamscape of Citizen Barlow's journey. But Bradley brings it all together in one sweeping theatrical whole. It's August Wilson's brilliant poetry and philosophy of the common man; it's history and your place in it; it's what you do with the hand you're dealt and what your responsibility might be to the other players. And it is a masterpiece.
Gem of the Ocean continues at the Fountain Theatre through December 21, 2008. For tickets and information, see www.fountaintheatre.com.
The Fountain TheatreProducing Artistic Director Deborah Lawlor; Co-Artistic Director Stephen Sachs; Producing Director/Dramaturg Simon Levypresents Gem of the Ocean. Written by August Wilson; Directed by Ben Bradley. Set design Travis Gale Lewis; Lighting Design Christian Epps; Costume Design Nailia Aladdin Sanders; Sound Design David B. Marling; Projection Design Marc Rosenthal; Properties Dean Cameron; Dialect Coach JB Blanc; Wig/Hair/Make Up Design Judi Lewin; Fight Director Michael McAffey; Vocal Direction Tim Davis; Technical Director Scott Tuomey; Production Stage Manager Jeremy Levin. Produced by Stephen Sachs.